Most of the world's 30,000 Karaites, an ancient sect that does not recognise rabbinic Judaism, live in Israel, but there is one community in California. Daniel Treiman in The Daily Forward interviews Egyptian-born Joe Pessah, the community's acting rabbi.
"By day, Joe Pessah is a marketing applications manager for a tech company in California’s Silicon Valley. In his spare time, however, the 62-year-old Mountain View resident pursues a much more unusual vocation.
"Pessah is the “acting rav” for America’s Karaite community, a now-tiny Jewish sect "that broke more than a millennium ago with rabbinic Judaism. While adhering to the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, Karaites rejected the divine origin of the Mishnah, or Oral Law, and the authority of the Talmud.
"Karaites maintain many practices that set them apart from mainstream contemporary Jews (known to Karaites as “Rabbanites”). Hewing closely to what they see as the Tanakh’s plain meaning, Karaites do not extend the biblical prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother’s milk into a sweeping ban on mixing meat and dairy. (They’ll eat chicken and dairy together, and some will eat beef with dairy so long as they’re not from the same source.) On some matters though, the Karaites are more stringent than other Jews. For instance, they believe that the prohibition on kindling fires on the Sabbath bans cooking and electricity use. (That means hot plates and light timers are out.)
"At one time, Karaites posed a vigorous challenge to rabbinic authority. Today, however, their global population is estimated at only about 30,000, most living in Israel, where they have a number of synagogues.
"The Karaites’ only North American synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, serves a population of immigrants from Egypt. Pessah says that the region’s 800 Karaites are widely dispersed, some driving as many as 60 miles to attend Saturday-morning services (despite the Karaite belief that driving on the Sabbath is forbidden). Many have quietly integrated into the larger Jewish community, participating in synagogue life, joining youth groups and enrolling in Hebrew and day schools. To preserve their own unique traditions, they have set up a summer camp experience to teach young Karaites about their heritage.
"Pessah arrived in the Bay Area in 1970, having fled Egypt with his wife, Remy. Pessah’s exodus followed a three-year stint in a prison camp, where he was beaten and tortured as the Nasser regime stepped up its persecution of the country’s dwindling but ancient Jewish community.
"He played a key role in reconstituting an organized Karaite community here in the United States in the 1980s. Since there are no Karaite rabbis in America, Pessah, who had sometimes led prayers as a youth in his native Cairo, has served as the community’s de facto spiritual leader. Prayer services were held first in private homes, then in a local Conservative shul and since 1994 in the Karaites’ own Daly City synagogue."
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