Rabbi Ilan and Rabbanit Dina Acoca and family have moved to New Jersey after 17 years with Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Hamidrash. (photo from bethhamidrash.com)
An era has come to an end in Vancouver with the departure of Rabbi Ilan and Rabbanit Dina Acoca and their family on Aug. 23. The Acocas were a friendly, dignified presence at Congregation Beth Hamidrash for 17 years, helping shape and strengthen the Sephardi community in Vancouver, as well as contributing to the wider Vancouver Jewish world.
The Acocas have headed to Fort Lee, N.J., where the rabbi will become the spiritual leader of a Sephardi congregation and the principal of Ben Torat Yosef, a Sephardi school which has 480 children in grades K-9. Speaking to the Independent, he was clearly excited about what awaited him in New Jersey. Many in Vancouver will no doubt miss his presence, though, and the feeling is mutual.
Acoca was born in Bat Yam, Israel, to parents from Morocco. In 1967, they left Morocco for France and then Israel. After his bar mitzvah, Acoca moved to Montreal, where a teacher at a Jewish high school, Rabbi Michael Seraf, ignited a passion for Judaism and the Sephardi tradition within him.
After his rabbinic ordination in 1999, Acoca heard of a job opening in Vancouver and applied.
Acoca is passionate about the value of the Sephardi heritage and the treasures it has to offer world Jewry. “Sephardic Judaism is halachic, strongly committed to traditional Jewish law, yet it is open-minded,” Acoca told the JI. “Sephardic sages were willing to think outside the box. They knew how to include as many people as possible while keeping the tradition authentic. This is an important lesson for Jews today.”
Acoca said he leaves behind a strong Sephardi community in Vancouver, though one not without its challenges. “All of Jewish Vancouver faces the problem of housing,” he said. “For the younger generation, this is a very serious problem. Yet, people believe in this place. If the community can find ways to meet this challenge together, it will survive and thrive.”
Asked what he particularly enjoyed sharing with the community, Acoca cited Talmud study and teaching unique Sephardi liturgy and traditions. “Together,” he said, “we were able to open up the talmudic mind, the mind of our sages. I also enjoyed studying the gems of Sephardic liturgical writing, masterpieces like L’Cha Dodi and Yedid Nefesh, as well as the Sephardic siddur and piyutim (devotional hymns). I enjoyed learning Sephardic liturgy from all over the world.”
Other highlights for the rabbi included sharing the wisdom of Sephardi sages like the Ben Ish Chai and the synagogue’s women’s group, which studied Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s sophisticated theological work Derech Hashem. “We could spend hours looking at one line of Derech Hashem,” said Acoca. “This was one of my favorite things.”
The rabbi also enjoyed educating Jewish Vancouver about Sephardi traditions, but “we have to remember that we are one nation of different traditions of equal value,” he said.
The rabbi himself showed this type of openness a couple of years ago, when he encouraged Adrian Sacks, a Vancouverite who has since made aliyah, to teach Rebbe Nachman’s Chassidic masterwork Likutey Moharan at Beth Hamidrash. “There is much in common between the Chassidic tradition and Sephardic spirituality,” said Acoca. “For instance, both traditions emphasize the importance of being b’simchah, of living with joy and warmth.”
He said, “I wish the congregation and the wider Jewish community an abundance of success. It has been a wonderful journey for us – a journey of 17 years, which is tov in Jewish numerology, good. It has truly been tov. May God continue to bless the community.”
A farewell gala for the Acocas was hosted by the congregation at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue on Aug. 21, making use of Schara Tzedeck’s larger auditorium to accommodate those wishing to send off the family with their good wishes.
Those who miss Acoca’s teachings can comfort themselves with his The Sephardic Book of Why, which is upcoming this year from Hadassah Publishing.
Matthew Gindin is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.