Rabbi Shlomo Gabay is the new spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamidrash. (photo from Shlomo Gabay)
“The Sephardic world has its own customs, its own personality – communicating that to the next generation is a priority for Beth Hamidrash,” Rabbi Shlomo Gabay told the Independent. “They needed someone who could guide the next generation in the Sephardic way.”
Gabay was explaining why he, a rabbi who most recently worked as a high school teacher in the Sephardi community of Gibraltar, was invited to take over the role of spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Hamidrash following the departure of Rabbi Ilan Acoca in August of last year.
Gabay was born in London, England, and attended yeshivah in Gateshead, a hub of Orthodox Jewish life in Britain. He married “the rabbi’s daughter,” Rachel, who works in graphic and web design, and the couple now has three daughters. Coincidentally, Rachel Gabay is the niece of another former Beth Hamidrash rabbi, David Bassous.
After the Gabays married, they spent some time in Israel, where Shlomo Gabay pursued training in kiruv, or Jewish outreach. He then landed his first job, in Gibraltar, where he worked as a teacher of Gemara and halachah at the Jewish boys high school. He also taught other classes and founded and directed the Shovavim Project, an annual six-week learning program, in Gilbraltar.
Gibraltar is a British territory on a peninsula jutting out of southern Spain, across the water from Morocco. The community is almost totally Sephardi and led by Chief Rabbi Ron Hassid.
“Gibraltar is very relaxed, it’s very beautiful,” said Gabay, who earlier this year posted on Beth Hamidrash’s Facebook page a video of himself and some monkey friends on the Rock of Gibraltar. “It’s a holiday place where everybody goes. The population is almost 30,000, but 11 million [tourists] … come a year. The streets are full all the time, you get to meet people from all over the world.”
Gabay sees some similarities between Gibraltar and Vancouver – the natural beauty, the many tourists and a more laid-back culture than London for example – although, obviously, there’s a considerable difference of scale.
Gabay and his family are settling in well and enjoying the West Coast, even the previous winter weather. “London and Vancouver,” he said, “have something in common as well – rain.”
During the interviewing process, the Gabays were invited to come for a trial Shabbaton and Beth Hamidrash decided they had a winner.
“One of the strong reasons we were chosen,” said Gabay, “was because Beth Hamidrash felt they needed to focus on the next generation. Sephardic culture is quite different from Ashkenazic culture – the food, the personality – they didn’t want it to be pulled away in a different angle from what the founders intended.”
Beth Hamidrash has been without a rabbi for a year and a half. Gabay said he is looking forward to reinvigorating what the community is known for – having a warm, family atmosphere, being a community social hub, as well as a place of culture and Torah learning. “We want everyone to be happy here,” he said.
Gabay offers Talmud classes on Tuesdays and has started a Sunday class after breakfast, which covers a different topic of discussion every week. Rachel Gabay is a trained teacher of Judaics, as well as having training in marriage counseling and preparation for marriage.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.