Anshei Keneseth Akara

Introducing the "Bene Hakkari" - Anshei Keneseth Akara

By Aran, son of Ya'aqub Younan-Levine
January 2009.

Jews have lived in Turkey and the general area for more than 2,400 years. Many immigrated to areas known as "Sephard", which is often used as a term to indicate lands in which the Spanish and Ladino Jews now reside. It is an old term used in the Bible. After the Expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, many moved to Turkey and others took up residence among the Hakkari Jews. Later, persecution came from the hands of Muslims.

We lost our traditions, customs and even our language due to persecution and to a lesser degree, assimilation and intermarriage with Jews of other traditions including gentiles. Our Torah scrolls and other holy books written in Zakho (Zacho) and the Hakkari region were burned or stolen by enemies of the Assyrian Jews and Christians. Both Jews and Christians underwent horrible forms of torture, having their homes and their children burned, and their wives taken away and unspeakable atrocities.

Most of our people who survived immigrated to modern day Israel or other countries including America and Europe. For many years our people were without a solid tradition. Eventually it became painfully aware to the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Hakkari mountains, that we were losing our identity, thus some of the Jewish children of Hakkari came together with one goal: Our goal was to re-establish (and in some cases "form") our traditions based on the information we were able to obtain concerning our people's heritage in Hakkari and in the Diaspora.

On December 22, 2007 individuals and families from various Jewish ethnic groups (primarily Iraqi, Assyrian, Mesopotamian) met for the first time at my father's former home in North Carolina (U.S.A.), under the banner of "Bene Hakkari" and the "Hebrew-Aramaic Peshitta Research Society", which at the time was still an unofficial name.

It was at this meeting we discussed the possibilities of adopting an official version of the Hebrew and Aramaic Torah. We also took this opportunity to take a vote in order to form a leadership committee, which consists of my father Ya'aqub Younan-Levine (president), George M. Akbulut (vice-president), Michael Spira (treasurer), and Abraham Seif (secretary). (Geprge M. Akbulut is the son of Hakham Daniel Akbulut who founded the Aramaic Karaite Union in 1920 and who died in 1946.)

A meeting was arranged the following year (2008) where the committee and all members in attendance (102 in all) agreed that the Torah scrolls within the Yemenite tradition should be used for that of our own (which seems to be aligned with the Aleppo Codex). This was the first major step in re-establishing (and forming) our own tradition and returning to the faith of our blessed fathers, may they rest in Abraham.

The committee also discussed the benefits of using Aramaic translations (targumim) of the Jewish Bible for those who are still able to read the language but no official decision was made in this regard.

On January 15, 2009, the committee met again and my father read from his recent draft paper, "Ancient Versions of the Bible" and it was decided then that the Aramaic Tanakh manuscript housed in a library in Milan, called the "Codex Ambrosianus", also called "Peshitta", should be our official Aramaic version for use in doctrinal and liturgical works, since it was originally a part of our Jewish heritage. Thus Codex Ambrosianus was adopted to be a part of our tradition, in addition to Targum Onkelos (for Torah) and Targum Yonatan (for the Prophets).

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem published their official Bible in 2001, called "The Jerusalem Crown" and it became the official Bible of the state of Israel. This version is based on the Aleppo Codex and it appears to match up with the Yemenite Torah, especially with orthography. The committee for the Hebrew Aramaic Research Society proclaimed the Jerusalem Crown as the most reliable edition of the Hebrew Bible outside of the Torah scroll itself, next to the Peshitta Tanakh of Codex Ambrosianus. We also agreed that the Spanish version of the Peshitta, called "Biblia Peshitta" would be used in Spanish and Ladino speaking congregations.

Another important event at the 2009 meeting (January 15-18) was the adoption of the name of our tradition, "Anshei Keneseth Akara."

Below I reproduce some excerpts from some of my father's writings on the same subject from 2007.

Mindful of our own ancient Hebrew-Aramaic heritage, we continue to be a community that desires to maintain and carefully preserve the cultural aspects, religious ideals, customs and time honored traditions of our ancestors from Zacho, Urmia and surrounding areas, even though today most of us are separated by many miles. This has been a difficult task due to two main reasons: 1) our people are scattered all over the United States and other countries instead of being concentrated into one area, and 2) while the culture and traditions are similar, not all hold the exact same religious beliefs.

Many of us have adopted elements of the cultures in which we moved into. For example, my own family, after fleeing from Turkey, intermingled with Syrian and Spanish Jews. My father was Assyrian and held to the traditions handed down to him by his father and grandfather. My mother was from Spain (with her ancestors being from Aleppo, Syria); thus, after the marriage of my father and mother, my family began to adopt many Ladino and Syrian Jewish customs, including the language. Our family was a multi-lingual home, speaking Aramaic (two different dialects) and Ladino (Jewish Spanish) with some Hebrew.

I was raised in a Jewish Spanish community which often times used Ladino, which was also a language of my mother. My father hired two Spanish Jews to assist in translating some of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts into Ladino (and modern Spanish) for the benefit of my mother.

Among the membership of this Hebrew Aramaic fellowship are those of Babylonian (Iraqi) Jewry, Assyrian Jewry (Zacho, Urmia and other areas), and Aleppo Jews. My family, consisting of myself, my wife and three children (two daughters and a son), consider ourselves to be "Assyrian Jews" because of the tradition that was handed down by my great grandfather. Many of the traditions outlined in Asahel Grant's book from 1841, The Nestorians; or, The Lost Tribes, are identical to those of my own family and including yours which include belief in a coming Messiah, weekly Sabbath observance, and many other Hebrew elements, but within the confines of our personal religious beliefs or philosophy. This too has been a difficult task to maintain due to the way modern society looks upon those of us who appear to be "different" than them. Society tends to ostracize that which it fears or does not understand.

The main reason I founded the Hebrew Aramaic fellowship with Misters Akbulut, Seif and Spira was not necessarily to form a "denomination", but rather, to assist in maintaining a dialog between those of similar backgrounds, and to assist in the preservation of our unique culture and traditions - to record the experiences of those who are from the same or similar ethnic-religious heritage, whether they are Christians, Jews or both. The method in which this is taking place is by the use of manuscripts held by families within our fellowship and eye-witness accounts from older members, as well as through research concerning the practices and peculiarities of our ancestors through research.

For those of us who consider ourselves to be practitioners of "Assyrian Judaism" or "Judaism of Akara", we have developed, through consensus and a careful election process in prayerful consideration, a committee to translate and maintain our own liturgies and other religious documents based on our respective traditions, in order to preserve our own religious ideals and culture. It is our prayer that our children, God willing, will carry on these same traditions after us. My son, Aran Ya'aqub, has been assisting in the preparation of English translations of some of our Hebrew and Aramaic texts for the last four years and I have recently invited the assistance of Misters Akbulut, Seif and Spira.

Today we have founded what we're unofficially calling the "Hebrew Aramaic Research Society." The purpose of the Foundation is specifically for research in the Hebrew Aramaic Scriptures and for publishing translations of the Peshitta and Targumim for both the Scriptures of the Tanakh (the Aramaic Jewish Bible). We wish everyone here to know that the foundation is a not-for-profit religious organization, which is open to the public.

And while our main goal is not to have a 'denomination', many of you here and others by letter and email, have expressed otherwise; they have said they wish, due to assimilation and other unwelcome factors within mainstream American and European Judaism, to form such a community with their full support. I don't stand in the way of that. I would welcome this only if a set tradition can be established with one hundred percent agreement by the membership of the fellowship here today.
On January 15, 2009, Mr. George M. Akbulut, vice president of the fellowship, made the following announcement:

"Bene Hakkari, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters, the seed of Israel from the ancient mountains, based on your unanimous vote this afternoon, the committee presents before you, our Hakham Bashi, our rabban of Akara Judaism, Ya'aqub Younan-Levine. He is a son of Hakkari and a champion of our holy tongue, he is our brother and our father. May Alaha bless his footsteps in guiding those of ours."
Thus, my father was appointed by a unanimous vote by the members in attendance (149 in all) to serve as the "Hakham." Mr. Akbulut used the old Turkish designation of "Hakham Bashi" (meaning "Chief Rabbi") to indicate that the Bene Hakkari (children of Hakkari) are independent from any other Jewish tradition and that we have our own spiritual father.

Anshei Keneseth Akara

Anshei Keneseth Akara considers itself to be a traditional Jewish community. Most of us are descendants of Jews who once lived in Akara (Hakkari) and immigrated to Sephardic lands, thus we follow a fusion of Sephardic and Eastern (Edut HaMizrach) based halakha within our Assyrian heritage and culture completely devoid of the writings of Kabbalah and its entire system.

We promote a lifestyle within a traditional home with modest clothing and simple homes, however, we recognize the fact that we live in a modern world and as such we enjoy the things that life offers, however, we do not condone anything that can take a Jew away from his or her heritage or Torah, such as "singles' nights", dances and other such functions within a kehilla. This has become a major problem in many synagogues and Jewish centers today. Hakham Jacob Saul Dwek said, "woe to eyes that see such things and to the ears that hear them."*

Anshei Keneseth Akara has a council known as the "Committee for the Jewish Community of Hakkari" to assist in formulating and maintaining our own halakha which shares many aspects of other Sephardic and Edut HaMizrach traditions and customs.

* Derekh Emuna

Why not "Babylonian/Iraqi" or "Kurdish Jewry"?

Our ancestors were from Hakkari, Zacho, and even as far as Tunisia, Spain and Portugal. When our families arrived in their new countries (after the 1930's) many of them began to quickly lose their identity as Jews. Some of us were raised within a Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) environment (especially when Spanish and Portuguese Jews began to immigrate to Turkey and other lands), the new ways became that of our own, fused with our Eastern culture. As we continue to learn about our ancient heritage, we continue to embrace and treasure it.

"Messianic" believers in "Jesus"?

We are not "Messianic Jews", "Christians" or any kind of missionary movement. It is not our purpose to proselytize among Jews, Christians or Muslims. We do not profess faith in the "Jesus" of Western Christianity and we don't participate in any form of Christianity because it is opposed to the faith of Mosha and promotes idolatry, ignorance and loss of heritage among the children of Israel. We despise all forms of missionary activities.

How many adherents and locations?

The community consists of those who have taken a sincere interest in the ideals promulgated by the Hakkari Committee and the Hebrew Aramaic Research Society. There are presently about three hundred adult individuals with a Mizrachi, Sephardic, Turkish or Yemenite Jewish background. The association was established to help return our people to God and His Torah.

Because the association is newly established, we currently have no formal places for worship and Torah study. Our Hakham encourages individuals to study Torah and our Halakha at home and to encourage others, without pressure, to join them at their homes for fellowship. When a community is large enough to sustain a working minyan (at least ten adult males) a formal congregation can be established either by constructing, purchasing or renting a building.


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