Introducing the "Bene Hakkari" - Anshei Keneseth Akara
By Aran, son of Ya'aqub Younan-Levine
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.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.