Free from the persecution that forced her family from their native Iran in 1979, Roslyn Kohanchi felt fortunate to be able to practice Judaism in America, even if the songs sounded unfamiliar and the seating appeared slightly different.
"Coming from where we came, we were just happy we were going to synagogue," said Kohanchi, 53, of Skokie. "We were free to keep our religion the way we were supposed to. It didn't matter to us. We're all Jews."
A new Skokie synagogue, the first of its kind in the Chicago area, has helped create a spiritual home for Kohanchi and other Jews who trace their heritage to North Africa and the Middle East even as they practice their faith under the same roof as Jews with different cultural traditions who descend from Eastern Europe.
That house of worship, Kehilat Chovevei Tzion, is also where Kohanchi and others will be Thursday, celebrating the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
The Orthodox synagogue offers a new model that could end years of somber conformity for many Sephardim, Jews whose ancestors lived in Muslim countries and who have all but forgotten the prayers and melodies of generations past.
Worshippers at the synagogue can choose between two sanctuaries with subtle distinctions to accommodate their particular traditions.
On the Ashkenazi side, men sit on the left to face the ark, which holds Torah scrolls, and women sit on the right. On the Sephardic side, women sit toward the back during prayers. Different prayer books line the shelves of each room.
After prayers, the congregation will gather in a common space to celebrate their shared faith.
"We fully accept each other as brothers and sisters in faith," said Rabbi Shaanan Gelman, the synagogue's spiritual leader. "But at the same time there is a concern that we want to preserve the individual rituals that we cherish as sacred."
How different Jews set their ritual tables, orient their sanctuaries, compose prayers and chant melodies often depends on where they landed in the world after their exile more than 2,500 years ago from what is now Israel.
Ashkenazim and Sephardim have become the two most common ethnic groups within American Judaism, said Devin Naar, associate professor of Jewish studies at the University of Washington. But differences in ethnicity and manners of worship cover a wide range. Ashkenazim descend from across Europe: Russia, Germany and Poland. Sephardim have come to include Jews expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century, as well as Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.
While the first Jewish immigrants to America were Sephardic, of Spanish and Portuguese descent, the largest wave of Jewish immigration to the U.S. took place in the 19th century, when many Ashkenazi Jews fled Germany and Russia to escape anti-Semitic laws. A larger wave of Sephardim arrived from Muslim countries after 1948. They also were fleeing anti-Semitic violence and intimidation, which began at the founding of Israel. Naar said Iran was one of the few Middle Eastern nations at that time that did not expel Jews.
That tolerance ended in the late 1970s, during the Iranian revolution, creating what some refer to as a third category, called Mizrahim, a group whose traditions closely resemble those of the Sephardic world. But the religious culture they found in America did not resemble their own, Naar said. As earlier generations of Sephardim intermarried, customs gradually gave way to the Ashkenazi majority.
"This has been a challenge, at least in Sephardic American life, for a century," Naar said. "There has been a question of 'Can you find a space for the different Sephardic religious customs?' and still have some sense of community that would bring together Jews from Istanbul, Greece, Bulgaria. For many years, before the Second World War, those synagogues remained distinct."
But the Skokie synagogue seems to address that challenge, Naar said, keeping the community together while preserving aspects of each culture's religious identity.
"I think it's a brilliant model," said Rabbi Marc Angel, director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals in New York. "A lot of our prayers, our worship, our connection with God, a lot of it has to do with how we grew up. … When people hear a particular melody in services, it resonates because their parents sang that same melody, and their grandparents."
Kohanchi, whose father brought one of the congregation's Torah scrolls from their family's hometown in Iran, said she loves that the new congregation preserves the community and the customs, since both groups within the congregation have become "more than friends. We are family."
"It was a miracle that God brought the idea into everybody's mind and helped us be able to worship," she said.
Kohanchi and her younger brother Ben Amrami, one of the architects who designed the synagogue, aimed for a design that valued both traditions and incorporated their father's memories. Amrami and his wife, Jennifer, helped negotiate the purchase of five homes to make room for the 31,000-square-foot edifice.
"It's a breath of fresh air," Amrami said. "You feel like it's a synagogue, but it's more a hub, a place for everyone to come and enjoy the space spiritually and unify there."
Both sanctuaries offer an ode to Israel. "We're praying here, but our hearts are also able to focus on that Jewish land," Gelman said.
Steve Fagan, a founding member of the congregation, said the spirit of friendship across the two sanctuaries could make worshipping apart on Thursday bittersweet.
He hopes, however, that the sound of the shofar, or ram's horn, will remind congregants "to look back and realize there's no way we could've done this in any way without the help of God. Simple as that, it doesn't happen otherwise."
Twitter @TribSeekerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun