Membership, Community, Diversity

What’s the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews?

Prior to 1492 there were large Jewish communities on the Iberian peninsula, modern-day Spain and Portugal. During the final phases of the Catholic reconquest of Spain, Jews were given the option of converting or going into exile. Many of those who chose to leave migrated all over the Mediterranean basin, including North Africa and the Middle East, to found new communities. These descendants of Iberian Jewry are called Sephardic Jews. They comprise a small minority, perhaps twenty percent or less, of the global Jewish population. Sephardic Jews retain a number of distinctive ritual and legal interpretations, and in some places manage to preserve the Ladino language of their ancestral Iberia and maintain separate educational institutions. By far the majority of Jews are Ashkenazim. Their name derives from the medieval Hebrew designation of central Europe as Ashkenaz. Descendants of the early Jewish settlers in central and eastern Europe preserve Ashkenazic traditions all over the world. Most Jewish immigrants to the United States have been Ashkenazim, although the majority of the earliest, in colonial times, were Sephardim. In general, Jews in the Americas have not maintained a serious distinction between Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs and practices, and few synagogues nowadays restrict membership one way or the other.


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