Exhibition | Out of Egypt
Karaite Jews in the United States
BY AARON HAHN TAPPER
In the United States, Karaites have largely lived under the radar; most American Jews don’t even know they exist as a subcommunity of Jews, knowing them instead, simply, as Jews. The largest population of American Karaites, estimated at fewer than one thousand individuals, is found in the San Francisco Bay Area. Likewise, the only Karaite synagogue in the U.S. (and in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter) is located in Daly City, CA, a few minutes south of San Francisco. Karaites in the U.S. get along fine with the organized Jewish community, in contrast to some of the tensions that existed between Karaite Jews and Rabbanite Jews in previous centuries.
As is evidenced by this section of the exhibition, from the 1950s through the 1970s the Jewish Federation of San Francisco sponsored several Egyptian Karaite families to move to the area as "political refugees" who were seeking asylum. Several other important non-governmental agencies, such as HIAS (formerly called the “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society”), the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Red Cross, also offered invaluable assistance during this process.
Aaron Hahn Tapper, Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 226.
Immigration to the U.S.
Scholar Joel Beinin writes that "most of the Karaites who emigrated from Egypt during the 1960s did not go to Israel. Between 1964 and 1970, a substantial segment of the community settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there [were, as of 1998,] some 130 Karaite families and a total population of over 400. In addition, 300 Karaite families live elsewhere in the United States, with small concentrations in the New York, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego metropolitan areas."
Similarly, scholar Mourad El-Kodsi writes, "It is estimated that about 1,400 Karaites came from Egypt to the United States, as follows: About 800 went to California, mostly to San Francisco and to cities not far from it; 150 went to New York; 150 to Boston and its suburbs; 150 to Chicago; and 150 to Rhode Island, New Jersey and other places in the U.S."
Beinin continues: "The Karaites of the San Francisco Bay Area have made substantial efforts to reestablish their community. This has entailed preserving and modifying both the Jewish and Egyptian elements of the practices and self-presentation of the Karaite community of Cairo."
Joel Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 185; Mourad El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882–1986, 2nd ed. (New York: Self-published, 2007), 330.
Immigrating from Cairo to San Francisco
Each Karaite Jewish family that relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area had a unique path, both geographically and experiencially.
(Note that in the "Out of Egypt" exhibit's Section VI., "Interview Archive (Videos)," you will find additional video clips describing other immigration stories from Karaite Jews who eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, in addition to those of other Karaite Jews who immigrated from Cairo but who settled in other U.S. cities.)
Two of the families arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area were the Lichaas and the Pessahs.
Both families kept detailed records of their entire immigration journey, from when they first applied to go to the U.S. back in Cairo to finally arriving and settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. Below you can see a selection of the documentation of this process for these two families.
Lichaa Family - Immigrating from Cairo to San Francisco
Dated from 1964 to 1970, these documents chronicle the forced migration of three generations of Lichaas from Cairo to Chicago (and eventually to San Francisco) by way of Paris. Among other things, they include letters between HIAS, a resettlement agency then called the “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,” and Jewish Family Services that concern the details of the Lichaa family’s resettlement (also assisted by the UNHCR).
Pessah Family - Immigrating from Cairo to San Francisco
Dated from 1968 to 1972, these documents chronicle the forced migration of three generations of the Pessah family, the release of male family members from their imprisonment in Egypt, and the family’s resettlement in San Francisco. Like with the Lichaa Family story above, they also include letters from HIAS and Jewish Family Services. In addition, there are letters sent to Egyptian President Gamal Abd Al-Nasser petitioning for the release of the male family members from prison.
Starting a new life in San Francisco
Life in the San Francisco Bay Area
As noted above, in the United States, Karaites have largely lived under the radar; most American Jews don’t even know they exist as a subcommunity of Jews, knowing them instead, simply, as Jews. The largest population of American Karaites, estimated at fewer than one thousand individuals, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Likewise, the only Karaite synagogue in the U.S., and in the Western Hemisphere, is in Daly City, CA. Karaites in the U.S. get along fine with the organized Jewish community, in contrast to some of the tensions between Karaite Jews and Rabbanite Jews in previous centuries.
In fact, from the 1950s through the 1970s, following the detailed involvement of HIAS (then called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in getting members of this community to the United States, under the legal status of “political refugees," it was the Jewish Federation of San Francisco that helped many of those who relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in terms of helping their find local jobs that fit their particular vocation.
During this time, members of the Bay Area Karaite community met in one another's homes when gathering for prayer services, carrying prayer rugs and even Torahs from house to house. Children of the first Karaite immigrants often had Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at mainstream synagogues. By the early 1980s, their community had reached a critical mass; they were ready to establish their own Jewish institutional bodies alongside previously existent ones.
Put another way, during the past half-century-plus, Karaite Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area have made substantial efforts to reestablish their community. This has entailed preserving and modifying both the Jewish and Egyptian elements of the practices and self-presentation of the previously thriving Karaite community of Cairo.
Some of the more notable parts of this history include the following:
- May 1983 – Fred Lichaa organizes semi-regular prayer services for the Karaite community held at Peninsula Sinai Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Foster City. Trained as a cantor back in Egypt, Joe Pessah serves as the acting religious leader (“Acting Rav”) of the congregation from that time for decades thereafter.
- July 1983 – the Karaite Jews of America (KJA) is formally established as a nonprofit organization. The first board of directors is composed of Jacob Masliah, president; Moussa El-Kodsi, vice-president; Maurice Pessah, secretary; and Alan Ovadia, treasurer.
- 1984 – Joe and Remy Pessah begin publishing the KJA Bulletin. As explained by scholar Joel Beinin, the newsletter “appears at Rosh Hashanah and Passover and contains news of the Karaite community, commemorations of births, deaths, weddings, high school and university graduations, and bar/bat mitzvahs, and articles about Karaite history, beliefs, and practice. The bulletin proudly reproduces the rare articles about their community in the mainstream Jewish press and respectfully but firmly explains the differences between Karaite and Rabbanite beliefs and practices while consistently upholding the Jewish identity of the Karaites. The Pessahs also maintain a computerized mailing list of all the Karaites in the United States, with some additional families in Canada, Europe, and Israel.”
- 1986 – The KJA publish and distribute a shortened Friday (Shabbat) evening service as "a study aid for people who want to learn" Karaite prayers. Though originally presented in the form of a cassette tape, one can access the original 1986 booklet here or listen to an audio recording of it here. (For a more recent version of this text, as well as the text used for Saturday morning prayers, including some poems or piyutim, see here).
- 1987 – The community assists Mourad El-Kodsi in publishing The Karaite Jews of Egypt, 1882-1986, what has probably become the most important English book focusing on the history of this unique community as relied upon by Karaite Jewish Americans themselves.
- 1991 – KJA purchases a house in the Sunset district of San Francisco to serve as their first official synagogue and community center. (See article on this purchase here.)
- June 1994 – KJA purchases a new building, B’nai Israel synagogue, from its former congregants, who had decided to close down. Their new site is located in a suburb just south of San Francisco, Daly City. They sell the San Francisco synagogue purchased three years earlier. (See article on the new purchase here.)
- 2007 – KJA accepts the first known converts of the past 500 years into their community.
- 2016 – KJA launches The Karaite Press, a publishing company devoted to resurrecting Karaite literature.
- 2017 – KJA launches The Karaite Kitchen, an online recipe resource for Egyptian Karaite recipes.
- August 2018 – After undertaking a years-long capital campaign, KJA renovates and rededicates Congregation B’nai Israel, expanded to include a new Karaite Jewish Spiritual Center.
- December 2018 - KJA and Congregation B'nai Israel updates their “Mission statement”.
- March 2022 - KJA launches The Karaite Jewish Learning Center.
In the San Francisco Bay Area — Karaites vs. Rabbanites or Karaites with Rabbanites?
By some accounts, during the first few decades after arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Karaite Jewish community was intent on underscoring their general Jewish identity as opposed to their distinct Karaite Jewish identity. Take the following vignette, shared by two members of the community with scholar Joel Beinin:
HIAS and Helping People of All Stripes
Interestingly, as part of its mandate, when assisting Karaite Jews in immigrating to he United States, HIAS did not equivocate as to the Jewish status of this group of Jews. Since their founding, it has been part of this organization's mandate to help everyone who comes through their doors, regardless of affiliation.
Although one can see on Karaite immigration applications that these individuals identified as Jews (see Lichaa family and Pessah family immigration documents, found above), even in their internal records HIAS counted individuals based on their country of origin and not their specific social identities, as can be seen, for example, on page 17 of their 1994 Annual Report, where they note that between 1954-1969 they assisted 15,274 people from Egypt in their immigration to the United States.
Two months after arriving in the San Francisco area, two members of the Pessah family, both Karaites, were remarried in a Jewish ceremony performed by Rabbi Herbert Morris of Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, a Conservative-Reform synagogue. A front page story that included a picture of the happy couple appeared in the January 1971 edition of the weekly newspaper of the San Francisco Jewish community, celebrating their marriage as a symbol of Jewish perseverance and the heroic struggle of Israel against "Arab aggression."
However, the article did not mention that the couple were Karaite Jews, members of a larger community with several hundred adherents in the Bay Area, some of whom presumably attended the wedding. In fact, the Pessahs did not inform Rabbi Morris that they were Karaites because they felt he would not understand who they were. Only after Joe Pessah became successfully established as a local business and computer consultant did he begin to devote substantial time and energy to organizing the community, publicly distinguishing themselves as Karaite Jews. Karaite historian Mourad El-Kodsi agrees with Beinin's analysis, writing that for a number of years Karaite Jews living in the Bay Area intentionally did not bring attention to historical differences between themselves and other Jews (i.e., "Rabbanites).
Another signal of their acceptance into the Bay Area Jewish community is evident in local news coverage. Since 1995, the local San Francisco Jewish weekly newspaper, J. (then called the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California), has included the Karaite synagogue in its list of synagogues located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though subtle, such an inclusion has normalized the Karaite community in many basic ways.
The general approach is for media-based articles to discuss the distinctions of the Karaite Jewish community without questioning their Jewishness. National Jewish press outlets have echoed this same general perspective. The following articles are examples of this approach, most of which were published by J. Note how the tone of some articles borders on embracing Karaites as Jews while simultaneously pointing to their non-mainstream Jewish rituals:
- “Karaite Group Sets Installation," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, April 13, 1984
- “Bay Area Karaites Cling to Their Traditions," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, September 6, 1985
- "S.F. Photographer Captures Karaite Life in the Mideast," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, September 6, 1985
- “Bar Mitzvah Chooses to Mark Ritual in Karaite Tradition," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, January 6, 1989
- "Karaites Find a Home," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, October 4, 1991
- "Why is This Seder Different from Others?," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, April 17, 1992
- "1st U.S. Bat Mitzvah for Karaite Jews," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, July 16, 1993
- "Karaite Grandmother Celebrates Bat Mitzvah—at 70," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, September 23, 1994
- "Karaite Seder," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, April 5, 2002
- “Jewish Sect from Egypt Keeps it all in the Family,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 2005
- “Karaites Celebrate Passover Strictly from Torah,” J., March 30, 2012
- “Chatting with the Karaites,” J., August 7, 2015
- “The Jews You’ve Never Heard Of,” Tablet Magazine, September 29, 2016
- “A Karaite Prayer: Little-Known Jewish Community Builds Center to Tell Its Story,” J., February 16, 2017
- “Near San Francisco, Karaite Jews Keep an Ancient Movement Alive,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 23, 2017
- “Giving Thanks for Escape from Egypt—50 years Later,” J., December 4, 2018
- “At Karaite Convention, Everything is the Same—But Different," J., September 6, 2019
This said, Karaites and some non-Karaites have been writing "Letters to the Editor" to the J. (as far back as when it was the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California) to ensure that they are not disparaged or denigrated. Take the following, for example:
- "'Unjust Words,'" Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, November 8, 1991
- "Sincerity and Warmth," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, November 8, 1991
- "Bitterly Ironic," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, November 22, 1991
- “Karaites 'Offended and Hurt' by 'Half-Truth, Generalization," Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, October 3, 2003
- "Respect is Urged," J., August 24, 2007
- "Fervent Zionists," J., August 24, 2007
 “Egyptian Love Story Leads to Altar Here,” San Francisco Jewish Bulletin, January 29, 1971, 1 in Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 191.
 Joel Beinin, Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 191; Mourad El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882–1986, 2nd ed. (New York: Self-published, 2007).