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Saturday, December 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Famed cantor helped preserve musical legacy

Seattle Times staff reporter

Samuel Benaroya was a world-renowned cantor of Turkish-style melodies used in Jewish prayer and ceremonies who aided Jewish refugees fleeing to Switzerland from Nazi-controlled France during World War II.

After the war, the Rev. Benaroya immigrated to the United States to become cantor of the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle. A half-century later, he is remembered for his years of dedication to his tight-knit congregation.

The Rev. Benaroya, who died Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 27) at 95, also inspired his family to serve the Jewish community.

"For me he was very much a role model, very straightforward, very honest, very loving as a husband and grandfather," said grandson Sam Amiel, who is stationed in Moscow with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that aids Jews overseas.

"In many ways, it was an honor to be his grandson, but very much a pleasure, too."

As a cantor and teacher, the Rev. Benaroya is credited with helping the Seattle congregation preserve Sephardic melodies and customs from his native Turkey, where many in his congregation trace their heritage.

"People who come from Turkey who visit us say, 'My God, we're home,' " said Rabbi Solomon Maimon, who for about 40 years worked with the Rev. Benaroya, who acquired the special title "Reverend" with his immigration papers.

Samuel Benaroya was born in 1908 in Edirne, Turkey, the youngest of five brothers and two sisters in a renowned musical family. By the time he was 6, he was singing in his synagogue choir. By 17, he was the conductor.

When he was 26, Samuel Benaroya moved to Geneva to become cantor for a community of Sephardic Turkish Jews there.

Five years later, in 1939, he went home to Turkey to marry, and he and his wife, Lisa, returned to Switzerland. It was a precarious journey because European borders were closing. But the couple made it back to Geneva, where they had a daughter and spent the war years helping fellow Jews.

During World War II, Judith Amiel said, her father would get chewing gum from U.S. soldiers in neutral Switzerland and use the gum to bribe guards to look the other way as a few Jews slipped over the border from France.

The Rev. Benaroya would help the refugees with clothing and housing. He'd also help them with money, even though his family had very little to give, Amiel said.

"He never talked about it much. He was not the type of person who liked accolades," she said. "There were so many heroic things people did in Europe. He didn't think it was that heroic."

In 1952, the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation asked him to move to Seattle to serve a large community of Sephardic Jews, many from Turkey.

To overcome U.S. quota restrictions for Turkish immigrants, two members of Congress from Washington — Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson — reportedly came up with the idea of giving him the title "Reverend" so the Benaroya family could obtain special entrance status for permanent U.S. residency.

There was a stipulation: He had to use the title in every document. He soon became known as the Rev. Benaroya, or simply "The Rev."

At the Seattle synagogue, Lisa Benaroya threw herself into fund-raisers. The Rev. Benaroya led weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. He also taught generations of young men to lead Shabbat and holiday ceremonies. And he helped establish what became the Northwest Yeshiva High School. The Rev. Benaroya was trained as a bookkeeper and, despite poor eyesight, helped straighten out the synagogue's ledgers, Maimon said.

But his greatest contribution was his quest to preserve the traditions and music. He composed classic Turkish melodies, including some that have been incorporated into Sephardic services.

Few had his knowledge, said Edwin Seroussi, a professor and director of the Jewish Music Research Centre at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, researchers recorded chants by the Rev. Benaroya for a CD project to preserve Ottoman Hebrew sacred poetry and music.

"He was perhaps the last representative of a 400-year-old tradition of Turkish Jewish cantors who were experts in the singing of liturgical music according to Ottoman court music," Seroussi said.

Lisa Benaroya died in 1994. In addition to his daughter and grandson Sam, the Rev. Benaroya is survived by grandson Simon Amiel, of Potomac, Md., and four great-grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to the Northwest Yeshiva High School, 5017 90th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island, 98040; Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, 6500 52nd Ave. S., Seattle, 98118; or the Caroline Kline Galland Home, 7500 Seward Park Ave. S., Seattle, 98118.

Greg Lamm: 206-464-8541 or glamm@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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