Rabbi Villarreal finds family at Ahavath Achim

PHOTO: Rabbi Devin Villarreal. Photo by Rockne Roll


Despite living in many places, Rabbi Devin Villarreal has always found a sense of home within the Sephardic community. 
When a chance meeting brought him to Congregation Ahavath Achim as they were looking for a rabbi, and he was looking for a new community, a simple song was part of how he knew he’d found the right place. 
“At the end of it (lunch), Mark Abolofia … and I sprang into singing the Ladino grace after meals, because it’s our shared custom,” he says.
In July of 2022, Rabbi Villarreal moved to Portland from Idaho, where he and his family had been living to be close to his parents. While he was in Seattle exploring options, Ethan Marcus of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America encouraged Rabbi Villarreal to visit Portland.
“It just felt so right to be able to just all be together,” Rabbi Villarreal says of his experience visiting Portland and Ahavath Achim for the first time. “I think that I have been fortunate to always feel a sense of belonging in Sephardic communities wherever I’ve been. This one, I feel like really, incredibly makes you feel like family.”
The feeling is very much mutual.
“Rabbi Villarreal is the first truly Sephardic rabbi we have had in years,” says board member Ronald Sidis, who recently learned he is a third cousin of Rabbi Villarreal. “It is very refreshing to have someone that knows Ladino and is able to lead our services in a truly Sephardic way. He is loved by our congregation.”
Rabbi Villarreal has worked principally in Jewish education. After graduating from the University of California Los Angeles, he earned a master’s degree in teaching from American Jewish University and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Rabbi Nathan Cardozo. Rabbi Villarreal served as a congregational rabbi in Riverdale, N.Y., and West Hills, Calif., as well as working as a classroom teacher and administrator in Jewish schools. He now works in teacher coaching and curriculum development for Hadar – work he does remotely and will continue to do while serving at Ahavath Achim.
In addition to helping the Ahavath Achim community connect more deeply and broadly with its Sephardic roots and identity, Rabbi Villarreal is eager to share Sephardic tradition and thought with the broader Jewish community in Portland. Sephardic identity has a component of ethnic background, Rabbi Villarreal says, “but there’s also a nonethnic Sephardic identity, which is how do we approach Judaism? How do we approach religiosity, spirituality, community and so on, which actually has nothing to do with whether or not your grandparents came from those places.”
“Your grandparents can be from Lithuania, they can be from Russia, they can be from anywhere,” Rabbi Villarreal continues. “But Sephardic Judaism has something to offer you.”
These ideas are manifested in Ahavath Achim’s monthly Friday night Shabbat services and dinners, which serve as both an introduction to and a connection with Sephardic traditions. While the monthly dinners will take a summer hiatus, May’s sold-out event strongly suggests that Rabbi Villarreal’s approach is working already. 
“We, of course, have our traditional prayer services, and we have our Shabbat dinner together,” he says. “And then we sing songs in Ladino, and people tell stories about our community. So, it’s a sort of right blend, it feels like; sort of religious, social memory, history, just enjoying being together – that has really been exciting to see.”
“Our Shabbat dinners were set up with the goal of exposing the greater Portland community to our warm Sephardic customs and cuisine in a setting that is not totally focused on elaborate religious services,” says congregation Vice President Renee Ferrera. “We have had great response to them. We have gained a number of new members, and we have had very positive feedback from the people who have attended.”
Rabbi Villarreal looks forward to further growing the congregation, particularly families with children who are looking to hand Sephardic traditions on to the next generation. Ever the educator, Rabbi Villarreal hopes to establish a youth education program of some sort in the future. 
“In terms of the big picture of continuity, longevity, again, really having the Sephardic perspective have a meaningful route in the larger Jewish conversation, I think we have to arrive at a point in which we have a school of some kind,” Rabbi Villarreal says. “And I would love for that to be the case.”



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