Rabbi David and Odette Rebibo

Rabbi David Rebibo, right, pictured with wife Odette.

Before Rabbi David Rebibo arrived in Phoenix in 1965, the city’s Jewish population numbered about 10,000. There was no Jewish day school, those who kept kosher had to go out of town for kosher cheese and meat products, and Phoenix’s only Orthodox congregation, located downtown, had difficulty finding a minyan.

During his first year in his new home, Rebibo founded Greater Phoenix’s first Jewish day school, the Phoenix Hebrew Academy, and started a kosher supervising agency, the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth. Soon after, he founded Beth Joseph Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue.

Today, the Valley’s Jewish community has grown to more than 100,000 and all three institutions remain vital. PHA has about 150 students and is one of eight Jewish day schools in the Phoenix metro area; Beth Joseph has about 80 members and is one of nearly 40 local congregations; and the Vaad supervises more than 35 kosher establishments. 

As Rebibo prepares to retire and make aliyah to Israel, PHA and Beth Joseph will honor him and his wife, Odette, at a Jan. 19 open house. 

David Rebibo, who was born in Morocco, was studying in Paris as a young man when he met Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, the head of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York, who invited Rebibo to study at his yeshiva and helped him obtain a teaching position at Yeshivah Magen David in Brooklyn. Rebibo next moved to Memphis to teach and lead a small congregation before moving to Phoenix with his family in 1965.  

Irwin Sheinbein, the current president of the board that serves both the synagogue and the school, was 14 when the Rebibos first arrived. 

Sheinbein’s father was involved with a community group that approached Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, to talk about opening a day school in Phoenix. Rebibo was sent from the organization to investigate.

After initially meeting some resistance from those worried about an Orthodox-run day school in a community with little Orthodox life, Rebibo led the efforts to establish the Phoenix Hebrew Academy, which opened in 1965 with about 40 students.

Rabbi Harris Cooperman, PHA’s head of school, describes Rebibo as a “pioneer.” Rebibo was sent to Phoenix “to try to create and develop and lay the foundation for a Jewish day school,” Cooperman said. “That’s exactly what he did.” 

However, it wasn’t just about starting a school, Cooperman said. Rebibo “wanted to start a community.” For more than 30 years, the Beth Joseph campus housed a mikvah and in 2010, launched the Jewish Enrichment Center. Rebibo also established the Greater Phoenix Community Kollel and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council.

Both the rabbi and his wife “brought a real love for Israel and for Judaism,” Sheinbein said. “The rabbi always tried to bring in Israeli shlichim who would teach at the school but also instill in the children the love of Israel.” 

Beth Joseph’s original mission was to provide a place for daily minyan for rabbis teaching at the school, Sheinbein said, and it soon developed into a synagogue. Beth Joseph member William Levine remembers when Rebibo arrived. 

“I can’t speak highly enough about him,” Levine said. “He’s done an enormous number of things for the community.”

Levine remains grateful for Rebibo’s assistance after his parents’ deaths and recalls that after his first wife, Ina, died in 1999, Rebibo brought a Torah to his house every morning and afternoon during the week of shivah. “He’s had an incredible impact on me and my family.” 

Years later, when the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus in Scottsdale was dedicated in 2002, named in memory of Levine’s first wife, it was Rebibo who affixed the mezuzah on the facility’s doorpost.

Rebibo has always been community oriented, Sheinbein said. 

“Rabbi Rebibo is a unicorn — a unique individual with a rare combination of qualities,” said Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs, director of the Vaad and rabbi at Beth Joseph. “He grew up in Morocco at a time that its ancient Jewish community was economically and technologically impoverished but spiritually wealthy. In spite of coming from a very simple background and his immigration as an adult to a country where he did not know the language, he was able, with his unique combination of talent, people skills, optimism, Jewish pride, tenacity, charisma and sense of humor, to firmly establish the infrastructure of an observant Jewish community in Phoenix against all odds. 

“As a community rabbi and educator, Rabbi Rebibo inspired, educated and connected to thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds throughout his career.”   

Rebibo and his wife plan to move to Israel, where many of their children and grandchildren live.

“They’ve done what they had to do here,” Cooperman said. “They set a strong foundation and it’s our obligation to make sure their legacy continues.” JN

An open house to honor Rabbi David and Odette Rebibo will be held 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, at a private home in Phoenix. Cost is $36. Visit phoenixhebrewacademy.org/rebibo-tribute-event to register for the open house.