Their spiritual ancestors were the first Jews in the Western Hemisphere, but it will be another month before the Washington area's only Sephardic Jewish congregation can move into its own house of worship.

The 20-year-old Magen David synagogue, which by now numbers 400 families, had hoped to be in its new home in time for Passover, but the building on Old Georgetown Road that is being turned into a synagogue still lacks the necessary electrical connections.

"Only Pepco stands in the way," said the congregation's president, Syrian-born Sami Tottah.

Sephardic Jews are descendants of the Jews who lived and flourished in Spain and Portugal more than six centuries ago. Their name comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, sephard.

With the persecutions that accompanied the Crusades and the Inquisition and, finally, their expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Sephardim fled to countries around the Mediterranean, to Holland and eventually to the New World, taking with them the high culture they had developed in Spain.

While today the vast majority of American Jews are of Ashkenazi origin -- those whose forebears came from Eastern and Central Europe -- the first Jewish immigrants to North America were Sephardim who arrived in 1680, fleeing the same persecution in Brazil that had earlier hounded them from Spain and Portugal.

The American Sephardic Federation estimates their total number today at 200,000.

It was to a Sephardic congregation in the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., that George Washington penned the historic pledge that the United States would "give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Mark Zuarez, a past president of the Magen David congregation here, said he feels he has personally experienced the fruits of that pledge.

An export-import trader in Cairo, Zuarez decided to leave his homeland when war broke out in the Middle East in 1956. Now he carries on the same line of business in Washington.

"It was persecution, and it wasn't," Zuarez said. While he was not overtly threatened, he said, anti-Israel slogans created an uncomfortable undercurrent for Jews in Egypt.

In recent years, the Ayatollah Khomeini's rise in Iran, the Iran-Iraq war, tension between Israel and Syria over Lebanon, and other less dramatic developments in Morocco and Turkey have swelled the ranks of the Washington Sephardic community, Tottah explained.

Santos Mayo, an Argentine physicist who came to the United States for professional advancement, suggested that Magen David's Latin American members, who come primarily from Uruguay, Colombia and Puerto Rico, as well as his own country, have a different perspective.

Mayo said that when he first came to Washington 12 years ago, he joined an Ashkenazi congregation. "But when I heard of a Sephardic congregation, I felt a pull to go there and find out who I was. It feels more natural to me now, more Spanish," he said.

For years, the Magen David congregation shared space with Ohr Kodesh Synagogue in Silver Spring, but as the congregation grew, "we needed a home of our own," Tottah said.

When the former Assemblies of God church in Rockville became available last July, it took only 30 days to raise $325,000 in contributions from 100 families to purchase the building, he said.

Renovations to the structure include arched entrances modeled after Mediterranean synagogues. Local artist Herman Perlman has designed two arched windows whose glass panels depict the 12 tribes of Israel. The congregation will use a Torah scroll that was smuggled out of Iran several years ago. The group is interviewing candidates for rabbi.

Differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are sometimes subtle, sometimes sharp. Instead of Yiddish, Sephardim use as a common language Ladino, a form of medieval Spanish laced with Hebrew.

Among some Magen David members from the Middle East, however, Ladino has been lost as a living language. "In Beirut we used to sing Ladino songs and many of us did not know what the words meant, just that they were old and holy," said Tottah.

The style of worship also differs, Tottah said. "Our services engage more emotion, theirs are more detached," he said.

Typically, the Sephardic cantor and rabbi stand in the center with the Torah and are often drowned out by the congregation's enthusiastic singing and prayer, he said. In Ashkenazi ceremonies, he added, the cantor is more "operatic" and the congregation more of an audience.

Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have traditionally pronounced Hebrew differently. But since Sephardic speech is standard in Israel, within the past 20 years most Jews in this country have adopted it for worship and instruction, said Rabbi Matthew Simon, of the B'nai Israel Synagogue in Rockville, a large Ashkenazi congregation.

Foods are different too. Zuarez said he never heard of gefilte fish until he met his wife Gwen, a Philadelphia Ashkenazi who works at the Department of Labor. Traditional Sephardic foods include stuffed grape leaves or couscous; hommos dip; tahina, a sesame seed paste; falafel, a spicy deep-fried fritter of ground chick peas.

"The Ashkenazim love our food, but they put sauerkraut on falafel instead of tahina," Tottah joked.

One distinctive custom reported by Morocco-born David Rebibo, Magen David treasurer, is the Maimouna festival, a day of door-to-door visitation at Passover's end. The Moroccan observance has become very popular in Israel.

"Women put on their fanciest velvets embroidered in gold and silver and families greet each other at the door with a blessing," he said. Visitors are then invited to drink sweet wine and eat muflita, a Moroccan thin fritter that is dipped in fresh butter and honey, he added.

Despite differences, Zuarez cautioned, a summation of the Sephardim should not be based on distinctions from Ashkenazim. "A Jew is a Jew from whatever background. Only the surroundings make the difference," he said.