Exploring Jewish Morocco

by | Jun 13, 2014 | Other News

I grew up in Israel of the 1950’s and 1960’s when peace with an Arab state was even beyond a dream. Thus the opportunity to visit an Arab country moves me deeply. Through the years I have had the good opportunity to go on missions with fellow rabbis to Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Most recently, from May 11 through May 18, I traveled to Morocco, the Westernmost country in North Africa with a population of 30 million, on a “Jewish Roots & Diplomacy Trip” sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in association with Arza World Travel.

The more than 2000-year-old Moroccan Jewish community with its rich history has been reduced in size to some 7,000 souls, with rising concern for its future given its shrinking numbers. The Muslim environment has largely been appreciative and protective with some notable exceptions, in marked contrast to the Jewish experience in other Arab countries as well as that in Christian Europe, with Kings Mohammad V and Hassan II known for their close bond with Jews.

The Jews have immigrated through the years, particularly following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, to Israel as well as other parts of the world. Given that French is spoken in Morocco, the legacy of French Colonial Rule, Frenchspeaking destinations such as France and Montreal, Canada, are favorites. Jewish high school graduates opt to go to college outside of Morocco.

Israelis and others of Moroccan descent visit Morocco in search for their roots. Our delegation flew to Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city with more than four million people, aboard Royal Air Maroc from JFKNew York on a 6.5-hour flight. We visited the clinic that provides for indigent Jews along with being the Jewish home for the aged. Both institutions are supported by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the extended loving care is impressive. (My family and I also benefitted from the JDC while in Germany’s Wetzlar Displaced Persons Camp, 1947–1949.) We toured the Museum of the Jews of Morocco and the Mosque of Hassan II , the third largest Mosque in the world. We explored Fes with its unique aura, where the great Maimonides lived for a while, the Iben Danan Synagogue and El Fassiyim Synagogue, the cemetery known for the famous rabbis (Tzadikin) buried there and of course, the Mellah quarter where Jews lived for centuries.

We walked on a hot day in a restored Roman outpost from the third century B.C. in Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Meknes, we were greeted in Old Jewish Synagogue, and visited the cemetery, the Royal Stables and the Mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismail who made Meknes the capital from 1672 through 1727.

In the capital Rabat we visited the Mausoleums of Kings Mohammad V and Hassan II who were close to the Jewish community. Later, we were briefed by Matt Lussenhop, the Deputy Chief of Missions at the U.S. embassy, who referred to Morocco as “A very good partner for the U.S.,” which interestingly claims to be the first to recognize the U.S. following the Declaration of Independence.

In Marrakech we enjoyed a Shabbat eve service at Bel-El Synagogue followed by a sumptuous Shabbat meal in the most welcoming home of Chazan Isaac Ohayon with a group of Israelis also being hosted. We roamed the famous Djma El Fnia Square and were entertained by its snake charmers and variety of performers. Of course the Souq (marketplace) with its multiple shops is an unforgettable experience. All that and much more in a land where the old and the new, the traditional and non-traditional have provided for precious memories.

—Rabbi Israel Zoberman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim.

by Rabbi Israel Zoberman