Last month, a delegation from Rockland traveled 3,700 miles to visit the Jewish communities in Morocco. Rich with history and Sephardic tradition, Jewish life in Morocco today is strong and dynamic, with some 3,000 Jews living in Casablanca, Marrakech and smaller communities sprinkled throughout the country.
The centuries-old Jewish community of Morocco traces itself back to the destruction of the Second Temple and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. In the 1940s the JDC began working in Morocco, assisting refugees from Nazi Europe who had escaped to Tangier. Throughout the country, JDC - with the support of Federations like ours - provides critical assistance to local Jewish institutions to help implement a range of relief, education, and community-strengthening programs.
We met some of Morocco's poorest Jews living in subsidized housing and visited the clinic that provides those in need with critical medical services and basic necessities. JDC also helps sustain a Jewish home for the aged that offers high-quality care to some of the community's most impoverished and isolated people. In addition, two day schools - offering Jewish education from elementary grades through high school - continue to strengthen the Moroccan Jewish community. We had a briefing with Dorit, a Moroccan Jew who runs the JDC operations in Casablanca. An animated young woman, Dorit was passionate about her Moroccan history, culture and heritage and works day and night to ensure that her community remains vibrant. Federation dollars enable her to provide a wide array of services to keep the Moroccan community thriving.
As we walked the streets of the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fes, you could feel the life of a community that established itself in this African Muslim country so many years ago. Two ancient buildings of Jewish worship - the Iben Danan and El Fassiyan synagogues - have been beautifully restored and the Fes Jewish cemetery is an active pilgrimage site for Jews around the world.
We journeyed from Fes to Meknes, the former residence of the Sultan, to meet a man named Shalom and the few remaining Jews who keep this ancient Jewish community alive. While visiting with Shalom in the old Jewish synagogue you could almost hear the Sephardic nusach (melodies) that Shalom and his friends used to chant when the synagogue was in use. Over the years, Shalom has received a number of offers of assistance to help him relocate to Israel. While he appreciates the offers and notes that he does have family there, he is strong in his conviction that it is his responsibility to stay and keep watch over his small Moroccan Jewish community.
The mission arrived in Marrakech Friday afternoon and visited the Slat El Azama Synagogue – the Synagogue of the Old City – which holds on to its weekly Shabbat Minyan thanks in large part to out-of-town visitors. For Friday evening services we went to the Bet-El Synagogue which still maintains a daily service. Isaac Ohayon, the Chazen of the synagogue, hosted us in his home for Shabbat dinner along with 50+ other tourists. His youngest of eight children is 14 and still lives at home. His older children live in Israel and Paris and his youngest will leave next year for high school in Paris. Through Hebrew, French and English translation we learned of Isaac’s struggle and desire to keep Jewish life and history alive in Marrakech. He works as a tailor in the Old City and is the last remaining Jewish merchant. His Shabbatot are filled with Jews from all around the world - many of whom are there tracing family histories - and Isaac is proud to be there to greet them and offer a place to enjoy a Kosher Shabbat meal.
It is heartening to know that the 3,000 Jews who continue to live in Morocco do so with religious freedom in an Arab country. There is Kosher food, active synagogues, schools and all of the other important components of a viable Jewish community. And they can continue to live there because of you and the annual support we provide to rescue, resettle and support Jews throughout the world.
Learn more about Federation missions here.