US Jews ‘rejuvenate’ Moroccan communities

What is most remarkable about the visit of a group of young US Jews to Morocco, Hannah Weitzer reports in Haaretz, is that their program was based in Jerusalem. (With thanks: Albert)

At a time when Jewish-Arab co-existence appears rare, an American Jewish youth program that visits an Arab country, a nation in which a Jew serves as an advisor to the king, is particularly noteworthy.

When its participants docked in Tangier last month, the “Kivunim: New Directions” group became what is believed to be only the second delegation of American Jewish youth to have visited Morocco. As part of a yearlong program based in Jerusalem, 29 high school graduates are spending a year before college exploring Jewish communities around the world.

In Fez, Morocco, the 125 remaining Jews continue to operate two synagogues, less than two blocks apart from each other. Although both struggle, and most often fail, to gather a minyan, neither is ready to capitulate and join the other.

Fez’ Jews once numbered 28,000. Today they are an aging and disappearing community, whose children and grandchildren have left for France, North America and Israel.

But for the first night of Hannukah this year, the community was rejuvenated, albeit temporarily, by the visiting delegation of American teens. (The photograph shows a resident of Fez enjoying a music session with the American youngsters).

The group arrived in Morocco with some background in its history as well as cursory knowledge of Palestinian Arabic, which they study in addition to Hebrew, when in Jerusalem.

To fill in the gaps, translate and guide, Raphy Elmaleh, a native Moroccan Jew, accompanied them. Born in Casablanca, Elmaleh left Morocco at age nine for England and spent 17 years living abroad until his mother’s illness brought him back. Never intending to stay, he fell in love with his country, and the experience of Moroccan Jews. Gathering the history, stories, artifacts, and ritual objects left behind by the disappearing community became the cause to which he now devotes his life.

The remaining Moroccan Jewish community exists within a delicate balance in relation to the rest of Moroccan society. The synagogues in Fez are unmarked and inconspicuous, yet regulars at the neighboring coffee shops wish “Shabbat Shalom” to the small community as it trickles out on Saturday morning.

Elmaleh boasts about the status of Jews in Morocco. Yet he also notes that the last Jew was taken out of the Fez mellah, the traditional Jewish quarter, in 1992, following the Gulf war, as the tiny community prefers to consolidate in the ville nouvelle, further away from the more crowded and conservative medina, or old city.

Moroccan Jewish-Muslims relations are a tightly wound knot of contradictions, where a Jew serves as advisor to the King, while others don’t feel comfortable going out to a nightclub or speaking about Israel in front of Moroccan Muslims.
(My emphasis – Ed)

In trying to untangle these discrepancies, the group grappled with the question of the future for Moroccan Jewry. Recognizing the push and pull of preserving tradition and seeking opportunity, neither the group nor the community itself knows the answer.

Program participant Sam Goodman says that “the trip to Morocco and the whole program in general, gives a sense of the importance of preserving Judaism, and teaches us that if all the Jews move out of these countries we are in danger of losing their traditions and rich history.”

Spending Shabbat in Fez was just the beginning of 11 full days in Morocco, in which the group covered tremendous ground, soaking up diverse experiences from the maze-like medina of Fez to a Hanukkah party in Casablanca, which is home to the largest remaining Jewish community in Morocco – numbering 2,500-3,000, and the only community where youth are still present.

They traveled from night clubs in Marrakech to a 500-year-old restored synagogue in the Anti-Atlas village of Arazane, where a Muslim village elder, who remembers and recites bits of prayers he overheard in as a young man, guarded the key to the building for 45 years.

As they took in both the past and the present, Kivunim visited the last Berber Jew living in the High Atlas Mountains, who is the solemn, self-appointed keeper of a famous rabbi’s grave and enjoyed lunch at a lively Jewish elementary school in Casablanca.(…)

Morocco stands out significantly as their only visit to the Arab world. Teaching coexistence is high on the agenda of the program.

According to participant Elana Itzkowitz, the visit was about “putting coexistence into actuality,” broadening their perspectives of the Arab-Muslim world and gaining a better understanding of one of the more celebrated examples of Jewish-Muslim coexistence.

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