Emissaries ‘feel at home’ in Muslim countries

The black-clad orthodox Chabad emissaries in Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey feel safer than in European countries (although people in Turkey are noticeably cooler towards them since the Gaza war of 2009). But would things have been different for them had Chabad’s headquarters been in Israel and not America? Feature in Ynet News:

According to tradition, Djerba’s Jews who were banished from Jerusalem with the destruction of the First Temple brought with them some of the temple’s stones and built a synagogue in the city. Every day they enter the site with great reverence, take off their shoes at the entrance, and worship. Armed with an American passport and full of fear, Rabbi Hecht joined them on Lag B’Omer in 2007. “We didn’t know what we were getting into and we were a little frightened,” he admitted. “After all, the only thing we knew about Tunisia was that there are PLO and terrorist bases there. Several years ago one of the soldiers there opened fire at troops. At one point, when we saw the security and learned how courteous and kind the police officers were to us, the fear faded. A year later we were walking around without any fear.”

A friend carrying only an Israeli passport joined Rabbi Hecht on a visit to the country. “If I am not mistaken, his visa was issued in Gaza,” Rabbi Hecht said. “In any case, they did not give us any trouble.” Despite the tight security, even the most devout Djerba Jews dress in relatively simple clothing, without hats or suits. The Chabad emissaries, however, have decided to ignore the warnings and maintain the haredi appearance.

“We walked around the market with suits and hats despite being asked to wear only caps,” Rabbi Hecht said. “In the end, we did get a lot of looks, but we were not hassled. Security was also very tight, and any time we left the fenced Jewish neighborhood we were surrounded by police on motorcycles leading the way for us.”

Shortly after he initiated the establishment of the Chabad missions, which now number some 4,500 Chabad houses stretching to almost every part of the world, the Lubavitcher rebbe decided that the first emissary should be stationed in a Muslim country. The country that was selected for the mission was Morocco. In the early 1950s, the first envoys arrived to prepare the ground for the permanent emissary, Rabbi Sholom Eidelman. “The rabbi decided that it was important that we be there,” said 74-year-old Eidelman, who has lived in Casablanca for 52 years now. “I got there in the end of 1958, a week after getting married. I was not afraid, because I was sent by the rabbi and no harm befalls those performing a mitzvah.”

Rabbi Eidelman lived in Casablanca with his wife (and later, his eight children), and set up his home in the heart of the city’s Jewish community, made up of some 2,500 people. “They are well-mannered and respect religion,” he said of the relationship with the local Muslims. “Sometimes the adult Muslims would see me and stand up as a sign of respect,” he said.He said Jews in Morocco are treated better than anywhere else in the world. “The Jews here work together with the Muslims and are also respected by the government,” he said. “I walk the streets with a suit and hat and no one has a problem with it. Meanwhile, last week I was visiting the Mount of Olives in Israel, and on the way Arabs threw stones at us. In Morocco such a thing would not happen.”

Rabbi Eidelman, who was born in Russia, was warmly welcomed by the Jewish community which keenly maintains its identity, and operates Torah institutions and schools. “The Hasidim from Russia have begun speaking Moroccan and adopting some of the local lifestyle,” said Eidelman, who today also speaks Arabic, “While the Jews of Casablanca, Marrakech, and other cities have become familiar with the Hasidic terminology that has originated in Ukraine. We celebrate the Jewish holidays, the Moroccan feasts and the days commemorated by Chabad. By the way, quite a few Muslims in the country also visit the righteous Jews’ graves.”

Another Muslim country that has two Chabad houses is Turkey. “The Muslims understand and know the value of religion, and respect religious figures,” M., the Antalya Chabad house emissary said. “But clearly, most of our business here is with Jews. We hold Shabbat dinners at hotels in Antalya and keep kosher, and they are slowly beginning to understand what it means and there is hardly any objection.”

Recent months have seen a significant cooling in relations between Israel and Turkey, and according to M., it all started during Operation Cast Lead.

“After the operation, we received less sympathetic responses, and once in a while peoples’ expressions would change when they learned we were Jews or Israelis,” he said, “But the Turkish people are very nice, cordial and courteous, and we continue to work to bring Jews closer together and provide Jewish services without disruptions. We occasionally get phone calls from Turks that want to convert to Judaism, but we do not deal with this here out of respect for the place that is hosting us. We are not here to interfere.”After the 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka Holtzberg were killed, concern among Chabad emissaries around the world was felt for the first time.

As a result, those living in countries considered hostile have been keeping a low profile, and security around them has been boosted. Such countries include Muslim countries of the former Soviet Union, Turkish Cyprus, and more.”When I walk down the street I wear a cap so as not to attract attention, and there are places where I avoid walking around in,” said Rabbi H., a Chabad emissary in a Muslim country. “Our community has suffered attempted attacks over the years, and thank heavens we have been spared, but we must watch out and sharpen our security procedures from time to time. When there are anti-Israel protests in the streets, it makes us and the Jewish community nervous.” In order to reduce to a minimum friction with the more hostile community, H. and his comrades try not to make the events they hold public. “We provide all the Jewish services here, but do not publish exactly how we can be found,” he said. “There is constant security and surveillance cameras in and around the house and we cooperate with the Jewish community and the Foreign Ministry on anything to do with security. It is a challenge to live as a mitzvah-keeping Jew and as an Israeli in the heart of a Muslim country and uphold that lifestyle under the security constraints.” Despite his concerns, H. said he still feels safer at his home in the Muslim country than in certain European countries. “I once was at the central station in Paris and someone flung the hat off my head and yelled an anti-Semitic curse at me,” he said. “I have been living here for many years now, and have never come across anti-Semitism. They respect religious figures here, and when I go to visit a Jew in prison, the law enforcement officers are respectful and assist me. I am not afraid to walk through the streets here, still I do not let my Judaism stand out.”According to H., Chabad’s advantage is that it is a Jewish organization, and not an Israeli one. “If Chabad was an Israeli movement, we would not be able to do what we are doing,” he said. “Chabad’s global center is in America, and this means we have American support when faced with trouble. Nonetheless, we certainly owe thanks to the Israeli authorities and the diplomatic missions that assist us at all times.”

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