A Mission to Morocco

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My wife and I were part of a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia mission to Morocco. But, it was not your usual mission. We were 12 Philadelphians traveling with 12 Israelis from our partnership communities, Netivot and S’dot Negev. The Israelis all had North African ancestry, most of them from Morocco.

“That’s my father’s picture!”
We were standing in the Lazama Synagogue, built in 1492, in the Melah, the Jewish Quarter, in Marrakesh, Morocco. Yoram Azulai, a sixth-generation Andaleusian musician from S’dot Negev, Israel, was standing next to me. On the wall was the picture of a group of musicians, including his father.
My wife, Lana, and I were part of a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia mission to Morocco. But, it was not your usual mission. We were 12 Philadelphians traveling with 12 Israelis from our partnership communities, Netivot and S’dot Negev. The Israelis all had North African ancestry, most of them from Morocco. The trip was a dream of Mayor Yechiel Zohar’s for many years.
We crisscrossed Morocco, visiting the remains of that country’s Jewish community. In Marrakesh, we had dinners in Jewish homes and davened with locals in their two remaining synagogues. There are 110 Jews remaining in this community that numbered 35,000 in 1950.
We visited Berber communities in the Atlas Mountains, where 28,000 Jews once lived. Once Israel gained its independence, they all made aliyah. In Fez, we visited Moses Maimonides’ home and a 700-year-old cemetery.
One of the 75 remaining Jews in that community has been cataloging the graves and computerizing their locations. By coincidence, his brother’s yahrtzeit was on the day we were there, and we provided a minyan so he could recite Kaddish at his brother’s grave. At the Fez synagogue, we saw a bride’s wedding chair and asked, “When was the last wedding?” They answered, “45 years ago!”
We also visited Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca. Other than in Casablanca, the communities that once were home to 25,000 to 35,000 Jews now had 45 to 110 Jews left.
In all, Morocco once had 350,000 Jews living there; today, there are about 3,000, with 2,500 living in Casablanca. This city of 8 million has the closest thing to a vibrant Jewish community. They have six day schools, 18 kosher butchers and 28 synagogues.
The decline in population has been dramatic, but Morocco is the only Arab country that has not evicted its Jews. In fact, King Mohammed V refused to turn over a list of his Jewish subjects to the Vichy French during the Holocaust. He said, “We have no Jews, just Moroccan citizens.”
Still, the future of the Jewish community, even in Casablanca, is questionable. Our tour guide, Raphael, has been helping restore synagogues throughout Morocco. He helped establish a Moroccan Jewish Museum in Casablanca with a huge number of artifacts collected from across the country. He and others are intent on preserving their community’s rich heritage, and told us that 7,000 Muslim schoolchildren visited the museum last year.
The purpose of our trip was to see Morocco through the eyes of our Israeli partners. We shared some very emotional moments.
Whenever he saw a group of Muslim youngsters, Yoram formed a choir and taught them an Andalusian song. Yoram also gave two concerts with mixed groups of Muslim and Jewish bands. We found ourselves dancing with women wearing hijabs. In the Neve Shalom School in Casablanca, we sang the Four Questions and “Oseh Shalom” with the kids. At that point, there were no dry eyes left.
Orit Stern, whose grandfather helped smuggle Jewish children into Palestine before the establishment of Israel, told us the story of finding his former house, his school and the neighborhood butcher shop. She bought kosher-for-Passover cookies from the bakery to take home to her family in Israel.
We were invited to the home of Dr. Maurice Biton, the Israeli partnership chair’s cousin. When she heard we were from Philadelphia, she brought out a yellowed newspaper clipping. It was from the Jewish Exponent, dated June 16, 1948. It was an article telling about the installation of Rev. Raphael Emalleah as the minister of Congregation Mikveh Israel. Rabbi Emalleah was a family friend.
Throughout the trip, Moroccan Jews told us of the wonderful help the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides for Jews in need. As a Jewish Federation group, we all felt good knowing that our philanthropic dollars had a long reach into the lives of our fellow Jews living in a world so far away.
Dr. Bernie Dishler served as a co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s mission to Morocco last month.

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