Finding Meaning in Morocco and Madrid

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By Dayna C. Finkelstein

This past year, I continued my Jewish journey in an incredible way: I joined Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, a five-year program for 200-plus young Jewish professionals (ages 30-45) in the United States and Canada.

The depth of commonality shared by this group makes the cabinet a petri dish for instant human connection and friendship. Cabinet members share more than religion — a connection to Israel, a shared sense of duty to take care of our global Jewish population (and the impoverished world at large) and a vision for maintaining Jewish continuity.


Cabinet members can participate in an annual international study mission. The goals include gaining an understanding of Jewish Federations’ global reach, learning about the history and status of Jewish populations around the world, and strengthening connections with fellow cabinet members.

In April, all six Philadelphia cabinet members traveled to Morocco and Madrid. It was the largest study mission to date with 130 participants, and the first time our Philadelphia contingent had a 100 percent participation rate on a mission.

In Morocco, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, cares for a dwindling Jewish population that dates back more than 2,000 years. At one time, Morocco was home to almost 300,000 Jews. Fewer than 5,000 remain today.

Even though there are only 18 Jews living in the north of Morocco today, JDC still provides kosher food and essential services. Hearing these small numbers was both chilling and uplifting; it demonstrates that even the smallest of Jewish populations remains significant. By contrast, Spain has a growing Jewish community of 40,000.

Our window into JDC’s work continued with the Levine Senior Residence. Despite a lack of common language (residents spoke French, Spanish and Arabic), cabinet members found a way to connect over fried Moroccan doughnuts and mint tea.

Throughout the trip, we were reminded that Jews across the world share so much.

In the Jewish museum in Casablanca (the only Jewish museum in an Arab country), we observed artifacts and Torah scrolls evidencing the centuries-old Moroccan Jewish population. They were the same ritual objects that American Jews use today.

At Moroccan synagogues, we observed the physical differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi shuls. Sephardic congregants face one another. No eternal flame is at the front, and the bimah is located toward the center or back of the room. Synagogue walls were covered in colorful mosaic tiles; ceilings were adorned with crystal chandeliers.

Despite these cosmetic differences, entering these synagogues felt like going “home” to a familiar and meaningful setting. Our visit concluded with everyone reciting the Shehecheyanu blessing together.

Collective Jewish ritual continued during our visit to a concrete, above-ground Jewish cemetery. There, we said the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of all those buried, but also on behalf of family members who could not travel to Morocco to mourn directly. In these moments, the continuity and strength of Jewish traditions across time and place were palpable.

In both countries, our time spent with children were highlights. In Casablanca, we played sports and did art projects with children from a local orphanage. A young man explained that, as an infant, he was discarded in the trash by his parents. He grew up in the orphanage and now teaches there. There are several guiding principles of the orphanage, one being: “You are greater than your circumstances.” Both he and all of the young children embodied this mantra, and their story resonated on a purely human level.

In Spain, we visited the Ibn Gabirol School, an ORT-affiliated school and Madrid’s only Jewish school. Kippa Live, an Israeli men’s a cappella group, performed upbeat variations of traditional Shabbat songs as children and cabinet members sang and danced together (a conga line even broke out). It was an unforgettable Shabbat.

Spain also included a discussion panel of young adults residing in Moishe Houses throughout Europe, where they host and lead young adult programming. For one panelist, her efforts operate against a challenging political backdrop, where being Jewish in that country means being discreetly Jewish.

“You are greater than your circumstances.” It rang in my ears during our trip, and long after it. As I think about the Jews in Spain who were faced with an incomprehensible decision during the Inquisition, the small population of Jews remaining in Morocco today, and the brave Moishe House resident who still faces modern anti-Semitism, all persisted despite the most challenging of situations. They were and are greater than their circumstances.

I am fortunate to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience with my cabinet family. Through the cabinet, the Jewish community has given me an amazing opportunity to harness my love of learning and desire to explore the world. It is my honor and obligation to continue to give back to it. 

Dayna C. Finkelstein is an attorney based in Philadelphia.

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