Recently, I served as a scholar in residence on a week- long mission to Morocco with the senior leadership of the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. The mission met with leadership of the Moroccan Jewish community (including Jackie Kadosh the president of Marrakech’s 2,000 member, pictured above), visited Jewish schools and learned about the rich history of the Jews in Morocco and its present significant challenges.
As Mr. Kadosh described the situation, the community, after a presence of nearly 2,000 years in Morocco, will, in the next decade or so, be gone. The leadership from the Baltimore Federation, a Federation most aware of its global responsibilities, grappled with three questions:
1.How best to ensure that the last remnants of this community, especially the elderly, are cared for and treated with the most dignity?
2.How best to preserve the ancient synagogues and cemeteries – some of which go back as much as five hundred years. At present, the King, Mohammed VI, has funded the renovation of major Jewish institutions.
3.How best to ensure that the story of Moroccan Jewry and the creative symbiosis between Islam and Judaism that existed in Morocco for centuries is told and leveraged. One particular example is the need to incorporate the story of King Mohammad V, then 32, the grandfather of the present King, who protected the 300,000 Jews of Morocco from being deported in 1941 by Vichy authorities into our Holocaust education. No Moroccan Jews suffered during WW II and today, in Casablanca, high school students have a Holocaust course. The present King has stated, “Amnesia has no role in my people’s understanding of the Holocaust.”
We had extraordinary experiences in Morocco. The people, the scents, the colors, the sounds, the thousands of winding alleyways of the souks, the architecture, the abstract, complex, hypnotic geometric and floral designs, the curling and swirling calligraphy, the artisans, the snake charmers, the bakers, the tastes of mint, honey, and unusual spices and the muezzin calls that woke us early each morning, evoking a mix of anxiety, beauty, transcendence and hope.
One of the highlights of the trip was teaching about the patriarch Abraham, in a 15th century madrassa courtyard in Fes, alongside a Muslim teaching about Abraham from his tradition – each of us listening to and learning from the other with a combination of curiosity and sacred trembling as we invited each other and those who gathered around to reflect on the similarities and differences in our ancient traditions and the truths about the human experience they each embodied.
Morocco is the only Arab Muslim country that recognizes – and has written into its constitution – the diverse contributions of its many ethnic groups, including Jews. Jews are safe in Morocco and the experience of being Jewish in Morocco upends one’s conventional expectations of being in a Muslim country. Our experience invites reflection about the possibilities for creating a different model of Muslim-Jewish co-existence and a different future between Jews and Muslims.
As it turned out, we arrived in Morocco a day after the Pittsburgh shooting. The murder of Jews praying in a synagogue on a Shabbat morning weighed heavily on us throughout our trip – many of us calling and emailing Pittsburgh communal leaders, rabbis, and friends. It was surreal to observe Solidarity Shabbat in Morocco, chant a memorial prayer in the 17th century Ibn Danan Synagogue in Fes, and receive condolences from Muslims about what happened to Jews in the United States. Here we were, a clearly identified Jewish group in an Arab country that is 98% Muslim, worrying about and mourning violence against Jews…back in our country.
It was a privilege to serve as the scholar in residence on this trip with Baltimore leadership and to draw on Jewish history, wisdom, and practice to help them lead more wisely, creatively, and pluralistically as they seek to better serve their constituents, the community and the Jewish people.