Personal connections enhance JFSA men’s mission to Morocco

“Casablanca” brings to mind an almost mythical film in an exotic locale, conjuring up images of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman parting on a foggy airfield. But Casablanca is a real place where Jews have lived as far back as Roman times. Sixteen Tucsonans witnessed the vibrancy of Morocco’s Jewish community on the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Men’s Next Generation “Journey to Morocco” from Oct. 14 to 21.

Tucsonan Alain Avigdor, right, visits with a Jewish woman at an assisted living facility in Casablanca, Morocco. (Larry Gellman)

Morocco’s Jewish population was 250,000 prior to 1948. Today the country is home to around 4,000 Jews living among a population of around 32 million who are predominantly Muslim. With more than 20 active synagogues, 18 kosher butchers and six day schools, Jewish life — concentrated in Casablanca and Marrakesh — is still thriving. On the JFSA group’s first full day in Casablanca, the men visited the Museum of Moroccan Judaism of Casablanca, which is the only Jewish museum in a Muslim country, They also interacted with students at the Neve Shalom Elementary School and Maimonides High School.

“What made the trip so amazing for me was the Orthodox- oriented educational system, which was the same as in Sao Paolo,” says Alain Avigdor, who is originally from Paris but moved with his family to Sao Paolo, Brazil, at age 7. “It was so familiar to me. I related to the school director who was a rabbi, and his wife was the school principal. Services were very Sephardic, as they are in Sao Paolo.”

Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO, makes a donation in the Marrakech Synagogue (Larry Gellman)

Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO, notes that Maimonides High School is a Jewish school with a 75 percent Muslim and 25 percent Jewish student population. “I asked Muslim students if their friends made fun of them for going to a Jewish school. The answer was an emphatic ‘no.’”

The school’s mingling of Jewish and Muslim students is exemplary of the Moroccan government of King Mohammed VI, who “on one hand, values the Jewish community,” says Mellan. “On the other side, there’s a consciousness [in the Jewish community] if there’s a different king that could change.”

Meanwhile, during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, the Jewish community runs a blood drive, notes Mellan. Jews and Muslims “really work together. It’s very exciting to see.”

Raphael David Elmaleh was the Tucson group’s guide. He is the author, with George Ricketts, of “Jews under Moroccan Skies: Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life.” “Raphy” frequently pointed out that the Jewish population is only “a fraction of what it was in 1948,” says Mellan.

Avigdor, speaking in French, was able to have personal conversations with many Jewish Moroccans. The Moroccan people “speak both French and Arabic and they speak both well,” he says, “although I heard that 50 percent of the population is illiterate.”

Even though the number of Jews is small, “all Moroccan Jews keep kosher, are religious and observe Shabbat, according to what they were telling us,” says Avigdor. “There’s zero intermarriage. They’re very devoted to their Judaism. They’re proud to be Jews.”

For Tucson attorney David Hameroff, there was pride in seeing how the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in effect JFSA dollars, helped fellow Jews in Morocco. “We met a woman at an assisted living home who was so overcome with emotion,” he told the AJP. “Maybe it was the fact that 12 guys showed up at her apartment. That had to be a bit nerve-wracking. But it got me in my heart.”

For those Jewish seniors, he says, “I sensed it was the best living arrangement in their entire life.” Later in the week, Tucsonans traveled to a Berber community in the Atlas Mountains. “We met with an 85-year-old man [who claims to be] the oldest Jew in Morocco,” says Hameroff. “Our guide brings him kosher meat from Casablanca every week. We gave him a contribution and he gave us a blessing in Hebrew. He has a reputation as a spiritual person.”

“No matter where you go in the world there’s a Jewish link,” says Avigdor. But there are also concerns. At the group’s last dinner with their guide Avigdor asked, “Let’s say Israel attacks Iran. What would you do?” Raphy replied that “‘whenever there’s instability in the Middle East, Muslims get defensive,’ says Avigdor. “This guide is so Moroccan, so Jewish, but he would get on the first plane to Israel to wait out the situation.”

Still, the daily newspaper in Marrakesh has the date in French and the Hebrew calendar date on it, he says, adding, “Where else would you find that?”

Asher Amar talks to students at a Jewish day school in Casablanca

For Asher Amar, his first trip to Morocco included much more than interacting with a Jewish community thousands of miles from Tucson. Amar’s parents were born in Morocco but moved in 1959 to Israel, where he grew up. Amar extended his trip two days, visiting with his first cousin Karen Amar, whom he hadn’t seen in 34 years.

“I was in the clouds for nine days, as soon as I was in the airport and heard Moroccan Arabic,” Amar told the AJP. “It was the only way I communicated with my grandmother, who didn’t speak any Hebrew. After a half day it came back to me a little. I could bargain a little in the bazaar. I never thought in my life I would be there.”

(L-R) Larry Gellman, Asher Amar and Lionel Faitelson with a street vendor in the main square in Marrakech. (Courtesy of Larry Gellman)

His cousin Karen took him to the cemetery “where we found a man who had worked there for the past 45 years. When I told him the name he took me to my grandfather’s grave. He said special prayers for me,” says Amar. “He knew where other family members were buried too.”

For Amar, “just to go to a 500-year-old synagogue, to hear all the melodies with the other guys and to meet people who knew my family, was like getting surprises. I felt like a kid waiting for the eight days of Chanukah,” he says. “I’m going back, believe me.”