Connecting with the Past: Creating Memories in Morocco with Touro

Education and adventure went hand in hand on this exciting summer trip to Touro led by Professor Simcha Fishbane. Students earned three college credits by visiting nine cities and numerous villages. We experienced varied cultures in each locality, from a visit to Rabat to a panoramic tour of Casablanca and the historic sites of Fez, including the Rambam’s house and many kevarim (burials) and shuls. I was joined by my esteemed colleagues, Touro President, Dr. Alan Kadish, and faculty and lecturers, Dr. Israel Singer, Michael Newman and Dr. Stanley and Professor Esther Boylan.

In addition to lectures and tours, the group bonded over camel, ATV and boat rides and desert barbecues.

Judaism in Morocco today

Upon our arrival in Rabat, we were greeted by André Azoulay, a Jewish community leader and senior financial adviser to King Mohammed VI. Azoulay briefed us on the situation of the local Jewish community, which today consists of 1,800 Jews with an average age of 70 and about 40 school-aged children who are mainly drawn from rabbis and mashgichim who live in Morocco. We later learned that Morocco is the only financially viable country in North Africa, largely because of this Jewish finance minister, who also regularly attends the shul.

Current members of the Jewish community living in Morocco, such as Rabbi Sebbag and Rabbi Banon, have inspired us with their religiosity, their spirit and optimism, and their magnificent prayer service. They do not take lightly their role as guardians of 2,000-year-old traditional Jewish life in Morocco, which was once home to more than 350,000 Jews, including some of the most revered rabbis and tzadikim.

Visit the past

While much of Morocco’s Jewish community moved to Israel after the 1967 war, our excursion took us back in time to the first Jewish settlements over 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, Jews even came to Morocco before Muslims, whose origins are much later, in the 7th and 8th centuries. We felt like we were walking in the footsteps of our holy ancestors.

Teachers and students, young and old, were deeply moved to see the abandoned shuls, towns and schools that once teemed with Jews praying or going about their daily business.

As we traveled from city to city over long rural stretches of dry, rocky, dusty regions sometimes dotted with parched bushes, I shared the story of the Holocaust in Morocco. Faced with having to hand over Jews by order of the Vichy French government, the 30-year-old Moroccan sultan, Mohammed V, refused, declaring: “There are no Jews in Morocco, there are only Moroccan citizens”. The sultan had to comply with some of the anti-Jewish laws, but Jews were not required to wear a yellow star, nor were they eliminated from professions or forced to give up their property. Not a single Jew was deported. In short, like King Christian X of Denmark, Mohammed V protected the Jews of his country.

Another essential part of our trip was the connection with the great rabbis of Morocco. Thanks to the lectures given by Dr. Stanley Boylan, in particular “The Rambam and the Rif living in Fez”, we were able to understand the context and feel deeply rooted in our Jewish past. When we prayed at the gravesites of our most revered leaders, we understood their worldview and the life they led.

Throughout the circuit, our Moroccan guide and author of Jews under the Moroccan sky, Raphaël Elmaleh knew how to bring Moroccan history to life. Students asked questions about the lasting legacy of Maimonides as well as the contributions of ordinary Jewish workers, merchants, craftsmen and artisans to Moroccan society and the mass emigration of Moroccan Jewry. The answers were not given from textbooks, but rather by visiting, seeing and experiencing.

A modern monarchy

Dr. Singer shared his analysis of the diversity of Morocco’s political and religious makeup through the ages. He explained that as a constitutional monarch, King Mohammed VI extends a strong arm in the governance and policy-making of Morocco. Because he devoted resources to improving the lot of the poor and promoting women’s rights, he seems to be well-liked by the masses. King Mohammed VI also established funds for the restoration of Jewish sites and mandated Holocaust education. Like his grandfather Mohammed V, Mohammed VI is popular with the small Jewish population who consider themselves protected by his royal authority. Dr. Singer explained that his favorable attitude towards Jews is based on a multitude of factors, including the economy, particularly industry and tourism, given the thousands of Jews who stay in Morocco each year.

“King Mohammed VI views Jews as cultured and educated and sees Israel as a prosperous country with thousands of startups and a booming tech sector. He views Jews as essential to the relationship he wants to forge and maintain with Israel,” Singer said.

According to Dr. Singer, tolerance rather than persecution gives Morocco a very high place in the Muslim world. Today, Jews enjoy full rights as Moroccan citizens.

The promotion of women’s rights was evident when we visited the Amazigh (Berber) village in the desert, where the women started a growing business of extracting argan oil from nuts and procuring a unique, cost-effective and portable cosmetic industry. While older Amazigh women produce the oil, their daughters take care of the marketing and sales.

An experience of a lifetime

Esther Boylan, professor of Jewish studies at Touro, summed up the trip as “a journey of contrasts, striking differences and close associations. From the impoverished Amazigh villages to the opulent buildings of the imperial cities, from the stench of the tannery to the scent of spices and gardens… from the minarets to the winding alleys of the medinas, from the majestic mountains to the arid desert, from holy places to hotels and palaces, Morocco has taught us how the ancient and the modern merge.

Tamar Levine, a senior graduate majoring in psychology at Lander College for Women in Touro, echoed Professor Boylan’s remarks: “It was fascinating to learn about a unique culture and society that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience. opportunity to explore differently. It was uplifting to learn about the history of Moroccan Jewry. It was also a great opportunity to spend some quality time with other Touro students and teachers. This trip was truly the experience of a lifetime.

As we return to the classroom in the coming weeks, we will all surely apply the hands-on learning experience we had in Morocco to our studies as teachers, students, lifelong learners and actors. Relationships forged outside the classroom will undoubtedly connect us and enhance our learning. As one student said, “We started the trip as a Touro University group and ended it more like a Touro family.”

About Wesley V. Finley

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