Jewish Morocco and Spainby David Bramzon July 26, 2018
I recently traveled to Morocco and Spain with National Young Leadership Cabinet, the premier leadership development program of the Jewish Federations of North America. Every year, Cabinet members attend a study mission to a different Jewish community across the globe. We learn about the current state of affairs of Jewish life in that country. We dive into the local Jewish history. We examine the political dynamic among our host country, the U.S. and Israel. And perhaps most importantly we witness first-hand the support the Jewish Federation provides to our Jewish brothers and sisters in need. On Cabinet study mission I see that, because of the Federation, no Jew anywhere in the world is left behind.
Morocco has deep Jewish roots spanning nearly 2,000 years. To my surprise, I learned that Moroccan Jews are not all Sephardic – and they are not Ashkenazi either. The first Jews in Morocco arrived directly from Israel after the fall of the Kingdom of Judah and the expulsion of the Jews by the Romans in the first century CE. Over 1,000 years later, a large influx of Jews – Sephardic Jews – arrived in Morocco from Spain after several waves of expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula.
At its peak, the Jewish community of Morocco was nearly 300,000 strong. The Moroccan Jewish culture is a rich blend of Jewish, Arabic, French and Spanish. Today, sadly, the Jewish population numbers fewer then 3,000. Despite the community’s meager numbers, it is healthy and vibrant. In Morocco, we prayed in beautiful synagogues, visited schools providing Jewish education to the next generation, saw kosher bakeries and toured a facility for the elderly. And the Federation (through our global partners JDC, JAFI, and World ORT) is there to make sure these facilities function and the community remains healthy and vibrant.
I was particularly moved when we visited the Jewish Old Age Home in Casablanca where I saw seniors with no family, and some with special needs, being cared for with love, compassion and dignity. In addition to sleeping and living quarters, the facility featured medical services, a pharmacy, a physical therapy room and also a synagogue. If not for the Federation and our partners, these seniors would not enjoy the safe, clean, humane conditions they currently have.
As inspiring as it was to see a small but strong Moroccan Jewish community living in relative safety and tranquility, the history of Moroccan Jewry is complicated. Morocco was a safe haven for Jews expelled from other lands – first from Israel then from Spain – until Morocco was no longer hospitable to Jews. The majority fled to France, Canada, Israel and back to Spain. Today Morocco accepts its Jews as citizens and recognizes the long Jewish history in the land. The Moroccan constitution, penned in 2011, specifically mentions the Hebrew aspects of the country’s history. However, Morocco does not recognize nor have diplomatic relations with Israel. For generations Jews have sought to be treated just like everyone else. Although we live safely and comfortably in many different communities around the world, as long as countries such as Morocco do not recognize our right to govern ourselves in our ancient homeland, our struggle for acceptance continues.
From Morocco we traveled to Spain, following the same path taken by many Jews who fled Morocco in the 20th century. Like Morocco, Spain has a deep and rich – but also very dark – Jewish history. The first Jews in the Iberian Peninsula appeared during the time of King Solomon’s reign in Israel in the 9th century BCE to service the trade routes along the Mediterranean Sea. In the first century CE, the Romans brought many Jews to Spain after the destruction of Jerusalem. Over hundreds of years the Jews of Spain grew and flourished, reaching 500,000 strong and making Spain the center for the Jewish world. Jews were in integral part of Spanish society in the middle ages, where they played a prominent role in government, commerce, science and philosophy. Sadly, the fate of the Jews took a dire turn beginning in the 1200s CE. They faced several waves of massacres, conversions and expulsions. The death knell for Spanish Jewry came in 1492 with the edict of expulsion by Queen Isabella. Despite the noble efforts of some “conversos” to preserve Judaism in secret, Judaism in Spain basically died out.
About 500 years later, Jewish life in Spain was miraculously reborn. In an ironic twist of fate, many Jews fled Morocco and returned to Spain. Others in Spain learned of their long lost roots and rediscovered their Jewish identities. Today, Spain is home to about 50,000 Jews who reside primarily in Madrid and Barcelona.
In Madrid, we visited the Ibn Gabirol School, the crown jewel of modern Jewish Spain. In a beautiful and modern facility, the next generation of Spain’s Jews get a secular and Jewish education from preschool through high school. The highlight of the mission was singing and dancing on erev Shabbat with 130 of my Cabinet chevre and hundreds of young, curious and happy Jewish students.
In my five years on Cabinet, I have visited Jewish communities in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Germany, Israel, India, Morocco and Spain. I have met Jews of all colors from different backgrounds. The Jewish people is a diverse people. If there is one common thread woven throughout every Jewish community abroad, it is an understanding of the importance of Israel. Every
Jew around the world knows that Israel is our safe haven. And therefore, there is unanimous and unapologetic support for Israel in every Jewish community abroad. Jews in Spain had it great, until they didn’t. The Jews of Morocco lived well for generations, until the no longer did. Today, we in the U.S. live in the safest and most prosperous Jewish community in history. We can and should learn from our brothers and sisters around the world who are closer to harm’s way than we are. We must not take our good fortune for granted. It is our responsibility to help our fellow Jews anywhere in the world. And we must firmly and unequivocally support Israel. And through our involvement in the Jewish Federation, we can do both.