Everyone wants to get away at this time of the year, whether to a sunny destination or even to places with a Jewish connection. The old synagogues of the Caribbean or Rangoon are just a couple of examples. These journeys are certainly fun and informative, but there’s nothing as exciting as a trip to a foreign, enchanting land, a cradle of ancient Jewish culture, accompanied by a lively group of diverse Ottawa Jews – all keen to learn and experience together.
This past fall, I led such a trip to Morocco, along with my wife Muriel, and with the assistance and immense support of Helen and Rick Zipes. Even though Muriel and I were both born in Morocco, this adventure was more than just a homecoming. It was an opportunity for us to share our love and knowledge about the world of Sephardic Jewry with our friends in the group who were mostly Jews of Ashkenazi origin. This made it a truly unique experience for all.
At one time, Morocco was home to some 300,000 Jews – the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. During the Second World War, the king of Morocco, Muhammed V, was reported to have told the Nazi commander, who had demanded a list of the Jews living in Morocco, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.”
While Morocco has hosted Jews for more than 1,000 years, the Jewish community there today numbers only about 3,500. Nonetheless, the Moroccan government has taken wide-ranging steps to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage. Many synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been refurbished and declared national historic sites. The Moroccan Jewish Museum project keeps sites and memories of Jewish life alive and safe. It was this remnant of a once-vibrant community that my fellow travellers learned about first-hand.
From Casablanca to Fez, our Ottawa group traversed Morocco, eating fresh sardines in the ports of Essaouira, praying the evening service at sundown in the Sahara desert, visiting various kasbahs, the king’s palace, and generally getting a feel for the country. From goats that climb trees to carpet shopping to camel rides in the desert, the nuances of Morocco were revealed.
Some of my fellow travellers put pen to paper to personalize what the trip meant to them.
Jeff Gould saw the trip as “not only an opportunity to renew some acquaintances, but also as a chance to visit and tour the amazing country of Morocco.”
Evelyn Greenberg wrote that the highlight of the trip for her was being with 29 like-minded travellers and spending time in shul with the remaining Jews of Morocco.
“Praying with them,” Evelyn wrote, “was the epitome of Am Yisrael Chai.”
“The trip opened my eyes to the fact that Morocco was not only a place where great rabbis and teachers lived, but also a place where Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere had been able to come despite the considerable difficulties involved,” wrote Jonathan Fisher.
In the end, it always comes back to who you travel with and the intention of the travel. For the 29 participants, it was travelling Jewishly and travelling communally.