Exploring Casablanca’s Jewish Heritage

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Synagogue Beth El – New York Jewish Travel Guide

By: Meyer Harroch

Jewish culture has been interwoven throughout Morocco for centuries and offers a golden opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish travelers alike to discover the stories of the Jewish Mellah, the vibrant Jewish community, Synagogues, Andalusian and Moorish architecture, tombs and holy places, and the only Jewish Museum in the Islamic world. “Casablanca” film references aside, Morocco is home to many Jewish heritage sites of historical prominence that are some of the most widely visited in the world. When traveling to Morocco, these fantastic places are essential highlights not to be missed and include synagogues, cemeteries, and the Mellah (old Jewish quarter), all preserved respectively in the former Jewish neighborhoods of the medinas. All Jewish heritage sites in Morocco are either UNESCO World Heritage sites or protected by the Moroccan King and government and are regularly under renovation and preservation to ensure they remain a part of Morocco’s Jewish heritage.

Jews of Moroccan descent, in Israel and around the globe, are returning to Morocco often and some maintain second homes.  Jewish heritage tours are abundant and major sites of pilgrimage which are scattered around the country are visited, especially during the Hillouloth. A few of the most popular are Rabbi Yehouda Benatar (Fes), Rabbi Haim Pinto (Mogador), Rabbi Amram Ben Diwane (Ouezzan), and Rabbi Yahia Lakhdar ( Beni-Ahmed). Not only is Casablanca, the country’s commercial hub, home to the vast majority of Morocco’s Jewish population, it also houses the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. Once serving as a Jewish orphanage, the Museum of Moroccan Judaism details Jews’ 2,000-year history in the country. It’s a smaller museum, though it has some real treasures.

The Museum of Moroccan Judaism

The Museum covers an area of 700 square meters and includes a large multipurpose room used for exhibitions of painting, photography, and sculpture; three other rooms, with windows containing exhibits on religious and family life (oil lamps, Torahs, Chanukah lamps, clothing, marriage contracts [ketubot], and Torah covers) and on work-life; two rooms displaying complete Moroccan synagogues; and document, video, and photo libraries.

Its director, Zhor Rehihil, a Muslim woman with a Ph.D. in Jewish studies, points out highlights of the collection: Torah scrolls, hamsas, menorahs, elaborately embroidered caftans, a carved wooden bimah. “As Muslim Moroccans, we feel we lost a part of our identity when Moroccan Jews left the country,” explains Rehihil. “We used to have a six-pointed star on our flag, like Israel. But under French rule, it was changed to five.” The rights of Jews to practice their religion and education are enshrined in the Moroccan constitution. In 2011, Morocco’s new constitution recognized “Hebraic influences” as having enriched and nourished Moroccan identity. Noting that “Morocco has made a colossal effort to preserve its Jewish heritage,” Rehihil added that this emphasis is changing the views of ordinary Moroccans, who now recognize that the Jewish story “is part of Moroccan heritage and it is up to us to preserve it for future generations.”

A visit to Jewish Casablanca also merits a stop at Synagogue Beth El, the main synagogue among one of the 30 throughout the city. Inside you will find beautiful Marc Chagall-inspired stained glass where the sunlight pours in, tinted in multicolor from the stained glass, and radiates off an enormous crystal chandelier, creating a rainbow-like effect across the entire synagogue. There are ancient Hebrew scrolls on display and gilded quotes from the Torah inscribed on the walls.

The community maintains a strong Jewish educational network, with both Jewish and Muslim families drawn to Ecole Maimonides, a French international secondary school that is part of the AEFE (Agency for French Education Abroad) school network. The Alliance Israelite school is one of the first schools that was created in Tetouan in 1862. It is the largest Jewish high school in Morocco and Africa, by its size and number of students of Jewish denomination. Each class has an average of 21 Jewish and Muslim students. The school has a French program similar to the French baccalaureate and also offers 15 hours per week for Judaica studies and modern languages such as Hebrew and Arabic.

Mr. Shimon Cohen, the director for the last 20 years, described with emotion his love for the school. “I have a lot of nostalgia for this school and this nostalgia came from the fact that I have spent many beautiful years here with both the Muslim and Jewish communities and these two have lived in perfect harmony and in mutual trust and friendship.”  Noting that this relationship existed both inside the school walls and after school, he told NYJTG, “I am talking about the past because things have evolved and changed. When I came here over 20 years ago, there were approximately over 90 percent Jewish students and 10 percent Muslim students and today the numbers are reversed. There are 90 percent Muslims and 10 percent Jewish and out of 350 students, 25 are Jewish.”

This school is considered both prestigious and reasonably priced for a private school. Mr. Cohen told NYJTG, “We can triple the school enrollment but we don’t want this and prefer to keep things here the same, to know the students and teachers by their first name and as a family and not by a number.” Many delegations from the United States representing organizations such as the Joint, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, visit the school – three times per year to assist in its management and to help students with difficulties. Inside the Ecole Maimonides, a small synagogue is used by the community on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Dedicated in memory of Charles Benouaich, Meyer Lalouz, and Hanina Benain, it was inaugurated on June 24, 1985.

To gain a glimpse into the community’s history, visit the Jewish Cemetery of Ben Msik. It is open and quiet, with well-kept white stone markers in French, Hebrew, and Spanish. Once a year, Moroccan Jews celebrate a Hilloula (anniversary of a revered rabbi’s death), at the tomb of Rabbi Eliyahu HaCohen, also known as Qandil El Blad (the land’s lamp), who was previously buried at the heart of Casablanca’s ancient medina.

(www.newyorkjewishtravelguide.com)

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