Wednesday, / August 5, 2020

The First Outpost: Casablanca, Morocco

They were survivors of Soviet communism, Russian Jews with a distinctly Chabad Chasidic (Ashkenazic) sensibility. In the early 1950s, these young couples were dispatched by the Rebbe to Morocco to help its illustrious, Sephardic Jewish community under threat. 

This year marks seventy years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe appointed his first-ever emissary to establish a permanent Chabad presence. To commemorate that anniversary, Lubavitch International looks back at the seven decades of impact that Chabad has had on the Jewish community of Morocco, and at how the earliest Chabad emissaries pioneered a groundbreaking model for Jewish outreach, ultimately inspiring thousands around the globe. 

The turnout at Casablanca’s Purim bash last month was sizable. Five hundred local Jews came to party at Chabad’s annual Purim event. Moroccan-Jewish cultural traditions were front and center. Tables groaned under dishes upon dishes of classic North-African-Jewish cuisine. Aromatically spiced fish and steamed vegetables served over couscous were paired with a distinctly Morrocan Purim treat: intricately twisted bread with baked-in hard-boiled eggs, representing the wicked Haman’s eyes.

Like thousands of their emissary peers around the globe, Rabbi Levi and Chana Banon planned an elaborately themed celebration, which included children’s entertainment, a costume contest, and, of course, a Megillah reading. It was a private event where, in a country with a population that is ninety-nine percent Muslim, the Jewish community keeps a low profile. Everyone knows everyone here and security is strong.

To the average American Jew, and, for that matter, to almost any Chabad emissary, a show of five hundred people would be impressive. But in context, the numbers bespeak a rather sad decline. Just a few blocks away stands a large community-owned complex where Chabad once held celebrations that spilled out onto the streets, attracting thousands of people. Today, that building is dilapidated and empty, and the community that owns it has diminished considerably. 

Still, the festivities go on. In a rented social hall, children swing their graggers raucously while adults toast l’chayim with mahia—a traditional licorice-based liquor—and bless each other in the long-winded style characteristic of Sephardi celebrations. Rabbi Banon and longtime Chabad emissary to Casablanca Rabbi Shalom Eidelman make their rounds, greeting young and old by name, and bestowing blessings of their own. On the other side of the room, Mrs. Reizel Raskin and Mrs. Gittel Eidelman, both beloved emissaries of over sixty years, hold court with women of all ages.  

It is Chabad’s seventieth Purim celebration in Morocco.

How Chabad Came to Morocco

Despite its deep-rooted Ashkenazic and Chasidic identity, Chabad has played an outsized role in supporting Moroccan Jewry since 1950. The first ever Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Michoel and Taibel Lipskar, were dispatched to Meknes, Morocco, by the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, shortly before his passing. Their task was to bolster the local Jewish community, which was at risk of assimilating into obsolescence. 

Just a few months later, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who would go on to assume the mantle of Chabad leadership, sent Rabbi Shlomo and Pessia Matusof to the seaside city of Casablanca. The new emissaries were overseen by Rabbi Binyomin Gorodetsky, who served as the Rebbe’s personal emissary to Europe, Israel and North Africa. When the emissaries arrived, Casablanca was home to one of Morocco’s largest settlements of Jews. That settlement, along with sister settlements in Marrakesh, Fez, and other big cities, housed well over a quarter of a million people. Thousands of other Jews were dispersed across countless remote villages. 

Jews have lived in the North African region for more than two millennia—the earliest Jewish community predated the founding of Islam. In 1492, Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition found refuge in the Kingdom of Morocco, and over subsequent centuries, Morocco’s population grew, reaching a peak of 350,000 Jews in the mid-1950s. Throughout their storied history, Moroccan Jews coexisted in relative peace with their Arab neighbors, protected by sultans and kings in their mellah, or walled Jewish quarter.

But in the early 1950s, the shifting sands of a post-World War II world, as well as rumblings that the Moroccan government was going to claim its independence from France, threatened the integrity of the ancient Moroccan Jewish community. The Arab backlash to the founding of Israel in 1948 led many Moroccan Jews to fear for their physical safety. At the same time, French-influenced progressive Jewish organizations were gaining a foothold throughout the country, aiming to modernize and secularize the Jewish community, a prospect that many religious Jewish leaders viewed as a direct threat to the continuity of Morocco’s rich rabbinic tradition.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe was half a world away,” reflects Rabbi Banon, “and he was combatting similar threats to Jewish religious observance, both in the besieged community he left in the Soviet Union and the assimilated one of his adopted country—the United States. He felt a responsibility to strengthen the Moroccan Jewish community by sending some of his most devoted disciples to a place he had never been to.”

The phenomenon of Jewish outreach was then in its infancy. The first generation of the Rebbe’s emissaries could not know what awaited them, and they had no one to learn from. In 1960, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretary asked Rabbi Leibel Raskin, whether he was willing to be sent as an emissary to North Africa, the Rabbi didn’t know what that meant. His son, Mendel, 58, who grew up in Casablanca and today runs a large Chabad operation in Montreal, recalls, “My father replied that he did not understand the question. When pressed for an answer, he said he was ready to accept whatever task the Rebbe set out for him.” 

The dunes of Morocco could not be more foreign to the young emissaries who had just escaped Soviet persecution and the freezing cold of the Siberian gulag. With no knowledge of Arabic and minimal French, the young rabbis and their wives set out to do the one thing they knew well: teach Torah.

The First Task: Jewish Education

Within months of landing in Meknes, Lipskar founded two Jewish schools and multiple afternoon Talmud Torah programs. Matusof also hit the ground running, establishing yeshivahs in Casablanca and then traveling the breadth of Morocco—sometimes by car, sometimes by donkey—setting up Jewish schools in village after village. The young Arabic-speaking Jewish children whom he met would never have guessed that just a short while prior to his arrival in the country, Matusof served seven years in Stalin’s labor camps for the crime of being a yeshivah student.

Though their Yiddish-accented Hebrew and Chasidic dress differentiated them from the locals, the Chabad emissaries and their educational services were quickly embraced by the traditional Moroccan Jewish establishment.

In a letter describing his experiences growing up in Casablanca, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar described secular Jewish schools as purposely targeting youth and “trivializing” Torah study, leading many members of the Jewish community to assimilate into secular culture. “The devastation caused by these schools was very great and grew from day to day,” Amar wrote. Meanwhile, although Morocco’s Jewish community was, for the most part, religiously observant and deeply valued Jewish traditions, intense poverty in smaller villages and limited access to Jewish scholarship put many at risk of losing access to their heritage.

In his letter, Rabbi Amar celebrated the measures that the Rebbe’s shluchim, emissaries, took to combat these threats: “At that time, G-d sent his messengers, through the Rebbe of Chabad…. He called his [emissaries] into action, sending them to places they and their fathers did not know, where they did not understand the language or the customs.” 

Back in the United States, many members of the Jewish community admired the ambitious goal of serving remote Jewish communities. But more often than not, the early concept of “shlichut, a Chabad rabbi-and-wife couple who are dispatched to a certain locale to foster Jewish life, was met with consternation by observant Jews in the burgeoning shtetls of Brooklyn. Rabbi Mendel Raskin recalls, “People did not understand how you can go to a place so far removed from established Jewish life. How do you pray? Study? Raise your children? The concept seemed outlandish at the time.”

But the emissaries followed the Rebbe’s instructions dutifully. Chabad opened fifty Jewish schools in Morocco during the first year of shlichut—some in larger cities with thousands of students, others in tiny villages where a few children met in the side room of a synagogue. Chabad’s network of Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Jewish schools and yeshivahs would eventually reach seventy communities throughout the country, educating tens of thousands of children.

Impoverished Jews in outlying areas often lived without access to clean water, fresh clothing, or medicine. In addition to providing the children with their first ever access to Jewish (or any) education, Chabad’s schools provided for their physical needs, assisting them with medical care, clean dormitories, and food.

Funding for these schools came from Chabad’s partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Stanley Abramowitz, who spent most of his life working with the JDC, had a first-hand view of Chabad’s early work in Morocco. In a 2010 video interview, he shared that “the children that Chabad took in were from the poorest villages…but Lubavitch never turned away anybody, so that any child who wanted to learn was taught. Of course, each school had a nutrition program where the children received lunch, sometimes also breakfast, sometimes even dinner, and the children found in school what they didn’t have in their homes.”

But even Jewish organizations who bought into the idea of overseas outreach viewed some of the Rebbe’s ideas as too ambitious. Chabad received pushback from the American Jewish establishment who preferred to fund schools in major cities, as opposed to remote locales, which one JDC official described as a “complete waste” of resources, according to documented correspondence. The Rebbe intervened, personally advocating for continued financial support, which eventually came through. 

The Making of an Emissary 

Now, with seven decades of Jewish outreach experience, and an active network of over 5,000 emissary couples, Chabad has a well-established system for serving the religious and educational needs of the many communities it serves. But in 1950s and 1960s Morocco, the skills for sustaining, growing, and reviving a Jewish community were being invented on the fly. There were no philosophical discussions about how one goes about reaching alienated Jews. The emissaries consulted with the Rebbe for guidance and followed his formula for connecting with others: love your fellow Jew and share with them the beauty of their birthright.

These pioneer shluchim would be the first to experience the innumerable emotional and physical challenges of life as emissaries far from home and friends, where cultural differences,  language barriers, financial insecurity, and physical threats of antisemitism, are among the many difficulties that must be overcome.

Mrs. Gittel Eidelman, who hails from London, England, found out when she was newly engaged that she would be sent to Morocco immediately after her wedding. “I remember my friend in London asked me if I was going to Africa, where they have lions in the street!” Eidelman says with a laugh. She recalls that raising young children without the support of family and sending her young sons away to yeshivahs overseas were some of the toughest challenges she faced. 

Some memories are more comical in nature, like when she reviewed Torah lessons with her five-year-old son who would translate the Biblical Hebrew into Arabic, which she then translated back into Yiddish, making for one-of-a-kind multicultural commentary.

Serving as the Rebbe’s emissary was a sacred privilege, the shluchim all tell me. Mrs. Raskin explains, “If the Rebbe said to go, what was there to think about? We were soldiers. You just move forward and do what needs to be done.” The commitment to Jewish service has been passed down to the next generation. All six of the Raskin children from Morocco are active emissaries in outposts around the world.

Lison Marciano, now 55 and living in Brooklyn, recalls her experiences with the Chabad emissaries she met in Morocco. “We loved them,” she says. “They would teach us Torah songs that I still remember and bring us candies from America. They treated each of us like a diamond and instilled in us a deep love for Jewish people and for Torah.”

Chana Banon, who moved with her husband to Casablanca in 2009, says that the groundwork of elder emissaries still connects generations later. “The children in our summer camps go home and sing the same songs that their parents and grandparents learned at a Chabad camp decades ago.”

The impact lives on in the Moroccan diaspora as well. Marciano, whose family can trace their heritage back to the Spanish Inquisition, says that thanks to her Jewish education, all four of her children are Torah observant and proudly carry on the Moroccan Jewish traditions of her youth.

Navigating Cultural Sensitivities

Abramowitz, who passed away in 2013, noted in his interview that Chabad emissaries were careful to respect local customs. At the behest of the Rebbe, the emissaries secured Moroccan rabbis as teachers for the young students and provided them with Sephardic texts and prayer books, ensuring that the children would learn Torah within the scope of their halachic tradition.

“They showed respect for the people’s way of life,” Abramowitz said, “and in turn, the name of Chabad was highly respected and its work highly appreciated.”

The Rebbe maintained long-standing relationships with many Moroccan Chachamim, Sephardic spiritual leaders, including the Abehasserah family (most famously Rabbi Yisrael Abehasserah, also known as the “Baba Sali”), Rabbi Baruch Toledano, and Rabbi Chalom Messas, among others.

The support of local leaders helped Chabad emissaries navigate occasional cultural divides. Some among the religious Moroccan establishment, which historically viewed Jewish education as a pathway for select elite to pursue advanced Jewish scholarship, were at first skeptical of the value of study for the Jewish masses. Chabad emissaries argued that it is the birthright of every Jew.

“Women and girls were never formally educated in Moroccan Jewish tradition,” says Nathalie Bouzaglo, who grew up in Morocco and now lives in Paris, France. “I remember that so many of us had questions about Jewish practice, and the men wouldn’t—or couldn’t—answer us. We were meticulous in keeping holiday customs—painting the house every Passover, cooking traditional foods—but it was all cultural. We did not know that these things had any religious significance.”

Chabad established the first Moroccan religious Jewish schools for girls, where they were taught practical Jewish laws and the rich meaning behind every holiday tradition.

“I remember going to synagogue like I did every Shabbat and finally being able to pray, instead of just observing the men,” says Bouzaglo, 50, who now teaches at a Chabad school in Paris. “Today, I am proud to maintain my Moroccan Jewish traditions and roots, but my Jewish thinking is thanks to Chabad philosophy.”

Jewish-Muslim Relations and Mass Migration

Chabad’s influence in Jewish Morocco grew exponentially throughout the 1950s and 60s, but eventually hit a plateau. After Morocco gained its independence in 1956, waves of Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel, France, and North America—some for safety reasons, others in hopes of securing a more prosperous future. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population of Morocco steadily declined, and, today, less than 2,500 Jews live in the entire country.  

Unlike most of its neighboring Muslim countries, Morocco did not officially expel its Jews in response to the founding of Israel. Historically, Moroccan Jews actually enjoyed tolerance and acceptance unparalleled in the Arab world. Both the current and previous kings of Morocco have notably taken an active role in publicly expressing their support for the Jewish community, and Judaism was even officially protected under the Moroccan constitution in 2011. When Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, Sultan Mohammed V famously refused to persecute his own citizens in the French colony. “There are no Jews in Morocco,” he declared. “There are only Moroccan subjects.”

Waves of emigration typically followed flare-ups of antisemitism connected to Arab-Israeli wars. “Pursuing our university education was our passport out, and our families followed,” says Bouzaglo, who, like many of her peers, left Morocco for good after high school. “Even if we had a good life in Morocco, there was no future for us there.”

Those who remain keep a low public profile. An outdoor public Menorah lighting would be out of the question, says Chana Banon. Discussions about Israel are off limits, and the community experiences violence whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generates international headlines. For the most part, though, incidents of blatant antisemitism in 2020 are uncommon. Banon opines that, in her experience, Moroccan Muslims are mostly indifferent or even friendly to Jews. Her Muslim neighbors wish her young children “Shabbat shalom” on their weekly walk home from synagogue.

Diminished But Determined 

Of the seventy Chabad schools once scattered across Morocco, not a single one remains active today. Two non-Chabad Jewish day schools now serve the Casablanca community, though one’s student population hovers at thirty percent Jewish and declining.

Mendel Raskin, who returns to Morocco every Chanukah to visit his mother (his father passed away in 2004), says that when he visits Casablanca, he sees the past. It is bittersweet to compare his own bustling Chabad center—one of many serving Montreal’s 100,000-strong Jewish community—to what is left of his parents’ center, which pioneered the movement. “My [late] father’s shul is still there, but the building is empty. When I was called up to the Torah for my bar mitzvah, that hall held over 600 guests.” 

After most of its constituency left the country, Chabad of Morocco transitioned from running schools to developing the active extracurricular programming that it primarily runs today. Its winter and summer camps draw hundreds, and popular educational workshops at the JCC are growing every month.

“Moroccan Jews are very affiliated,” says Rabbi Banon. “Our goal is to enrich the community with meaningful classes that enhance their Jewish experience and events that make Judaism joyful.” 

The Banons are of a younger generation of Chabad emissaries in the country. A few of the revered, original Chabad emissaries remain active. Rabbi Shalom Eidelman still leads daily classes for advanced Talmudic study and is lovingly referred to as “the rabbis’ Rabbi.” Mrs. Eidelman and Mrs. Raskin teach women’s classes and are very involved in the community, particularly among seniors.

It is uncertain whether the local Jewish community has a sustainable future. But an estimated 80,000 Jews visit and tour the country every year, making pilgrimages to the resting places of holy Jews of note and visiting historical sites. Chabad of Morocco is in the process of establishing a center that will cater to the needs of this growing transient demographic.

For the longtime emissaries, it is a sobering reality.

“It is definitely harder today, that so many of the people we came to serve moved away,” says Mrs. Eidelman. “But the truth is, a smaller community still needs exactly the same things as a larger one—classes, synagogues, and Jewish infrastructure. What is more difficult is that we have fewer human resources now to do it all.”

But leaving is not an option.“My heart does not permit me to leave a place the Rebbe sent us to,” says Mrs. Raskin, now in her eighties. “As long as there is even a single Jew living in Morocco, we will stay.”

Rabbi Levi Banon and his children on the streets of Casablanca
Local Jews participate in a Havdalah ceremony
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