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October 22, 2020 5:43 am

Morocco’s Jews Remain Strong Despite COVID-19

avatar by Gilles Berdugo

Opinion

People walk on a street, in Rabat, Morocco. Photo: Nawalbennani via Wikimedia Commons.

As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the world, the Jewish community of Morocco has not managed to escape unscathed. The tight-knit community, which has many elderly members, suffered a relatively high number of deaths in the early days of the virus, including the passing of Rabbi Sholom Eidelman. However, community leaders are confident that by sticking together and continuing to support one another, they can pull through this crisis.

Rabbi Eidelman, born in the Soviet Union, emigrated to Morocco in 1958 as an emissary of Chabad, the Jewish Hasidic outreach movement. Every year, he made sure that shmurah matzah, a special kind of matzah, was brought in from France in time for Passover. Rabbi Levi Bannon, another Chabad emissary residing in Morocco, called Rabbi Eidelman “the rabbi of rabbis” and said that he will be sorely missed in the Moroccan Jewish community. Rabbi Bannon is now the go-to rabbi for coronavirus-related funerals.

The Moroccan Jewish community has a long and rich history. In fact, it was once home to perhaps the largest number of Jews in the Arab world. The Jewish population of Morocco totaled more than 250,000 at its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, before the mass exodus triggered by World War II and the founding of the State of Israel.

Jewish roots in Morocco go back as far as 70 CE. Though there were periods of unrest, there were also times of peaceful coexistence.

Jews that settled in Morocco originally are known as Toshavim. Those that came as a result of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century have been called Megorashim. In the wake of the Inquisition, tens of thousands of Spanish Jews fled to Morocco. While they came with not much more than the clothing on their backs, they did bring education, business savvy, and trade connections, all of which they used to benefit their new communities.

The creation of the State of Israel and Morocco’s subsequent independence from France led to a period of political unrest. Jews began to leave for Israel in secret, but in large numbers. Between the years of 1961 and 1967, approximately 120,000 Jews left Morocco. Most went to Israel, though some chose France, with which they shared a similar culture. They also emigrated to the United States and Canada. By 1975, there were only 20,000 Jews left in a country that once boasted more than 10 times that number.

Since then, the population has continued to dwindle. Today, there are 2,500-3,000 Jews in the entire country, most of them in Casablanca. Morocco is seen as an example of ideal Jewish-Muslim coexistence and is one of the few Arab countries that is actively embracing its Jewish history. In fact, 10 years ago, King Mohammed VI launched an ongoing project to restore Morocco’s historically significant Jewish sites.

While the current Jewish community is small, it is still vibrant. There are 16 synagogues, kosher butchers, bakeries, restaurants, and caterers, plus three Jewish schools with approximately 600 students.

Jews in Morocco also play host to the many visitors that come every year. Moroccan Jews who live outside the country have a very deep connection to their roots, and approximately 50,000 come to visit each year, both as tourists and as returning citizens. Some have the custom to have their weddings in Morocco, and others traditionally come for Passover. In fact, 22 hotels in Moroccan cities are entirely reserved for Moroccan Jews who come to visit during the holiday.

At this point, the tourism industry has taken a hit due to COVID-19, but Jews living in Morocco know that once travel becomes easier, they can expect to see their brothers and sisters visiting again. Moroccan Jews, no matter what is going on in the world and where they are, will always have a strong connection to the country.

Gilles Berdugo is an international businessman, angel investor, and active member of the Moroccan Jewish community. He has served as CEO of a range of companies and invests in startups that show strong leadership and innovative solutions. He also enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and children.

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