I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I went to Yeshiva. I had Jewish friends and a strong Jewish community. I had access to kosher food up to my eyeballs and synagogues within walking distance. Being Jewish was effortless.
I never really recognized how lucky I was to have all of this so conveniently tucked into my surroundings until I went to college. During my freshman year, for the first time in my life, I had to get into a car on Rosh Hashanah. I was attempting to get to temple by walking alone across the highway, only to get discouraged, convinced that my shoddy sense of direction was failing me once again, at which point I tearily asked my Junior Advisor for a ride.
After college, I moved back to New York where I was once again deeply embedded in the Jewish community. But if you’re wondering what’s the point of all this backstory, it’s because my recent trip with JDC made me think deeply about how easy it is for me and how much effort is needed for Jews around the world to embrace their Jewish identity in places that are not New York.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Morocco as a Trip Co-Chair on Inside Jewish Morocco with JDC Entwine, the young professional arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, most commonly known as JDC or the Joint. The Joint describes their mission as:
We work in 70 countries to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief for victims of natural and man-made disasters.
JDC Entwine was created to expose young Jewish leaders to the work the Joint is involved with worldwide, educate them on issues impacting global communities and get those young leaders to raise awareness and take action on behalf of these communities. After participating on a trip a few years back to the Philippines, I was trained as a leader by the organization and this November was ready to co-chair my first trip.
Morocco was chosen as a destination because it is home to one of the last remaining Jewish communities in the Arab world. Though diminished in numbers because of immigration to Israel, France, and beyond, the community lives in rich coexistence with their neighbors. In fact, a number of people have returned over time and, together with those who remained, have continued weaving the rich Judaic tapestry that has existed in Morocco for so many years. Though today they are small in number, they are large in spirit and JDC has been a longtime partner to the community, working with them to support a variety of social services, educational activities, and Jewish content.
Over the week we spent in Morocco, a couple of experiences really stood out. We visited two remarkable schools in Casablanca, the first of which was Neve Shalom Ozar Hatorah. As we walked into the first-grade classroom, we crouched down to slide our adult bodies into the child-sized seats. When the children recited their daily lesson and their tiny voices rose up reciting the same prayers I had learned growing up in yeshiva, my eyes welled up with tears. The second, the Alliance Ecole Narcisse Level School, was an incredible school, which provides education to Jewish and Muslim children under one roof, a remarkable sight to behold especially given the divisive nature of the world these days.
In addition to the school visits, we also stopped by two Jewish social clubs in Casablanca, where the warm and beautiful people who reside there shared tales of their experiences living in this beautiful country. This was followed by an afternoon of visiting, baking and singing niggunim – Jewish religious songs –with the elderly folk in the Jewish old age home. Their residence is a place JDC and the community have invested in to ensure the seniors in the community can live in comfort and dignity. And in Marrakech, where we spent Shabbat, we witnessed a completely unexpected family reunion when during a game of “Jewish geography” one of our trip participants realized that one of the local JDC staff was actually his cousin.
At each step along the way, I was struck by how much work it is to be Jewish in these locations where the choice to keep Shabbat, to keep kosher and to maintain a Jewish identity is not an easy one simply by virtue of the fact that the Jewish population is not that large. A common factor amongst everyone we met however, from tour guides to teachers and beyond, was the incredible pride they felt in their small but vibrant community and how, against all odds, they have persevered and managed to maintain a beautiful place for Jews to be Jews.
As I prayed in a tiny shul in Marrakesh and peered over the mehitza (a partition that divides men from women in Orthodox prayer settings), connecting this small community with my large one at home, I once again reflected on how lucky I am to have it so easy and how remarkable it is for others to continue maintaining their religion.