By DAVID PORTNOE
On Cong. Beth El’s recent trip to Morocco, the trip participants went to Friday night services at a synagogue in Marrakech and then to the cantor’s home for a Shabbat dinner. “We were 25, and there were another 40 guests from around the world, including Israeli and French tourists,” noted Tamar Barkan, the synagogue’s director of membership, events, and programming and one of the trip participants.
The experience of building a connection to fellow Jews from around the world was one of the highlights of the synagogue’s “Jewish Journey to Morocco,” according to those interviewed following the Feb. 13-22 trip. “It brought everybody closer together,” said Sharon Sackstein. She said that even though people prayed differently, the prayers were the same. “There was a feeling of harmony and a sharing of culture,” said Sackstein.
Visiting Morocco, experiencing the full spectrum of the Jewish family, learning more about world Jewry, and enhancing the connectedness to world Jewry–these were some of the goals of the trip, said Rabbi Aaron Krupnick, spiritual leader of the Voorhees synagogue. In addition, said Krupnick, the trip had the benefit of building the bonds among the congregants who went, some of whom had been members of Beth El their whole lives and others who were relatively new to the synagogue. He also said that by praying in synagogues that are no longer in use, Beth El congregants and their friends and families who went on the trip were able to bring prayer back to these seldom-used places of worship.
Congregants interviewed about the experience remarked on the tremendous beauty of Morocco. The North African country sits on the Mediterranean, and has lush areas as well as the stunning Atlas Mountains. Trip participants were also floored by the sight of goats standing on branches of a tree eating Argan nuts.
Morocco also stands out as being perhaps the most Jewish- and Israel-friendly country in the Arab world. Prior to 1948, Morocco had a Jewish population of 250,000, most of whom left for France, Israel, and elsewhere for economic reasons, but some because of anti-Semitism following the establishment of the State of Israel. Today, an estimated 3,000 Jews remain in the country. Morocco has a large number of Jewish cemeteries. Those cemeteries are being well cared for by the local Muslim population.
“Although it is a 99 percent Muslim country, the king is progressive,” said Adam Sackstein of Mohammed VI. He said that most of the people wear Western dress. He added that he felt safe the entire trip. “If the rest of the Arab world was like Morocco, we could have peace,” said Adam Sackstein.
Rabbi Krupnick said that in Marrakech, after the Jews left, the local people changed the street signs in the Mellah, the Jewish section, from their original Jewish names to Arab ones. “The king found out that it bothered the Jewish community and he had them changed back,” he said.
Joan Feinberg said that she would tell people considering a trip to Morocco that it is definitely a place one could go and feel comfortable. “The people were very accepting,” she said.
Tamar Barkan said that she could not get over the hospitality the group was shown, both in the hotels as well as during interactions with people on the street. “We were greeted Avraham Aveinu style,” she said, referring to the Patriarch Abraham, known for his hospitality and welcoming of strangers.
Paula Luborsky said that what came across to her was that the Jewish community in Morocco is small, but also vibrant. She also said that the country broke stereotypes. She said the group visited a women’s collective, where women who were divorced or widowed had a place to work.