Community, Leadership and Jewish Heritage: The YU Mission to Morocco
On Jan. 8, as winter break was beginning and finals were coming to an end, I, along with 30 other Yeshiva University students, participated in a week-long leadership mission in Morocco sponsored by the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.
We were told that the trip would consist of a myriad of different activities, from volunteer work to interfaith dialogues to touring Jewish holy sites.
After a six-hour flight, our group landed in Casablanca, the first of many stops. Not knowing what to expect, as most of us had never been to a Muslim country before, there were some feelings of discomfort and confusion. Should the guys on the trip wear our kippahs out? Should the girls look outwardly Jewish?
All of our questions were soon answered as we met with Mimouna, a group of Muslim students who educate their peers about the importance of preserving Jewish history and culture in cities and towns with barely any Jews left, specifically in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.
Prior to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Morocco, and their roots traced back hundreds of years. In the early 1950s, most of the Moroccan Jewish community left and migrated to Israel, the United States, Canada and France. Today, approximately 2,500 Jews reside in Morocco, primarily in Casablanca and Marrakech. Only one Jew remains in Rabat.
The message of the first day of the trip seemed to be most relevant throughout our entire stay: that the Muslims of Morocco maintained and appreciated a deep sense of connection and appreciation towards their Jewish brothers and sisters.
After our first night in Casablanca, we met the rabbi of the local Jewish community, who lamented the hardships of leading a community with almost no financial resources. He spoke with us about what it meant to be a leader, and how sometimes you have to take on positions of leadership not knowing exactly what your role will entail, but knowing that your service is immensely important.
This leadership point was made even more clear when the group traveled to Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P), a newly established Muslim university, located near Marrakech with branches in Rabat and Laayoune. There, we met with fellow students studying law, medicine and pharmacology who were all very eager to learn about where we were coming from and our different backgrounds. It was eye-opening to meet with students who were members of a different faith, and lead learning activities, something that none of us had ever done before. Our meeting created a sense of friendship and dialogue, appreciated by both groups, that hopefully helped dispel negative preconceived notions that can result from a lack of interaction with people of other faiths.
The next couple of days consisted of meaningful conversations and learning about Jewish heritage in many Moroccan cities. We traveled to Marrakech and Essaouira, cleaned gravestones that had gotten dirty over time and prayed in shuls that had not been active in nearly a century. We also had the opportunity to hear from Moroccan students who were learning about their heritage while participating in the trip, including Lisa Delouya (SSSB ‘25), who discovered an ancestral grave in the cemetery in Marrakech and met a distant cousin who was visiting the Kever as well. Hearing her story made the trip come to life, as it seemed like we were bringing Morocco’s Jewish past back to life.
Our mission to Morocco was also marked with words of inspiration from fellow students and our leaders, including Vice Provost for Values and Leadership Dr. Erica Brown, David Mitzner Community Dean for Values and Leadership Rabbi Ari Rockoff and Leadership Scholars Senior Program Director Aliza Abrams Konig. Throughout the entirety of the trip, they shared their own formative personal stories and experiences.
“There were so many magical moments on the trip, it's hard to single one out. It may have been when we were all singing in the synagogue in Marrakesh after one of our students, Lisa Delouya, saw the name of a distant grandfather on the wall, who helped build the synagogue,” Brown shared with The Commentator. “I found myself tearing up at the blend of past, present, and future carried by beautiful music that expressed deep Jewish continuity.”
Hearing from these impressive leaders at YU shaped our view of the trip, but we also appreciated hearing everyday participants share their experiences and vulnerabilities, feeling comfortable to open up to a group of over 40 people.
At different times on the trip, each participant was given an opportunity to lead an activity, share a “Morocco Moment,” or give a dvar Torah. These occasions turned into leadership opportunities for all of the participants as we were now able to use tangible skills to teach, share and give over words of inspiration and encouragement to the group.
I believe that our Leadership Mission to Morocco was a success in every way. We visited holy sites across the country, strengthening our appreciation for the communities that we come from. We met and interacted with members of a different faith, something that can be quite taboo in the Orthodox world. We volunteered at a foundation that supported Muslim students in their higher education journeys, planting trees and engaging in dialogue with them. But most importantly, we became one cohesive group, learning, understanding and growing with one another as each day went by.
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Photo Caption: Students on the trip with volunteers at an outreach center
Photo Credit: Tovit Lipner