Writings from the Rabbis

Dispatch from Jerusalem: From Casablanca to Jerusalem
Nov 28th 2019

Heshvan 5780 ~ October-November 2019

Although the month of Heshvan—between the High Holy Days and Hanukkah—has no Jewish festivals, this past period has been full of activity. While I’ve been in Morocco and Jerusalem, Beth Tzedec began its usual busy calendar of programs, officially welcomed Rabbis Wernick and Fryer Bodzin and hosted a unit of Israeli combat veterans with Peace of Mind.

Josette and I joined Dr Seymour Epstein to lead a group (mainly, but not exclusively, from our congregation) to Morocco. We explored the souks, synagogues and special sites of the historic cities that anchored what once had been a great Jewish community; learned about the relationship between Jews and Muslims and had wonderful opportunities to eat, pray and fall in love with Rabat, Fes, Menkes, Marrakech, Ourika, Ouessouira and Casablanca. Encouraged by King Muhammed VI, this country welcomes many Israeli and Jewish tourists, includes Holocaust education as part of the high school curriculum and has the only Jewish museum in a Muslim country. We felt warmly received, but were always aware of being recognized as Jews and were conscious of the need for safety.

We were constantly reminded of the precious legacy that the Toshavim (early Jewish residents, many of whom were Berbers) and the Megurashim (those who came as exiles from Spain) had created. Still, most Moroccan Jews emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s to Israel, France, Canada and Venezuela, so the community has been hollowed out (Epi compared the Jewish community to a former rain forest). The remaining Jews take great pride in their heritage and, where possible, seek to maintain its vitality. In Casablanca, once home to 40,000 Jews, there are now only 1300. But with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee, the local community supports 18 kosher butchers, 27 synagogues (12 with daily minyanim), 2 schools, 4 bakeries and 4 social/sports clubs. It made us reflect on the migration of Jews throughout the world, the importance of maintaining our traditions and gave us greater appreciation of our lives in Toronto and Israel.

In Israel, a new grandson joined Ilana, Amichai and Shachar. We rejoiced to arrive in time for the birth, to support Yakov and Sarah and to celebrate Lior Yitzchak’s brit milah. We have now experienced medical care at Shaarei Zedek Medical Centre for cancer, emergency treatment and a birth. In addition to helping with the children, we have been supervising the final aspects of our apartment renovation, equipping the kitchen and beginning to search for furniture.

I’ve been able to study regularly with retired rabbinic colleagues, meet with thought leaders, attend interesting lectures, visit friends during shiva, daven in different kehillot (including the Conservative Yeshiva) and be in contact with congregants who are visiting or studying in Jerusalem. Brian Dias, our synagogue Property Manager and his wife, Heather, were in the Holy Land with their Catholic parish; it was a special pleasure to escort them around the Old City and to bring them to Mahane Yehuda Market. I’ve also maintained contact with some congregants facing illness or in mourning.

In the midst of these personal matters, Josette and I are very conscious of what is transpiring around us. Although Jerusalem was not directly targeted by the missile attack of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on the southern and coastline communities of Israel, everyone here knew someone who was directly affected. Coupled with increased activity of Hezbollah in the north, recent Israeli attacks on Syrian positions and the looming threat of Iran, many here anticipate an expansion of conflict.

Politics here are always intense. The recognition by President Trump of the legitimacy of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria may have affected Canada’s decision to vote for a UN resolution condemning Israeli occupation and calling for a Palestinian state. Unfortunately, neither unilateral actions by the US nor the internationalization of the dispute will bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to direct negotiations.  

The inability of the various political parties to agree on a new governmental coalition will, almost certainly, lead to another election for Israel in the spring. This is complicated by the decision of the Attorney-General to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu on charges of corruption, abuse of trust and bribery. Last week in synagogue, as we read of the impending demise of King David, I was struck by the competition for succession between two of his sons. There is comparable division within the princes of the Likud party about a possible replacement for Bibi, who was once viewed as a political king.

We also watch, with great concern, the increased anti-Israel attitudes found at McGill University, University of Toronto and York University. Along with BDS activities, there is much to make us anxious. When I’m in Toronto in mid-December for a bat mitzvah and some weddings, I’ll have more to say and write about this.

For the moment, I want to reinforce a lesson from Morocco. Let’s not allow others to define who we are. In our early morning prayers, we read, “How blessed we are with our portion! How beautiful is our heritage! How privileged are we to awaken to recite Sh’ma Yisrael!” We can be proud of our tradition and the opportunity to practice Judaism and share it with future generations. As you prepare for Hanukkah, don’t let the light go out.