As Morocco’s 3,000 Jews gathered in their homes to kindle
their menorahs on the first night of Hanukkah, they heard words they scarcely hoped
to imagine: “Another HISTORIC breakthrough today!”
tweeted U.S. president Donald Trump. “Our two GREAT friends Israel and the
Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations—a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!”
Morocco has now become the fourth Arab nation to seek a
normalization of ties with Israel in recent months. “This will be a very warm peace,” said Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,who was joined by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David
Friedman at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at Kotel (Western Wall). “On
this Hanukkah, the light of peace has never shone brighter than today in the
minister noted that the relationship of the peoples of both countries “has long
been characterized by sympathy, respect, fondness and love,” and praised King
Mohammed VI’s “historic decision” to make peace.
Jews have been living in Morocco for thousands of years, and
until the declaration of the State of Israel, they numbered as many as 350,000
strong. Called malchut shel chessed,
“a kingdom of kindness,” by the Rebbe—Rabbi
Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—Chabad has had an active presence in the North African
kingdom since 1950. Yet during the 70 years since Chabad first opened
up a string of schools and social services across the kingdom, they saw the
Jewish population dwindle to a shadow of its former self.
A children’s performance of songs kicked off Hanukkah 2019.
Today, the majority of the country’s Jews, estimated to
about 3,000, are concentrated in Casablanca—a bustling metropolis of 3.4
million. The vast majority of them have close friends and relatives living in
Israel, which makes the surprise announcement all the more exciting for them.
The prospect of open diplomatic relations, direct flights
and mutual cooperation between the place they and their ancestors have been
living for generations and the land that lies deep in their heart was something
many could only dream about.
To learn more about Jewish life in Morroco, we turned to
Chana Banon, a mother of five and an active community leader, who shared what
it’s like to foster Jewish life in a small Jewish community in a majority
Muslim nation, together with her husband, Rabbi Levi Banon.
Q: You are from
Brooklyn, N.Y., and Rabbi Banon is from Montreal, Canada. How did you end up in
A: We first came
as newlyweds. Although my husband grew up in Montreal, he was actually born in
Morocco, and his grandmother still lives here. We came to visit her, and
everywhere we went, people were asking us to stay and form the next link in the
chain of Chabad emissaries that has done so much here for generations.
We decided to experiment with a summer camp. We told
ourselves that if 20 children enrolled, it would be a sign that there was work
here for us.
By the time that first summer ended, we had 65 kids in camp,
and we knew we would be coming back. Today, we have a kiddie camp, a boys’
division, a girls’ division and teen division with a total of 150 kids coming
for summer and winter camps.
Serge Berdugo, King Mohammed VI’s ambassador-at-large, kindles the giant menorah for the first night of Hanukkah 2019 as Rabbi Banon and more than 800 members of Casablanca’s Jewish community look on.
Q: Was the language a
challenge for you? How about the culture?
A: The Jewish
community here speaks mostly French, and Arabic is more prevalent on the
street, so you need to speak both. My husband grew up speaking French and had
some Arabic expressions from home as well, so he was comfortable from the
start. I, on the other hand, knew neither language, but I managed to learn
quickly. I can read French as well, but I still need to learn to read
Arabic—something I hope to do someday.
One of the culture shocks for me was the food. Before our
first Rosh Hashanah, I made three types of kugel, and no one touched them.
Today, I cook a fully Moroccan meal: fish tagine for Friday night and dafina (a slow-cooked Moroccan Jewish
stew) instead of cholent for Shabbat
Another thing to get used to is Ramadan. For a month,
everything is different. People are edgy during the day because they are
fasting; in the last hour before the fast ends, the streets are jammed as
everyone is out shopping for their break-fast. Once the fast ends, the streets
are abandoned since everyone is inside feasting.
In general, people here dress more modestly than in Europe,
and religion is a very visible part of daily life.
There are other differences, but most of them are easy to
get used to. The people here are warm, friendly, welcoming and very courteous.
Rabbi Sholom and Gittel Eidelman were honored by Morrocan Jewry on the 60th anniversary of their arrival in Casablanca.
Q: What is the
position of the Jewish community within the wider population?
A: Jews have been
living here for 2,000 years, and visitors are often surprised to learn that the
Jewish community is safe, cared for and relatively secure.
In large part, this is due to the royal family, which is
very respectful to the Jewish people, and considers them close friends and an
important component of Moroccan society.
Like in Europe, many Jewish institutions are not marked, and
there are less visible signs of communal life than in the United States, but
the Rebbe once referred to Morocco as a malchut
shel chessed, “a kingdom of kindness,” and we live very well with our Muslim
Q: Recognizing that
the Jewish population is tiny compared to what it was in living memory, is
there a sense of despair within the Jewish community?
A: It is true
that the community has shrunk, and people often worry if there will be anything
left in a few decades, but we focus on what there is. We came here to serve a
community of several thousand, in addition to the many thousands of tourists
who come by on business, and to visit the many Jewish cemeteries and other
We serve young families, many of whom were educated in the
United States, Canada or France and have now moved back to Morocco, and that
keeps us more than busy.
Joyous dancing after Morocco’s annual “Mega Challah Bake” organized by Banon and held at the Chabad Beth Rivkah campus (File photo).
Q: You came to
Morocco, where you joined a team of senior Chabad emissaries. How is that?
A: The Chabad
emissaries have been beloved by virtually everyone here for generations, and my
husband’s family was no exception. Rabbi Sholom Edelman was the sandekat his bris, and he remained my father-in-law’s mentor in many areas, until
away on Passover due to COVID-19.
Mrs. Reizel Raskin, whose husband, Rabbi Leibel
Raskin, passed away in 2004, is an invaluable source of guidance to
us as well.
More importantly, their work paved the way for us. People
here know Chabad, appreciate Chabad and welcomed us with open arms as a result.
When kids learn songs in our camps, their parents sing along since they learned
the same tunes
from Rabbi Raskin in their childhood.
The emissaries here really cared for every aspect of
people’s lives. When poor children from villages came to the Chabad boarding
schools, the emissaries washed them, fed them and looked after them. They are
revered in the community, and this helped us integrate seamlessly into the
Q: Does the
programming you provide compare with that of Chabad couples in the
A: On a most
basic level, things are the same. I share ideas with my sisters, who serve
communities in the United States, and there is a lot of commonality in the
classes and activities, except for the difference of language, of course.
But there are some differences. There, you can put out
coffee and cake for a class, and people are thrilled. Here in Morocco, when
people host, they put out a three-course meal, and we do the same.
Q: How hard is it to get
kosher staples in Morocco?
That said, we have what we need and are able to host
regularly. We have ladies’ Torah and tea every week in our home, and our
Shabbat table is always surrounded by guests from all over the world.
Rabbi Levi and Chana Banon with their children
Q: What’s it like for
A: Our children
grew up here and have friends. While the younger ones go to a local Jewish
school, our three oldest study as part of the Online Shluchim
School. They are part of the English-language division, which keeps
American hours, so they are “in school” from late afternoon until evening.
Another plus for them is that my husband’s grandmother, whom
we call mami, lives nearby and comes
almost every Shabbat.
Q: On the subject of
your husband’s family, can you tell me more about them and their journey to
father-in-law, Rabbi David Banon, today a leading rabbi in Montreal, grew up in
Casablanca and was very close to the former chief rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Messas.
He originally went to Gateshead yeshivah
in England, but wasn’t satisfied there. Rabbi Messas suggested that he study Chassidus
with Rabbi Sholom Eidelman, and he soon went to learn in the Chabad yeshivah in Brunoy, France. Through the
Rebbe’s advice, he became a rabbi. My mother-in-law is also a native of
Morocco, who had learned at the Chabad seminary in Yerres, France, and was
teaching at the Chabad school in Casablanca when they met.
The family left for Montreal when my husband—the fourth of
seven children—was a toddler, but they kept their ties strong, so we really
picked up where they left off.
Hanukkah at Beth Habad Loubavitch in Casablanca back in 1987. The late Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who spearheaded those events, stands seventh from the left.
Q: I am sure that
there may be difficult moments. What keeps you going?
A: We came here
because we were needed, and that need is as strong today as it was a decade
ago. The Rebbe would emphasize that everyone has something unique to
contribute, and we are fortunate to know that this is the place where we can
contribute in our own way.