June 10, 2009

Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to La Ghriba Showcases Jewish Life in Djerba

On the small Mediterranean island of Djerba, located just off the Tunisian coast, can be found what may be the most ancient observant Jewish community in the Diaspora. Approximately 1,000 Jews—nearly half of them children enrolled in JDC-sponsored educational institutions—study Torah, keep the commandments (sometimes according to pre-Talmudic customs), and pray daily in more than a dozen active synagogues. Known as Arab Jews, they have been indigenous to Djerba for millennia and their mother tongue is Arabic.

There are two settlements here: Hara Kebira, the large Jewish Quarter, and Hara Seghira, the small Jewish Quarter. It is the smaller community, and its famed La Ghriba (“the wondrous”) synagogue, that was the center of attention during the holiday of Lag B’Omer (May 11-12).

Throughout most of the Jewish world, Lag B’Omer celebrations honor ancient Jewish scholars Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, as well as the memory of the Bar Kochba uprising—the last great Jewish revolt against the ancient Roman Empire. In Tunisia, however, Lag B’Omer inspires a unique pilgrimage to La Ghriba.

Each year, the handful of Jewish families still living in Hara Seghira welcome thousands of Jews from France, Israel, and elsewhere to their gleaming white synagogue on the hill to participate in a colorful, buoyant festival unlike any in modern Jewry. They come because La Ghriba is supposed to be a synagogue of miracles. A tiny opening in the back of the synagogue leads to a crawl space where infertile women come to place eggs on a stone said to have been brought 2,600 years ago from the portals of Solomon’s Temple.

Of course, the timely focus on Djerba provides visitors—which this year included U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Godec—the opportunity to observe how JDC has worked its own transformations in this ancient, but vibrant, Jewish community.

JDC has had a presence in Tunisia since 1950, and today works with the local community to support Jewish education and other programs, including both the Torah v’Hinuch network schools and two yeshivot in Djerba which have a combined enrollment of approximately 450 students. With JDC assistance, upgrades including a nursery, new classrooms, a dining hall, library, and computers were made to the local yeshivot. JDC also focuses on teacher training and curriculum development for the Jewish nursery and kindergarten as well as the Girls’ School.

At the same time, JDC’s International Development Program works with the broader community in Tunisia to build interfaith cooperation among the Jewish population and their neighbors in serving the most vulnerable local citizens. JDC-IDP’s flagship effort in Djerba is a farm which offers therapy and vocational training for mentally impaired individuals.

One of the few institutions in the region that serves Arab Muslims, Jews, and Berbers, the new farm has greatly expanded the program of the parent-led UTAIM (Tunisian Union to Aid the Mentally Impaired) Day Center in the Djerban capital of Houmt Souk. The project is conducted in partnership with the Tunisian Union for Social Solidarity (the semi-governmental national federation of charities) and the Committee of Cooperation for the French Rhone Delta Region, and is funded by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The official inauguration of the farm will take place in November 2009.

This year, pilgrims who came to La Ghriba for Lag B’Omer arrived with renewed hope that this ancient remnant community, one of the few still thriving in Arab lands, will continue to grow and prosper with the help of JDC.

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