August 30, 2010

Looking at Jewish Morocco

Briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO

Even in our Jewish world, with its rich heritage and great diversity, Morocco stands out. Its Jewish community is distinctive on a historic scale.

Jews first arrived in Morocco over 2,000 years ago, but they really came into their own after 1492 when Spain's Jews and Muslims chose expulsion over forced conversion to Christianity and together crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa.

This shared display of steadfastness in the face of oppression helped forge a special bond between Morocco's Jews and Muslims. Thus, while political conditions were not always favorable and many Jews lived in the grinding poverty of the mellahs, Morocco became a major center of Jewish life, giving rise to great scholarship and a distinctive culture.

Morocco granted Jews equal rights as long ago as 1864. And in 1940, when the Nazi-controlled Vichy government attempted to apply anti-Semitic policies to Jews under the French protectorate of Morocco, the sultan, Mohammad V, refused to carry them out.

Today as in the past, the country prides itself on the full and equal place its Jewish citizens hold. While their numbers are fewer than 5,000—a far cry from the 250,000 of only a few decades ago—this remarkable community occupies a special place both within the Jewish world and among the Moroccan people.

JDC's role in Morocco reflects the community's uniqueness. On the one hand, since it first began working in Morocco during World War II, JDC has been deeply involved in developing and strengthening the community's education, welfare, and healthcare. Indeed, while the Moroccan community operates and funds most of its institutions itself, JDC remains a key partner in helping the community maintain quality services, providing both financial and technical support.

The significance of this partnership, however, extends beyond the services it helps bring to Morocco's Jews. Here, JDC’s International Development Program (IDP) projects take on special meaning because they uniquely express the desire of the local Jewish community to contribute to the wider society of which they are a part.

In addition to the humanitarian impact of our IDP programs—bringing water or physical rehabilitation to victims of Haiti’s earthquake, for example—and our philosophical motivation by tikkun olam, an important component of this work is helping strengthen a local Jewish community's relations with its neighbors by having them participate in the creation and implementation of these IDP projects.

Nowhere is the potential for this dual impact greater than in Morocco—and it’s precisely what has happened through a wheelchair and medical-equipment distribution project for people with disabilities.

Developed in partnership with the local Jewish community and the Amicale Marocaine des Handicap├ęs (AMH), the project began in late 2007 with the distribution of the first of 1,100 wheelchairs. At the ceremony outside Casablanca's Jewish Home for the Aged, 50 wheelchairs were distributed to Muslim men, women, and children with disabilities. The power of this good deed was expressed on the faces of the recipients and their relatives.

But its impact reverberated well beyond the first 1,100 beneficiaries and their families: The ceremony was attended by senior dignitaries, including the Minister of Social Affairs and the Governor of Casablanca, and was covered extensively in both print and broadcast media.

Importantly, the Jewish community received the kudos. As one headline read, "The Jewish Community is bringing Help to the Disabled."

The initial phase of this project has had a ripple effect. JDC Board members who attended the wheelchair event during their mission to Morocco were moved to raise an additional gift for the country’s disabled. Adele Lebersfeld, then chair of JDC’s Africa/Asia Committee, presented the president of the AMH with a check to help purchase vans and a mobile unit that now serve the disabled in remote towns and villages.

That first distribution has also since been followed by others around the country. In May 2009, I was privileged to join other Board members at an event in Casablanca held in conjunction with the opening of the Fred and Velva Levine Community Residence. This time, the distribution was of special wheelchairs and equipment for disabled sportsmen and women.

A few weeks ago the project entered a new phase and marked another success. An additional 100 wheelchairs were made available for distribution thanks to funding from an anonymous donor. This time, the focus was on the residents of Fez, Sefrou, and Oujda. The head of the Fez Jewish community presided over the distribution ceremony that marked the 11th anniversary of the King's coronation in the presence of dignitaries. Once again, the benefit to both the disabled and to Morocco's Jewish community was incredible.

So many lives have been improved thanks to our efforts and those of our partners in the Moroccan Jewish community. From my participation in one of the ceremonies, I can attest to the immense warmth and goodwill this project generated. Irv and I are proud that JDC is a part of a non-sectarian initiative that has done so much to renew and reinforce the ancient bonds between Morocco's Jews and Muslims. Sensitive and effective—JDC-IDP at our best.

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