Deborah Corber is the CEO of Federation CJA. In this dispatch she drafts an excellent piece on the evolution of the Montreal Jewish Community into a pluralistic, multicultural yet diverse group that has come together to form a cohesive, modern and progressive community. A wonderful read. Kol Hakavod Deborah.
Every spring my husband, Maurice, and I have the same disagreement: how to choose and organize the colours of our garden flowers. Maurice argues that the more colours the better, while I insist that we need to keep warm and cool colours separate. I now believe that we can put the dispute to bed.
We just came back from an extraordinary trip to Morocco, home of Maurice’s birth. This was my first trip and Maurice’s first visit back since he left, over 50 years ago. As we drove out of the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakesh I was struck by the profusion of bougainvillea falling gently across the retaining walls along the road. And there it was: bunches of bright colours, warm and cool, all mixed together, and utterly breathtaking.
In that moment, I understood that Maurice’s floral preferences were a natural result of having grown up in this environment of bold and exotic colours embedded in the landscape, and all these many years later, embedded in his unconscious memory.
Our trip was a unique tapestry of personal return and communal journey, covering vast geographic territory from the rugged terrain of southern Morocco (which we travelled privately), to the major cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh (as part of Federation CJA’s Mission to Morocco).
We learned about the rich and extraordinary history of Moroccan Jewry – a history that spans thousands of years. About the important and profound contributions of Moroccan rabbis, scholars and philosophers (including Maimonides, the “Rambam”) to our Jewish heritage.
We listened to young children in Neve Shalom Day School recite portions of Megillat Esther by heart, and could only marvel at the skill and enthusiasm of these 6-year olds. We visited cemeteries restored thanks to the dedication of Jewish leadership and support of the Moroccan Government, and lovingly maintained by Berber and Arab caretakers, elderly people who remember the Jews with fondness and respect.
We walked the narrow alleys of the Mellah (Jewish Quarters), most now emptied of Jews, but filled with ancient synagogues and other remnants of the vibrant Jewish life that once pulsated through these streets. We visited the tomb of Solica Hatchuel, a young Jewish martyr, who chose death (she was dragged by a horse through the streets of Fez in 1834) over a forced marriage and conversion to Islam.
We reveled in Moroccan crafts, admiring the workmanship of their rugs, mosaic, bronze, leather and fabrics as we travelled (and shopped) in the medinas (old cities) of Marrakesh and Fez. We delighted at the Jewish artifacts on display throughout the regions of the Atlas Mountains, where Berbers and Jews lived peacefully together for centuries and where our Berber guide said, wistfully, that the departure of the Jews represented the greatest loss that Morocco had ever known.
We were hosted by the Jewish leadership of Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh, and while their hospitality was great, the bleak reality of a dying Jewish community in Morocco was unmistakable.
And what about our financial obligations as part of the Jewish people? Some folks remember when Federation CJA allocations were evenly split between local needs and supporting Israel. Today, that breakdown is roughly 87% local and 13% Israel & Overseas. Some argue that this split is appropriate, given Israel’s relative economic strength today, and growing needs at home. But there is no right or wrong answer here: only trends in the Jewish world and judgments about what is most fitting today.
The history of Jewish life in Morocco is complex and mixed. Although over two thousand years of Judaism are woven into the very fabric of Moroccan culture, those years were not without their challenges for Morocco’s Jews. There appear to have been instances of pogroms during that period, and it is believed that at least 500 Jews lost their lives during the Shoah, which absolutely did reach Morocco in the form of concentration camps courtesy of Vichy France. And while King Mohammed V has been honoured for having protected the Jews from even worse destruction, that legacy is not entirely without controversy.
The Jews who still live there speak of Morocco as a model of Jewish-Muslim co-existence. And yet, Jacky Sebag, the brilliant rabbi who runs the Neve Shalom school confessed that the parents of his students don’t want their children learning Arabic, which is the official language of Morocco. Quite a stark contrast with many anglophone Jewish parents here in Montreal, who, like myself, want their children to master French so that they will be able to thrive in Quebec.
That said, I am neither a historian nor a political scientist. But I do know something about the Jewish community of Montreal. I know that we have been immeasurably enriched by the thousands of Moroccan Jews who emigrated here in the 60s, 70s and 80s. That they brought with them a depth of Jewish knowledge and tradition that has made an indelible mark on the Montreal Jewish community, and of which we can all be proud. That Montreal Jewry is stronger and more vibrant because of them.
This year, I intend to fill the garden with as many bright colours as I can find, hoping to recreate just a little of the splendour that I found in Morocco for our home here in Montreal. Perhaps our garden will become my own personal metaphor for the magnificent diversity of the Jewish people.