Yeshiva University undergraduates spent a week this January traveling throughout Morocco visiting Jewish heritage cites, building cultural bridges with Muslim university students, and expanding their leadership horizons. Jews – al-Yahud al-Maghariba – have lived in Morocco for two thousand years, from about 70 BCE. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and then Portugal only years later, many Spanish Jews found refuge and built new lives in cities throughout Morocco, creating an impressive Jewish tapestry of immigrants. In Fez, Maimonides wrote his major works. In Rabat, Marrakesh and even in the Atlas Mountains, Jews lived and worked. Casablanca today has the largest Jewish community in Morocco with synagogues, community centers, and Jewish schools. Close to 100 YU graduates come from Morocco.
The 31 YU “Global Citizenship 2023” participants learned about the storied Moroccan Jewish community: they met the last Jewish woman who lives in Rabat, rabbis who teach and lead congregations in Casablanca, and a Jewish merchant who renovated the synagogue in the souk of Marrakesh and spends part of each morning restoring its cemetery. They prayed at the gravesites of important Moroccan rabbis and toured the Jewish museums of Casablanca, Marrakesh and Essaouira. Students spent hours making repairs to tombstones in the Beit Mo’ed LeKol Chai cemetery and helped organize its geniza.
The study theme for the week was “Community and Responsibility.” The source material they learned and discussed each day helped them translate Yeshiva University’s core values into their lived experience by creating their own community of meaning while learning about other communities, nurturing Jewish identity, healing divisions and acting redemptively. Students learned about Arab antisemitism and the ways in which Muslim leaders in Morocco consistently protected Jews and Jewish culture. They met Muslims like El Mehdi Bodra, the Director of Mimouma, who work with Muslim students to preserve Jewish culture throughout Morocco. Students learned about the pillars of Islam and the problems of Islamophobia and had multiple opportunities to speak to Muslim university students and young professionals.
One of those opportunities was in Ben Garir at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P). Over 60 medical and pharmaceutical students warmly greeted the YU delegation. They sat on the grass in circles, learned about each other’s interests and concerns, took selfies and exchanged sweatshirts. Later in the week, they traveled to the Atlas Mountains to meet with Yossef Ben-Meir, director of the High Atlas Foundation who came to Morocco decades earlier on a Peace Corps mission and returned to continue his social justice work in rural areas. He facilitated an encounter with law students to discuss how to prioritize and triage deeply held values.
Each day, student leaders were responsible for leading prayer services, giving divrei Torah, running activities and, for those with Moroccan roots, sharing their Morocco moments. Eight students spoke about their family’s Moroccan background. Yeshiva College student Avior Hazan said, “The streets, culture, and heritage of my ancestors not only strengthened my Moroccan identity but it reinvigorated a connection to my roots I never thought possible. Being the first Hazan to visit Morocco since my grandparents, Morocco was more than an experience for me -- it was a true homecoming.”
Lisa Delouya, a Stern student, saw her family name on a synagogue that one of her ancestors helped build. The group visited and sang at Rabbi Yitzchak Delouya’s grave to honor Lisa’s past. Lisa, like Avior, is the first member of her immediate family to visit Morocco.
The trip was hosted by Yeshiva University’s Office of Values and Leadership in conjunction with the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Director of Student Leadership and the Leadership Scholars program, Aliza Abrams Konig, helped create the itinerary and served as the trip’s experiential educator. “Trips like this,” she says, “are a life-shaping experience for our students and often leave an impact on the careers they choose and the volunteer positions they fill.”
Rabbi Ari Rockoff, YU’s new David Mitzner Community Dean of Values and Leadership, organized student contributions and challenged students to think about how they bring back the inspiration and leadership skills to campus. Terri and Andrew Herenstein, the founders of the Sacks-Herenstein Center, also accompanied the group. “The trip to Morocco allowed students to grow and learn as they absorbed the culture of their families and gave their time and energy to help others,” says Terri Herenstein.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, joined the students for the last days of the trip and said “The fine character and exemplary leadership that defines our students were clearly displayed all throughout this enriching and broadening experience. I left feeling even more inspired and confident in the Jewish future knowing that they will be the leaders of tomorrow.”
Dr. Erica Brown, the Center’s director and Vice Provost for Values and Leadership, was asked how students were selected: “With limited spots available, we chose a group that reflects the geographic, academic, and religious diversity of YU’s student population. We gave priority to students who are involved in leadership roles on campus and intend to intensify their involvement in the years ahead. I am proud that our group was half Sephardic and half Ashkenazic and am deeply moved by the number of Sephardic students who wanted to explore and connect with their heritage.”
Rachel Lincer, one of YU’s growing number of Syrian students, said, “I have created friendships and bonds for life. I have learned more about my Sephardic culture and was immersed in my roots. This trip changed me in so many ways. I have seen such growth in myself in just seven days. This trip gave me the confidence I didn’t even know I lacked. I feel stronger as a person and cannot wait to continue growing every day.”