Yeshiva University undergraduates spent a week traveling across Morocco in January, visiting Jewish sites, building cultural bridges with Muslim undergraduates, and expanding their leadership horizons. The Jewish people – al-Yahud al-Maghariba – lived in Morocco for 2000 years starting around 70 BC. After being expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal a few years later, many Spanish Jews found refuge and started new lives in cities across Morocco, creating an impressive tapestry of Jewish immigrants. In Fez, Maimonides wrote his major works. Jews lived and worked in Rabat, Marrakech, and even in the Atlas Mountains. Casablanca today has the largest Jewish community in Morocco, with synagogues, community centers and Jewish schools. Nearly 100 YU graduates come from Morocco.
31 YU “Global Citizenship 2023” participants learned about the legendary Moroccan Jewish community: they met the last Jewish woman living in Rabat, the rabbi who taught and led the congregation in Casablanca, and refurbished the Jewish community in a Marrakech souk The church’s Jewish merchants spend part of each morning restoring its cemetery. They prayed at the cemeteries of important Moroccan rabbis and visited Jewish museums in Casablanca, Marrakech and Essaouira. Students spend hours restoring headstones at Beit Mo’ed LeKol Chai Cemetery and helping organize its geniza.
This week’s study theme is “Community and Responsibility”. The source material they study and discuss each day helps them translate Yeshiva University’s core values into their lived experiences by creating their own communities of meaning, cultivating Jewish identity, healing divisions, and taking redemptive action while learning about other communities. Students learned about Arab anti-Semitism and the ways in which Moroccan Muslim leaders have consistently protected Jews and Jewish culture. They met Muslims like El Mehdi Bodra, director of Mimouma, who worked with Muslim students to preserve Jewish culture throughout Morocco. Students learned about the pillars of Islam and the issues of Islamophobia, and had many opportunities to speak with Muslim university students and young professionals.
One such opportunity is at Ben Jalil at the Mohammed VI University of Technology (UM6P). More than 60 students majoring in medicine and pharmacy warmly welcomed Yu Yu’s delegation. They sit around on the grass, get to know each other’s interests and concerns, take selfies and swap sweatshirts. Later in the week, they traveled to the Atlas Mountains to meet with High Atlas Foundation Director Yossef Ben-Meir, who came to Morocco decades ago on Peace Corps missions and returned to continue his work. Social justice work in rural areas. He facilitated meetings with law students to discuss how to prioritize and categorize deeply held values.
Each day, student leaders are responsible for leading the prayer service, performing the divrei Torah, running events and, for students of Moroccan heritage, sharing their Moroccan moments. Eight students spoke about their families’ Moroccan backgrounds. Yeshiva College student Avior Hazan said: “The streets, culture and heritage of my ancestors not only strengthened my Moroccan identity, but revived a connection to my roots that I never thought possible. As the first person to visit Morocco since my grandparents Hassan, Morocco was more than just an experience for me – it was a real homecoming.”
Stern College student Lisa Delouya saw her last name on a synagogue that one of her ancestors helped build. The group visited Rabbi Yitzchak Delouya’s grave and sang to honor Lisa’s past. Like Avior, Lisa is the first member of her immediate family to visit Morocco.
The tour is co-hosted by Yeshiva University’s Office of Values and Leadership in conjunction with the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs-Hellenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Aliza Abrams Konig, Director of Student Leadership and Leadership Scholars Program, helped develop the itinerary and served as the experiential educator for the trip. “A trip like this,” she said, “is a life-changing experience for our students and often has an impact on their chosen careers and the volunteer positions they take on.”
Rabbi Ari Rockoff, YU’s new David Mitzner Community Dean of Values and Leadership, organized student contributions and challenged students to think about how to bring inspiration and leadership skills back to campus. Sacks-Herenstein Center founders Terri and Andrew Herenstein also joined the group. “The trip to Morocco allows the students to grow and learn as they absorb the culture of their family and invest time and energy in helping others,” said Terri Herenstein.
Yeshiva University Vice-Chancellor Dr Rabbi Ali Berman, who joined the students during the final days of the trip, said: “During this enriching and broadening experience, the good character and exemplary leadership that our students possessed became clear. I feel more inspired and confident about the future of the Jewish people knowing that they will be the leaders of tomorrow.” Dr. Erica Brown, Center Director and Associate Provost for Values and Leadership, was asked how students are selected: Students on campus who are in leadership roles and intend to increase their involvement in the years to come. I am proud that our team is half Hispanic and half Ashkenazi, and I am deeply moved by the many Hispanic students who want to explore and learn about their heritage. “
Rachel Lincer, one of YU’s growing number of Syrian students, said, “I created friendships and bonds for life. I learned more about my Hispanic culture and immersed myself in my roots. This trip Changed me in so many ways. I saw myself grow in just 7 days. This trip gave me confidence I didn’t even know I lacked. I feel stronger as a person, can’t wait Continue to grow every day.”