As we celebrate 70 years of the Rebbe’s leadership, we also mark the 70th anniversary of the launch of Lubavitch activities in Morocco.
Shortly before the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz on the 10th of Shevat, 1950, he indicated that Morocco’s Jewish community – then numbering 350,000 – urgently needed spiritual aid. Morocco’s Jews were overwhelmingly Torah-observant, but they were spiritually threatened by poverty and efforts by progressive French Jewish organizations to secularize them.
Moroccan Jewry dates back 2,000 years and has produced some of our greatest Torah luminaries. The Rif (Rabbi Yitzchak Al-Fasi) flourished there in the 11th century, the Rambam lived there during his teens and wrote his earliest works there, and the renowned Or Hachayim (Rabbi Chayim ibn Atar) lived there in the 18th century before leaving for Jerusalem.
After World War II, hundreds of Lubavitcher chassidim who had recently escaped from the Soviet Union found refuge in Paris, France. Despite decades of intense communist persecution, they had steadfastly remained faithful to the Torah. Many had been interned for years in gulags, and most had lost family members during Stalin’s purges for the “crime” of observing Yiddishkeit.
None yet had any permanent home, and all were absolutely devoted to the Rebbe. It was natural, then, for the Rebbe to draw from this special community the first pioneers to settle in Morocco to educate and help its Jews. In 1950, the Rebbe sent Rabbi Michoel Lipsker to establish Torah schools there. He and his wife settled in Meknes and soon founded schools for youth and Torah classes for adults.
Soon after, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, who had spent seven years in a Siberian gulag, was sent to the country’s largest city, Casablanca. He established a yeshiva there, then traveled by truck and donkey through hundreds of villages and small communities to find Torah-knowledgeable Jews to serve as local teachers in a growing new chain of Torah schools.
Later came Rabbi Sholom Edelman and, in 1960, Rabbi Leibel Raskin. (Rabbi Nissan Pinson also served in Morocco for several years until the Rebbe sent him to Tunis to do similar work.)
Funding – to pay teachers, buy books, provide students with meals (and often clothing), and more – was generously provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee. Within a short time, “Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch” included 70 Torah schools, among them elementary and high schools, yeshivos for senior students, and Jewish girls schools – the first ever in Morocco.
The Rebbe instructed his shluchim to support local Sefardic traditions and customs, and the local chachamim – the communities’ rabbis, who were recognized Torah scholars – eagerly welcomed them. They were deeply appreciative of their devoted work and grateful to them for their efforts in keeping the masses of Moroccan Jews faithful to their heritage.
As Morocco became independent of France, however, and the winds of change blew through the Arab world, Moroccan Jews started leaving for France, Israel, and other lands. Unlike the Jews in most Arab lands, Morocco’s Jews were not forced to leave. On the contrary, Moroccan kings traditionally protected their Jewish citizens and overt anti-Semitism was rare there.
Nevertheless, Jews feared for their safety. Many left to pursue higher education in France and other lands, and masses of Moroccan Jews emigrated to the Holy Land. Today, only 2,500 Jews remain in Morocco, with a tiny nucleus of Chabad shluchim staying to serve them.
Alumni of Lubavitch schools in Morocco cherish their Chabad education, which reinforced their bond with the Torah and their Jewish heritage. Many have become Lubavitcher chassidim and are prominent in Chabad communities in France, Israel, Canada, and elsewhere. All are grateful for their Chabad education, which led to their present level of Jewish observance.