Behind the Headlines: Moroccan Jews Steadily Departing, Leaving Small Community to Carry on

Rabbi Avraham Sabagh is leaving Morocco for good this year, bringing to an end his family’s five-century presence in the North African kingdom.

Sabagh lives in Fez, attending to the spiritual needs of the shrinking Jewish community, which once boasted 20,000 but presently numbers fewer than 250 people.

He is the sole member of his family who remains in Morocco. His wife and two children live in Paris, where he goes to visit them every several weeks.

The bearded, stocky rabbi is not happy about leaving the country of his birth. “But there is no future here for my children,” he sighs.

It is a mournful observation echoed by Jews throughout the country, as they face the slow but inevitable decline of their community and send almost all of their children overseas to attend college, to find spouses and to start careers.

Solange Ohayon is a pediatrician in her early 40s who lives in Rabat with her husband, Victor, a doctor who is a lieutenant colonel in the Moroccan army and a professor of medicine at the University of Rabat.

The two oldest of their three children have left Morocco.

“To find a Jewish wife my sons must go to Canada. I want them to stay, but I have no girls for them,” said Ohayon sadly.

Once they graduate from high school, young Moroccans go to France, to Israel, to Canada or to the United States and rarely return to settle in their native land.

As a result, the Jewish population is disproportionately old and not renewing itself.

“The moment they have finished high school they leave, so you don’t have a thriving community,” said Albert Weizman, who runs the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s operations in this country.

MOST YOUNG PEOPLE ARE GONE

“Most people 18 to 45 are gone,” he told a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency who accompanied a delegation from the New York Board of Rabbis visiting Morocco.

The delegation was visiting the country at the invitation of King Hassan II of Morocco.

One religious leader of the Casablanca Jewish community, who has eight children residing all over the world, estimated that “within two or three generations there will be no Jewish community here.”

Before the Jewish exodus began in the 1950s, some 300,000 Jews called Morocco home.

Until 1967, tens of thousands of Jews populated Fez’s mellah, the oldest Jewish ghetto in the country, living in crowded impoverishment.

The ancient walled area, a small city unto itself, is a tangle of passageways made narrow by the apartment buildings built up around them.

There was no indoor plumbing, and what was once the mikveh is today used as a public bathhouse. A faucet in an alley provides water to nearby families as it did once for the Jews.

The mellah was built near what was once the king’s royal palace, when Fez was Morocco’s capital.

Today the mellah is empty of Jews and full of Moslems.

Remnants of a sukkah still stand on the roof of one of the buildings. Its beams are used by the present owners to hang clotheslines.

As the delegation traveled by minibus through Rabat, Fez, Marrakech and Casablanca, modest neighborhoods both ancient and modern, once occupied almost solely by Jews, were pointed out by guides.

Today Jews live among Moslems, spread out through many neighborhoods in each of the cities.

Morocco was nearly emptied of Jews from the 1950s through the 1970s, when a flood of emigration led to the exodus of 96 percent of the population.

Today, there are many more Jews of Moroccan descent outside of Morocco than there are in the country — some 900,000 worldwide, according to Serge Berdugo, president of the country’s Jewish community.

And there are between 6,500 and 7,000 Jews left inside the country, some 5,000 in Casablanca and populations of up to about 350 in a handful of other cities — Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Tangier, Tetouan, Assadir and Safi.

The exit of Jews today is a slow but inexorable trickle, one family at a time.

In just the five years that Weizman has been in Casablanca, the population has shrunk by about 2,000 members — about 25 percent.

SCHOOLS AND OLD-AGE HOMES HAVE CLOSED

As a result, the last Jewish schools in Fez, Marrakech and Meknes have closed over the last five years, as have old-age homes in Marrakech, Fez and Rabat.

Funding of communal institutions by the JDC has shrunk accordingly.

The JDC’s budget in the country is now $2 million annually, down from $2.5 million five years ago, said Weizman.

The Jewish relief organization funds educational, medical and cultural institutions but not religious ones, including synagogues, kashrut supervision or cemeteries.

At first glance, Morocco’s Jews are a wealthy bunch. Those who hosted the New York rabbis at lavish, intimate dinners live in roomy villas staffed by four or five servants.

These Jews dress well, travel abroad often and enjoy a comfortable life. But these are not Morocco’s only Jews.

There are only 10 truly wealthy Moroccan Jewish families, according to Weizman, and another 200 who would be considered upper middle class by North American standards.

“A lot of families stay here because they cannot have the same standard of living in Paris,” said Weizman.

Families also take care of their own, supporting parents and grandparents and uncles and cousins who can no longer support themselves.

It is not simply a matter of familial social culture, but an economic necessity, since Morocco does not provide its citizens with social welfare benefits like Social Security or Medicaid.

This means that after supporting their own family members, paying a staff of servants and providing a home for members of their extended families, most families have little left over to support community institutions, said Weizman.

He estimates that fully one-third of Morocco’s Jews receive some sort of direct financial assistance from the community.

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