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Jewish Journal

Scratching Beneath the Surface: Visiting Jewish Communities around the World

by Bracha Stettin, participant in Masa Israel’s Kivunim

March 3, 2011 | 2:42 pm

Thirty hours ago, I left a country whose Jewish population went from 300,000 to 3,000 in the past 60 years. I walked the narrow paths between the houses where these Jews used to live, I breathed in the air of the synagogues where they prayed every day, three times a day. Over and over again I found myself asking, why have they gone?

This story may sound familiar, but this is not Poland. I left a country where snow falls only in the high Atlas Mountains and where there never was a Holocaust. In this country, the dominant religious power is neither the Pope nor constituents of the church.  Rather, King Mohammed VI is the “leader of the faithful” and imams travel from mosque to mosque, teaching the words of the Koran. Arabic and French are the main languages spoken here.  The landscape of this breathtaking country reflects the colors of the national flag; red and green repeat themselves in stunning variety across the entire country. I have just left Morocco.

What was a nice Jewish girl on a Masa Israel program doing in Morocco? I am a participant in Kivunim, a gap-year program based in Jerusalem that travels to 12 different countries throughout the year. In Jerusalem, we learn Arabic, improve our Hebrew, examine the Middle East from different perspectives, and learn intensively about each country to which we will be traveling.

The journeys we take fundamentally reshape my perception of Jewish history and identity. I have found that each country’s unique Jewish history develops intertwined with the history of its particular country. In Greece, I discovered the influence of Hellenism on the Jews and then visited the Parthenon.

In Bulgaria, I met amazing peers who have taken on leadership roles in a Jewish community that is still reinventing itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Communism, Bulgaria banned religion, leading to intermarriage and the loss of Jewish identity and after its fall, Judaism came out of the woodwork, shook off the dust, and looked around. Today the Bulgarian Jewish community thrives. More teens participate in Sofian Jewish life than in all the communities of Greece combined.  The community celebrates chagim, hosts weekly get-togethers, participates in Jewish youth organizations, and most members would not be considered halachically Jewish. This may be a problem for some, yet they take part in keeping Judaism alive in a place where there would otherwise be no Jewish presence.

Exposure to these environments has made me realize that there is no such thing as simple. By first accepting that there are infinite layers and discussions to be had, I gain the necessary tools to deal with a whole range of situations. In understanding that things will be messy, I prepare myself to better engage with new experiences and narratives. This, I am learning, is the first step towards resolution.

I am now aware of truths that urgently need to be spread. I know now that Jews and Muslims prospered side by side for thousands of years. I know now that at Al Ahfawaken University’s Memuna Club, there are students, just like me, working to enlighten others about this Jewish-Muslim history. I know now that each year, thousands of Muslim students visit the only Jewish Museum in the Arab world, located in Casablanca. I know now that several Jewish schools in Casablanca have a 25% Muslim student body.  The past two weeks in Morocco defied my notions of what an Arab Muslim country would look like. Instead, I have found complexity, nuance, and layers. I’ve learned that when anyone tells me a simple answer, I need to look closer. When I hear that things won’t change and this is how they are, I must push farther. The surface is just the beginning. It’s time to scratch deeper.

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