SEFROU - Thunder crackles over the barren hillside that rises above Sefrou, a town in Morocco once known as “little Jerusalem” about 30 kilometers south of Fez. Halfway up the rocky slope at the top of damp steps chiseled into the rock is the Cave of the Jew, as it is known by Jews who hail from this town or the Cave of the Believer, as it is called by local Muslims who believe the prophet Daniel is buried here.
Jewish and Muslim pilgrims worshiped side by side here for centuries and, at least once a year, they still do. Two passages lead deep into the hillside. To the left the dusty floor of the narrow passage is stained with the blood of animals sacrificed by Muslim worshipers. The air is pungent and votive candles are reflected in the water that trickles down the rock’s walls. Pilgrims douse themselves in it.
To the right, a short passage leads to a bell-shaped cavern. A torn page from a Hebrew book flaps against the wall and empty kosher wine bottles litter the floor. The Jews of Sefrou believe that the spirits of long-gone rabbis dwell in the cavern, a notion that took hold in the early 19th century when members of the community reported seeing the revered leaders in their dreams, urging them to come to the mountain. According to local legend, Jewish exiles from Spain taught Torah here in the 1490s.
The king gets involved
In 1947, some 6,000 Jews lived in Sefrou, comprising a third of the town’s population. In the three decades that followed, almost all of Morocco’s 240,000 Jews emigrated, mostly to Israel, Canada and France. Today there are a mere 2,500 or so left in the country. Sefrou’s last Jewish family left for Fez in 1985. But once a year, on the holiday of Lag ba’Omer, the cavern fills with the descendants of families who used to pray here. They come to mark the traditional anniversary of the death of the revered rabbis thought to dwell here.
Until recently, this renewed pilgrimage was a mere trickle. But this has changed over the last decade with a rise in Jewish tourism that has put Sefrou, along with other treasures of Morocco’s Jewish past, in the spotlight.
In 2010, King Mohammed VI inaugurated a program to renovate Jewish cemeteries and shrines. Overseen by Serge Berdugo, head of Morocco’s Jewish community and an advisor to the king, the project has restored 167 cemeteries and 12,600 graves.
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Since 1999, a dozen synagogues have been repaired with funding and technical expertise from the Moroccan government. In 2016 King Mohammed VI personally attended the rededication of Casablanca’s Ettedgui synagogue. Acting on a request from the Jewish community, the king ordered the restoration of the original names of Marrakech’s Jewish neighborhoods and streets.
These preservation efforts have encouraged an increasing number of Moroccan Jews to return to visit ancestral homes, graves, and shrines of venerated rabbis, but are also attracting Jewish visitors without Moroccan roots. In 2017, an estimated 50,000 Israelis visited Morocco. Increasing Jewish tourism has been one of the incentives for the Moroccan government’s support of preservation projects.
Aomar Boum, a Moroccan-born anthropologist at the University of California who has studied the country’s Jewish history, says that the government wants to boost Jewish religious tourism. He says that Morocco is moving in the direction of Poland as a magnet for Jewish visitors, both those with and without roots to the country. “The numbers of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi [Jewish visitors] have increased a lot,” he notes.
In Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert, a large dormitory and encasing has been built around the tomb of a local rabbi to accommodate the increasing number of Jewish pilgrims.
Thanks to an initiative by royal advisor Andre Azoulay, who is Jewish, hundreds attend an annual music festival aimed at bringing Muslims and Jews together in the port city of Essaoira, Azoulay’s native town.
The synagogue’s Muslim caretaker
Back in Sefrou, Ahmed Bonbi, a 74-year-old Muslim, has spent the past 30 years as caretaker of the Jewish cemetery. “I speak Hebrew too,” he says proudly, as he rattles off the names on the tombstones beside him, occasionally commenting about a family name he recognizes. “When people come looking for a grave they come to me and I find it for them,” says Bonbi. “Jews are coming here to imagine what Sefrou was like when their families were here. They like making videos of their trips. I’m on Youtube,” he chuckles.
He wanders around pointing out the tombs of rabbis. “This gentleman received 25 people this month,” he says, gesturing to old candles in a black niche. Bonbi runs his finger along the black Hebrew lettering on the tomb and reads aloud: “Rabbi Elbaz.”
The first steps toward preserving Morocco’s Jewish past were taken in the 1990s by various Jewish institutions, including the Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage. The Moroccan government lent its financial support to these plans, which were often carried out in cooperation with Jewish royal advisors.
In 2011, Morocco’s new constitution recognized “Hebraic influences” as having enriched and nourished Moroccan identity. “What the state did is take the conservation of Jewish heritage, and make it more visible,” says anthropologist Boum. In this respect, Morocco is an exception in the Arab world, he notes, calling the decision, “a courageous act.”
Some suggest that the government’s support of Jewish projects is part of an attempt to project an international image of Morocco and its monarchy as open, tolerant and modern. The preservation projects figure prominently in documents produced and disseminated by Moroccan lobby groups in the United States.
In private, some in the tiny Jewish community express concern about these developments. Most of the country’s approximately 2,500 Jews are concentrated in Casablanca. In 2003, terrorists targeted Jewish sites in the city. Some Moroccan Jews worry that the increasingly high profile of the community will attract unwanted attention. But others see this newfound attention on Jewish heritage as a healthy development.
“Morocco has made a colossal effort to preserve its Jewish heritage,” says Zhor Rehihil, director of the Casablanca's Museum of Moroccan Judaism. This is changing the views of ordinary Moroccans, who now recognize that “this is part of Moroccan heritage and it is up to us to preserve it for future generations,” says Rehihil.
The Casablanca museum, which opened in 1997, is currently the Arab world’s only museum dedicated exclusively to Jews, but in April King Mohammed broke ground at a site in Fez that will host a new state-run museum. The Jewish community has plans for two more.
Rehihil says that preservation schemes have kickstarted a national discussion in newspapers, academia and online, about the Jews’ place in Moroccan history and the value of investing in the preservation of Jewish history and sites.
TV shows on Jews
“On TV, there are now lots of shows about Moroccan Jews,” notes Rehihil, who herself hosts a weekly radio program called “The People of the Mellah” (which means the Jewish quarter). The show is meant to “give Jews a chance to speak” about their memories and lives in Morocco. Conducted in Arabic and broadcast on one of the country’s main private stations, it’s also meant to enable other Moroccans to learn about Jewish history and culture. It’s popular enough that Rehihil notes with amusement that she is sometimes stopped in the street for selfies.
In Fez, Fatima Zahra sits chatting with a friend under the 19th century ark of the Ibn Danan Synagogue. The 32-year-old Muslim woman is the building’s caretaker. She was born upstairs in the women’s quarter of the synagogue and now lives downstairs in the building’s front rooms with her sister and their four children. Her washing line is strung out over the roof. Video game music wafts through the synagogue’s echoey rooms. “This is my home,” she says.
Zahra jumps up onto the bimah (the podium of the synagogue) and pulls out her father’s prayer rug. “My father prayed here, this was his mosque. It didn’t make a difference that he was Muslim; for him, this was a place of prayer.”
This morning Zahra received a large group of Israeli tourists, an increasingly common occurrence. “For Jews from the Arab world, there are two places left where they can see their heritage – Israel and Morocco,” she says.
Her sister was appointed caretaker of Fez’s newly restored Slat al-Fassiyine Synagogue in 2013, after it was reopened by then Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. There, the Islamist leader read a message from the king in which he pledged to protect Morocco’s Jewish community and stressed the importance of restoring and preserving Jewish sites.
“It was magnificent,” Zahra recalls. “He is an Islamist, in a synagogue, reading a message from the king. Morocco was sending a message that all religions can live together, a message of tolerance.”
As she talks, a Moroccan family wanders in, helping an elderly grandmother up the step. Zahra wanders over and gives them a tour. “My mother remembers when the Jews were here – that is why I wanted to bring her and my sons,” says the father, Mohammed Mansouri. “You have to come and see your past. This is the history of Fez, this is our history.”