I recently joined 140 members of the JFNA National Young Leadership Cabinet on a study mission to Morocco and Madrid.
Cabinet is a five-year JUF leadership development program which aims to teach, train, and inspire the next generation of philanthropists so that they can protect, strengthen, and nourish strong Jewish peoplehood in North America, Israel, and worldwide.
On our mission to Morocco and Spain, we sought to learn, understand, and connect with those countries' small Jewish communities that remain active-despite Jewish expulsion and mass exodus from these countries through the centuries.
Our trip came at a time not only of a global rise in anti-Semitism, but also a fragmentation within the Jewish community at home on several important issues relating to Israel. This mission showed us that co-existence among different religions is possible even in this era of heightened hostility; indeed, Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live in together in peace.
Only 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco today-mostly in Casablanca. The population declined from approximately 300,000 in the 1940s due in large part to emigration to Israel. While Marrakesh once housed 35,000 in the Jewish Quarter, only 110 Jews live there today.
Despite Israel and Morocco not having formal relations since the Second Intifada in 2000, the two countries maintain active political dialogue behind the scenes, carefully maneuvering across the Sunni-Shiite divide. While the Jews of Morocco enjoy religious freedom of expression, the Anti-Defamation League reports that 80 percent of Moroccan's 20.8 million adults harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.
And yet, Morocco hosts the only Jewish museum in the Arab world; King Mohammad VI maintains Jewish advisors; Jewish schools and synagogues receive government subsidies; and over 45,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco annually. The King recently instructed that street signs in Marrakesh's historic Jewish Quarter be restored to their original Hebrew. Similarly, a popular Moroccan daily newspaper lists the Hebrew date on its masthead.
Our delegation was graciously greeted by Nasser Bourita, Morocco's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation who shared his thoughts on Morocco today. He reminded us that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States of America. Minister Bourita also related that Morocco is a moderate Muslim country and that Morocco prefers soft power and diplomacy over hardline military might.
Continuing our journey, the group filled an entire Royal Air Maroc Boeing 737 for the flight from Morocco to Spain.
As we meandered along the cobblestone streets of Toledo, we walked in the shadows of Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides, Spain's leading Jewish philosophers from medieval times. The Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, the former synagogue in Toledo, is the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing, but has been converted into a church.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the most influential thinker in medieval Jewish mysticism, taught that every created thing possesses a "spark" of divine energy that constitutes its essence and soul. Luria also taught that tikkun olam (repairing the world) and mitzvot (commandments) fight the forces of evil and restore the good.
This powerful journey unlocked Luria's spark within each of us. One my peers commented that Cabinet is the place where he's his "best self." As we return to our lives in Chicago and across North America, we are more aware, open-minded, and reflective. Most importantly, we are inspired by a renewed global perspective and a shared sense of collective responsibility.
Michael Teplitsky is the co-chair of JFNA's National Young Leadership Cabinet and is a member of the Wexner Heritage Program. To learn more about Cabinet, contact Sally Preminger at SallyPreminger@juf.org.