Fez Fete

Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins from far-flung locales gather in Morocco

Emissaries from nearly 40 countries, from Austria to Zambia, meet to discuss challenges of sustaining small communities, hold celebration in Maimonides’ home

Dozens of Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins gathered in Morocco this week for a semi-annual gathering of emissaries from small communities across the Middle East, Africa and Europe to share experiences, to swap tips and, more generally, to form relationships with other people struggling with the same challenges, participants told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“This is an excellent opportunity for rabbis from different regions to come together and discuss ways to strengthen the Jewish community in Africa, Europe and the Middle East,” Rabbi Levi Banon of Chabad in Morocco said at the start of the conference.

The gathering, which was held from Monday to Wednesday, coincided with the recent completion of the study of Mishneh Torah, a 14-volume code of halacha, or Jewish law, which was compiled in the 12th century by Maimonides, who lived for several years in Fez, Morocco, following his family’s expulsion from Spain by Berbers.

Similar to the daily study of Talmud, Daf Yomi, some study sections of the Mishneh Torah each day, completing the cycle every year or every three years. This year’s cycle ended just a few days before the gathering. To mark the occasion, the conference organized a siyum, a celebration marking the completion of the study of a religious tract, in Maimonides’ home in Fez.

“We sat for a meal together with the mayor, with security forces from the city, with representatives from the Jewish community,” Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Istanbul-based head of Turkey’s Ashkenazi community and the chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, which he formed in 2019, told eJP. “It was quite historic, celebrating in the house of Maimonides,” he said.

The gathering was attended by Chabad emissaries representing small communities from nearly 40 countries: Angola, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Canary Islands, Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Ghana, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Nigeria, North Cyprus, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, United Arab Emirates and Zambia.

“It’s rabbis and rebbetzins, shluchim and shluchot who live in small communities that don’t have much Jewish infrastructure,” Chitrik said, jokingly categorizing the participants as “anyone who does not have a kosher grocery store in town and has to shlep in suitcases of food.”

Chitrik, who has been based in Turkey since 2003, said the number of participants from these small communities has increased dramatically in the past few years, from 20 members at the first conference in 2017 to approximately 50 this year.

He credited this growth to two main factors: One, the fact that many of the posts in cities and countries with larger communities are already filled, meaning new emissaries have to look for farther flung locales. And two, the Abraham Accords, which made both made it easier for communities to spring up and also increased the need for communities as more Jews traveled and settled in majority Muslim countries.

However, Chitrik stressed that “Chabad’s presence in the Middle East preceded the Abraham Accords,” noting the presence of emissaries in the UAE and other communities years before the agreements were signed in 2020.

Indeed, the gathering marked almost 75 years of Chabad activities in Morocco. In 1950, the then-newly appointed Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent Chabad’s first emissaries to Morocco. During that decade, working with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Chabad established a network of yeshivas in Morocco and generally helped support Jewish life in the country. The families of those emissaries were invited to attend the conference to mark the occasion.

Chitrik said the conference offered an opportunity to emissaries to “share the load” and realize that other people are going through many of the same logistical challenges of establishing Jewish infrastructure – a kosher food supply, a mikveh, Shabbat services – in areas that didn’t have them before, as well as discuss the more personal difficulties of bringing up children in relatively remote locations. 

“We spoke about how to educate our children, which is a major, major issue. We want to provide our children with the best Jewish education, the same Jewish education that we received,” he said.