By Deborah K. Herman
On a hot day in mid-June, I boarded an early morning flight from my home in California, destined for Casablanca, Morocco. Excited with the anticipation of what was to come, I was on my way to join other young professionals to explore our collective Jewish identities on a journey of a lifetime.
While I was sure that this experience would be impactful, traveling to Morocco was more extraordinary than I could have ever imagined. It challenged my thinking, expanded my horizons and introduced me to over two dozen like-minded peers.
It is hard to capture the essence of everything we learned in this rich and beautiful country. Witnessing the strength of the Jews of Morocco – numbering approximately only 2,500 – as they continue to sustain a vibrant history living in harmony with their Muslim neighbors, was formative for each of us in our own ways. Taking a pause from the world I know allowed me to experience Morocco’s deep culture through amazing tastes (enough vegetable tagine and couscous for a lifetime) and smells (Fez’s Chouara tannery takes the win).
However, most poignant for me were the sounds.
The churning of the pottery wheel and tinkering of tools in the ceramics studio in Fez. The voice of Raphy, our respected and knowledgeable guide, over the bus microphone. The tranquility of holy places such as the Jewish cemetery of Rabat and the beautifully massive Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. The daily calls to prayer, and the hotel staff wishing us Shabbat Shalom. The eloquent French spoken by some of my new friends as they communicated with community members and elderly residents.
There were the voices of young Jewish and Muslim children singing in unison together in Hebrew and Arabic, and traditional songs from my childhood like L’cha Dodi being shared halfway across the world in a synagogue and over Friday night dinner. There were the sounds of haggling in the bustling Medina, a marketplace full of colorful spices and dynamic vendors whose families have been selling in the stalls for generations. There was the quiet morning sunrise over our hotel balcony in Marrakesh and a carriage ride surrounded by honking taxis and zooming mopeds on our way to a live show filled with music, celebration and dancing.
Yet, one particular sound stands out in my mind. On our visit to a local elementary school, I heard the heartwarming, innocent laughter of schoolchildren kicking a soccer ball during their afternoon recess. A few moments later, they were called back into the classroom to sing for us. As their voices raised into the familiar tune of Adon Olam, I was suddenly overwhelmed and inexplicably crying. I asked myself, why the tears? Were these tears of joy or sadness? I recall being comforted by a friend – who I had only just met 48 hours before – and remarked to her that I had no idea why I was crying in the first place.
I could not understand why this song resonated with me so loudly. I later came to realize that for me, the singing of Adon Olam meant that no matter where we come from, we are all active participants in this story of Judaism that we are telling. To me, teaching these songs of our past to schoolchildren around the world means that we are continually creating, growing and enhancing our future through our past.
If a prayer like Adon Olam can be sung and carried from New York to Los Angeles and from Israel to Morocco, it means that we are but a small stitch in the greater fabric of Jews everywhere. Though we play a minor part in the larger span of Jewish history and today’s Jewish network, how we contribute makes a tangible difference. This was my motivating force for this visit to North Africa with JDC Entwine, the young adult platform of JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization.
We often look through the lens of our own experiences – a family recipe we ate in our youth, our education, our friendships and our communities. However, it was the sounds of Morocco that allowed me to push beyond the boundaries of my Ashkenazi upbringing to explore Mizrahi Jewry. I discovered that while we are different, there is an unspoken familiarity in which we are all the same. I learned that we are interconnected to a greater narrative of Jewish history and heritage and a built-in network wherever we may go in the world.
An experience like this cultivates a sense of global and communal identity, and a universal obligation to preserve our common history. The weight of this shared responsibility was one each of us seemed willing to take, and as we boarded our flights back to our respective hometowns, we left empowered to share our stories with our local communities, friends and families.
Our Jewish community is one that we will always gravitate towards. It transcends sounds, languages, borders, and time. Most importantly, it is ours – ours to improve, to grow, and to pass forward to those who will inevitably take our place.
Deborah K. Herman is a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of the University of Southern California. In addition to her involvement with JDC Entwine, she is a member of community organizations such as the Jewish Women International’s Young Women’s Leadership Network and the Jewish Family Service Young Leaders Executive Committee. Deborah is an avid reader and writer, and enjoys cooking, visiting local museums and exploring new cultures through travel.