'As we prayed the muezzin sounded. It was a beautiful moment'

Chabad envoys gather in Morocco, the cradle of the emissary project

Rabbis and their wives, from small communities in about 40 countries, celebrate 70th anniversary of ‘shluchim’ network that’s working to strengthen Jewish life across the globe

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Chabad rabbis tour the old city of Fez, Morocco on May 18, 2023. (Avi Winner - Merkos 302)
Chabad rabbis tour the old city of Fez, Morocco on May 18, 2023. (Avi Winner - Merkos 302)

Morocco may not seem like the obvious choice for a conference celebrating the Chabad movement’s emissary project, which comprises thousands of rabbis servicing communities in dozens of countries.

After all, Morocco has only about 3,000 Jews and a handful of rabbis, whereas countries like France, Russia and the United States have hundreds of emissaries, or shluchim, which Chabad’s world leadership began dispatching 73 years ago to strengthen Jewish life across the globe.

But the hosting country — which welcomed about 40 rabbis and their wives from across Africa and the Middle East in the northern city of Fez — makes sense from a historic perspective: Morocco is where the shluchim project began in 1950, when it still had one of the largest Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

“There’s a history here. This is where it all began,” Rabbi Mendy Chtrik, a Chabad emissary based in Turkey who is also the chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, told The Times of Israel about the three-day confab that ended Thursday.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the penultimate leader of the Chabad Hasidic movement, shortly before his death in 1950 indicated that “Morocco’s Jewish community – then numbering 350,000 – urgently needed spiritual aid,” according to an article that Shmuel Butman, a prominent Chabad rabbi in New York and a journalist, wrote on the website ChabadInfo.com.

Schneersohn’s successor, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to many as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, dispatched Rabbi Michoel Lipsker to establish Torah schools in Morocco. Lipsker and his wife settled in Meknes and soon founded schools for youth and Torah classes for adults.

Chabad rabbis pose for a group photo on the roof of the Maimonides House in Fez, Morocco, on May 18, 2023. (Avi Winner – Merkos 302)

They were the first of about 5,600 Chabad emissaries today, who belong to what many consider the world’s largest Jewish organization with representatives in places as remote from the center of Jewish life as the Caribbean island of St. Lucia; Kobe, Japan; Luanda, Angola; and Bariloche in southern Argentina.

The modus operandi of its emissaries is nonpartisan, pragmatic and strictly observant, yet oriented toward outreach to all and any Jew, and very focused on education. Their presence has transformed the landscape of the Jewish world, uniting Jewish couples in unlikely places, bringing Israelis into the fold of local Jewish communities, and jumpstarting Jewish communities despite challenging circumstances.

COVID-19 prevented Chabad of Morocco from celebrating the anniversary of the birth of the emissary project on its 70th anniversary, but the party nonetheless happened three years late, in what the Shluchim Office, the department within Chabad’s host of organization that coordinates the emissary project, said was the largest rabbinical confab held in the Arab world in decades.

Africa, where Chabad rabbis work with many Israeli tourists, businessmen and other Jewish expats, had ample representation in the confab, thanks to emissaries from Angola, the Canary Islands, Congo, Uganda and Zambia. The event also celebrated the establishment of the Abraham Accords in 2020, in which Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan agreed to normalize their relations with Israel.

But there were also rabbis from other small communities, like Iceland, Luxembourg and Malta.

“Basically, the threshold for getting accepted to the conference is if you’re a schlepper,” said Chitrik, using the Yiddish word for someone who carries around objects. “If you have to schlep kosher food and scripture with you wherever you go because the country where you live doesn’t have them – you’re in.”

The rabbis used the opportunity to exchange experiences about aspects relevant to their specific situation. “We discussed, for example, how to educate our children, who are growing up in very different circumstances to those we had,” Chitrik said. “We went to yeshiva, whereas many of our children are tutored online. There are challenges, but also best practices, that we exchanged around that.”

The highlight of the event was a visit and prayer at a home where Maimonides, one of the most influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, used to live.

“We had a study session at the Maimonides House in Fez, whose first floor now has a café called Café Maimonides,” Chitrik said of the confab’s concluding event Thursday. “We were hosted by the mayor and other government officials, who demonstrated again how Moroccan authorities and the people regard Jewish history there as part and parcel of their own history.”

The fact that Morocco hosted the event is indicative of a growing openness to Judaism and Israel, which also manifested in the Abraham Accords, he added.

“As we prayed on the terrace roof of the Maimonides House in Fez, the muezzin sounded, calling Muslims to prayer, and becoming a background to our own prayers,” Chitrik said. “It was a beautiful moment.”

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