Under the sweltering afternoon sun in Southern Morocco, a bushy-bearded man traversed the sandy wilderness that was the Sahara desert. His only companion: an old donkey.

The bearded man was Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, sent by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, in early 1951 to lead and expand the burgeoning Chabad presence in Morocco. Together with his fellow Chabad emissaries, or “shluchim,” he endeavored to educate and uplift Jewish communities across the country, breathing new life into an ancient and colorful Jewish community.

Born and bred in Soviet Russia, a land of religious persecution, Rabbi Matusof knew a thing or two about sacrifice—something that came in handy during his mission.1

The Beginning

The focal point of Chabad’s early efforts in Morocco was the education of Jewish children, a principle the Rebbe consistently emphasized in his correspondence with the emissaries there.

Just over a week following the 1950 passing of his father-in-law—the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory—the Rebbe penned a letter to Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, a Chabad chassid in Paris, France. In this letter, he detailed a conversation he had shared with his father-in-law during his final days regarding the education of Jewish children in North Africa. The Sixth Rebbe had expressed a fervent wish to extend Chabad's educational outreach on the continent to help enrich and uplift the many Jewish communities there.

Rabbi Lipsker agreed to the Rebbe’s proposal. After doing thorough research, he and his wife Teibel secured a visa and relocated to Meknes, Morocco, where they founded what would evolve into a massive educational institution catering to boys and girls of all ages.

Around the time Rabbi Lipsker moved to Meknes, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, a fellow Chassid living in Paris, received a proposal from the Rebbe of his own: to move to Morocco and take charge of the Chabad efforts there.

Jewish Education in Morocco

What was the reason for the Rebbe’s emphasis on Jewish education in Morocco?

Morocco had been a haven of Jewish civilization for centuries, its Jewish presence going back two thousand years, if not more. Over the years, Moroccan Jewry experienced periods of both acceptance and persecution under various rulers, including the Romans, Berbers, and Arabs. During the Middle Ages, Morocco became a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, leading to an influx of Sephardic Jews on the North African subcontinent. Despite facing occasional violence and discrimination, Jews continued to be important members of Moroccan society, excelling in commerce, medicine, and the arts, all the while staying faithful to their traditions. Notably, the great sage Maimonides called the city of Fez, Morocco, home for several years in the mid-12th century.

In May 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) was founded in Paris, aiming to “advance the Jewish communities in North Africa through French culture and lifestyle.” Part of their mission was to secularize Moroccan Jewry, ridding them of their “antiquated” practices (i.e. Torah observances). In Morocco, the AIU opened numerous schools, starting in the city of Tétouan in 1862. Although the schools taught some Jewish subjects, they focused primarily on educating the Jewish North African children to be enlightened members of Western society. Classes were held on Shabbat, with complete disregard for basic Jewish practice.

The need for authentic Jewish education was serious.

Sacrifice From the Start

Mugshot of Matusof taken in 1935 by the NKVD
Mugshot of Matusof taken in 1935 by the NKVD

Born in 1917 in Vitebsk, Belarus, Shlomo Matusof was educated in secret underground Chabad schools, which frequently moved location, eventually leaving his hometown permanently when he was still a teenager.

After relocating to Georgia, where the local government treated Jews relatively better, he was offered the opportunity to escape the Soviet Union through Turkey. Rabbi Matusof, who had family in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, took the offer, hoping to join them there. However, the offer turned out to be a trap, and he was imprisoned and soon sent to a labor camp in Siberia. After his release, he eventually made his way to Moscow to assist with secret Jewish schools there, only to be arrested again, this time exiled to Kazakhstan. There too, he found himself imprisoned again for the crime of learning a book of Chassidic teachings. He was released in 1943.2

Throughout the remainder of the Second World War, he served as the right-hand man to Rabbi Nissan Nemenov, the principal of the central Chabad academy, Tomchei Temimim. As the academy relocated to various places such as Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan during the war, and to the displaced persons (DP) camps in Pocking, Germany, after the war, young Rabbi Matusof provided invaluable assistance every step of the way.

After relocating to France post-World War II, Rabbi Matusof received a request from Rabbi Binyamin Gorodetzky, head of the European Lubavitch Bureau,3 to help with establishing schools in the Jewish refugee settlements in Marseilles. These settlements were filled with Jews from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, who were in the process of immigrating to Israel. He accepted the task, committing for two months though not permanently, because he wanted to eventually settle in Israel himself.

The two-month mission was a success; the refugees welcomed the revival of Jewish education with great enthusiasm, with hundreds of children participating in the schools.

Destination: Casablanca

Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, third from right, and his family sit down with Sephardic Jewish leaders in Morocco, including, left, Rabbi Shalom Messas, who then was chief rabbi of Casablanca, and later became chief rabbi of Morocco and chief Sephardic rabbi of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, third from right, and his family sit down with Sephardic Jewish leaders in Morocco, including, left, Rabbi Shalom Messas, who then was chief rabbi of Casablanca, and later became chief rabbi of Morocco and chief Sephardic rabbi of Jerusalem.

After fulfilling his commitment, Rabbi Matusof returned to Paris around the time of the passing of the Sixth Rebbe and met his wife-to-be, Pesya. During that time, he received a letter from the Rebbe, proposing that he and his fiancée relocate to Morocco as emissaries following their marriage.

Nowadays, thousands of Chabad emissaries around the world help Judaism grow and flourish. But this was far in the future at that point.

Rabbi Matusof was tasked with taking charge of all things education throughout the country. With his vast experience in the field of education under challenging conditions and in remote locales, Rabbi Matusof was perfectly suited for the task. It took several months to arrange visas, but in February 1951 the newly-married couple, expecting their first baby, embarked on their one-way journey to Casablanca, Morocco.

The Schools

Rabbi Matusof is second to the right, together with a group of students at the Chabad school in Casablanca.
Rabbi Matusof is second to the right, together with a group of students at the Chabad school in Casablanca.

At the time, Casablanca was the hub of Jewish life in Morocco, with a population of around 100,000 Jews in the port city, with a total of 300,000 throughout the country. Immediately, Rabbi Matusof began to arrange Torah classes for the Jewish children in Casablanca.

During that first year, Rabbi Matusof embarked on long journeys across the country, often driving down primitive, unpaved roads, braving the brutal heat of the Sahara on one of the desert’s only reliable forms of transportation: a donkey.

He established schools in remote cities, gathering local Jewish children, recruiting teachers and administrators, and creating educational institutions from scratch in a matter of days or even hours. He would return to each school after a while to assess student progress and ensure smooth operations. Where existing Jewish schools were already in operation, Rabbi Matusof persuaded them to refrain from holding classes on Shabbat and organized summer schools to supplement the children with the Torah studies they lacked during the school year.

Trekking across the country to establish schools was no easy task. On one occasion, Rabbi Matusof found himself trapped in a severe flood. He only narrowly escaped drowning. Another time, he lost his way near the Algerian border and was nearly arrested by suspicious border guards.

“Joint” Effort

The extensive projects in Morocco demanded a tremendous budget. Money was in short supply, so they turned to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“the Joint”) for financial aid. Chabad's relationship with the Joint dated back decades, beginning with aiding Jews in Communist Russia and other efforts during and following World War II. With the efforts of Rabbi Binyamin Gorodetzky who headed the Lubavitch European Bureau in Paris, the Joint became significant supporters of Chabad’s initiatives in Morocco.

The Joint wanted the schools to adopt a Western style: proper desks and tables, modern kitchens to prepare food in, and teachers who dressed in suits, not traditional robes.

But the emissaries, led by Rabbi Matusof, were sensitive to the ancient customs of the Jews in Morocco and careful not to impose changes. Children attending the newly established schools would sit on the carpeted floor of old synagogues, with the students and teachers often dressed in traditional, flowing kaftans.

Striking a balance between meeting the Joint's expectations and respecting the Moroccan Jewish way of life, Rabbi Matusof coordinated new furniture and clothing for the schools that needed it but insisted that the spirit be true to the Torah traditions of Moroccan Jewry.

The Joint was also originally skeptical of Rabbi Matusof’s efforts to create Jewish schools in even the most remote villages. However, upon visiting these villages, Joint representatives were amazed by the tremendous success of the institutions. They expressed their heartfelt gratitude to Rabbi Matusof, who humbly redirected their appreciation to the true driving force and founder of these endeavors: the Rebbe.

Sharing the Burden

As his responsibilities piled up, Rabbi Matusof approached Rabbi Moshe Lahiyani, a local who had studied at the yeshivah in Meknes, asking him to assist in the establishment of new schools, and appointing him as overseer of the schools in the remote villages.

Upon visiting the first village on his route, Rabbi Lahiyani realized that the children attended their government school on Shabbat. His impassioned plea to the Jewish community to establish a proper Jewish school that would respect Shabbat provoked the ire of the village mayor. He confronted Rabbi Lahiyani and reprimanded him, incensed by this stranger who dared enter his city and convince the citizens to abandon the government school. Rabbi Lahiyani, identifying himself as an emissary of the Rebbe, explained the significance of keeping Shabbat and noted that it would be preferable to establish a new school rather than have the children continue to study on the holy day. Upon hearing Rabbi Lahiyani’s heartfelt pleas, the mayor not only agreed to cease classes on Shabbat at the village school but also used his influence to encourage several neighboring villages to do the same.

In addition to Rabbi Lahiyani, Rabbi Matusof appointed several other “visitors”—representatives who would travel to the remote places where there were schools to ensure everything was running smoothly, both materially and spiritually. Because of their invaluable assistance, Rabbi Matusof was able to devote more time to projects in Casablanca, home of the Chabad headquarters in Morocco.

By the end of his first year in the country, an astonishing 50 schools had been established, ranging from large to small, spanning far and wide, all orchestrated by the tireless efforts of one beared rabbi on a donkey. And the number would only continue to grow in the coming years. In the 1960s, 69 schools had been established throughout the country.

Even with the help of the “visitors,” countless teachers, administrators, Rabbi Lahiyani, and others, Rabbi Matusof’s job was demanding and time-consuming.

His son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (now a senior Chabad emissary in Toulouse, France), recalled: “I remember my father going on long trips, generally for many days at a time, to establish new institutions and afterward to inspect and assist with anything needed. Simultaneously, he would deal with establishing and caring for the institutions in Casablanca—the yeshivah, Beth Rivkah (the girls’ school), the seminary—all of which filled many buildings with many students. I’d note that whenever my father returned from his trips, he always brought back gifts for us children to ‘compensate’ us for the time he was away.”

He recalled his father often working extremely late hours in his office at the yeshivah in Casablanca. It was a familiar sight to find him asleep on the couch at home, late at night, a Torah book resting open on his lap. Despite the exhaustion his job brought, his Friday nights were devoted to preparing his Shabbat sermon, an address in the synagogue that spanned over an hour, delving into various parts of the Torah, both practical and mystical.

The Legacy

From left: Rabbi Mendel Raskin, Rabbi David Banon, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Rabbi Yosef Matusof and Rabbi Levi Banon celebrating the legacy of Maimonides in Fez, Morocco, in 2023.
From left: Rabbi Mendel Raskin, Rabbi David Banon, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Rabbi Yosef Matusof and Rabbi Levi Banon celebrating the legacy of Maimonides in Fez, Morocco, in 2023.

In the subsequent decades, despite encountering numerous challenges and obstacles, Chabad's endeavors in Morocco underwent remarkable expansion.

Yet as the lion’s share of Moroccan Jews emigrated, many schools gradually closed down and consolidated.

Today, one can see how the emissaries’ tireless efforts bore fruit, as tens of thousands of Jews worldwide attribute their upbringing and Jewish education to Morocco's school network established by Chabad.

In 1992, Rabbi Matusof and his wife relocated to the US for medical reasons. Yet his connection to North African Jewry was strong as ever, and he remained involved from a distance. While living in New York, he devoted his time to Torah study, eventually publishing a book called “Rishmei Biurim,” which included his commentaries on the Talmud, integrating and based on the Rebbe’s teachings.

Even today, almost 17 years after his passing on November 11, 2007, his children—who serve as Chabad emissaries in France, the US, and Canada, maintain close ties with their father’s students, their children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, around the globe.

Morocco Today

Until this very day, Chabad provides summer camp and other opportunities for fun and Torah learning for youth in Morocco.
Until this very day, Chabad provides summer camp and other opportunities for fun and Torah learning for youth in Morocco.

Among the Shluchim who were dispatched to aid the work of Rabbi Matusof, were Rabbi Sholom and Gittel Eidelman, who moved to Casablanca in 1959, just a week after their wedding, where the rabbi led many of Chabad’s efforts until his passing in 2020. Rabbi Eidelman was appointed head of the boys’ yeshivah in Casablanca. Additionally, he established a Kollel, a study program that educated and trained future rabbis to lead communities throughout Morocco. He took great care to ensure there was kosher food available everywhere and established and maintained many makvahs (ritual baths) throughout Morocco. His wife, Gittel, continues some of his work to this day and leads many classes and programs for women.

Rabbi Leibel Raskin, another Chabad emissary who was sent to Casablanca in 1961, passed away in 2004. Upon his arrival, he replaced Rabbi Nison and Rochel Pinson, who were leaving Morrocco to do similar work in neighboring Tunisia. In addition to working tirelessly to disseminate Chassidic teachings throughout the country, translating them for all to understand, Rabbi Raskin established Ufaratzta, an organization that founded youth clubs and camps throughout Morocco. His wife, Raizel, continues his work to this day.

In 2008, the community was joined by Rabbi Levi and Chana Bano, who breathed new life into the youth programs in the city. They run a successful Jewish summer camp for Jewish children and weekly prayer services at the Chabad House, as well as hosting Shabbat meals for locals and tourists alike.

Chabad of Marrakech, led by Rabbi Shimon and Mrs. Rachel Lahiany, offers Shabbat meals and services for locals and tourists.

Although the country's current Jewish population is far smaller than it was in the mid-20th century, Chabad's presence in Morocco remains steadfast, proudly serving its Jewish communities and continuing the legacy initiated by the Rebbe—his inaugural call to action as leader of the Chabad movement.

Rabbi Yonah Matusof (center) presents Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, onetime student of Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, with a book of Torah thoughts written by the senior Rabbi Matusof. - Photo courtesy Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie
Rabbi Yonah Matusof (center) presents Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, onetime student of Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, with a book of Torah thoughts written by the senior Rabbi Matusof.
Photo courtesy Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie