History was made in Muslim Morocco on Sunday evening when for the first time ever, two prominent government officials attended the Jewish community’s Chanukah festivities. Said Ahmidouch, the wali of Casablanca-Settat region, and Rachid Afirat, the governor of Casablanca-Anfa prefecture, joined more than 800 Moroccan Jews at the community’s central Chanukah celebration. Held at a Casablanca hotel, the event was widely covered on Arabic television, sharing the miracle of Chanukah throughout the kingdom.

“This sends a strong message of peace and tolerance,” says Rabbi Levi Banon, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who directs Jeunesse Chabad of Morocco. “Morocco, under the leadership and inspiration of King Mohammed VI, has been a true example for the world of what coexistence between all peoples looks like.”

Morocco has been home to a Jewish community for more than 2,000 years. Although the country’s Jewish population is nowhere near its 1950 high of 350,000, today’s 3,000-strong Jewish community—concentrated mostly in Casablanca—remains active and vibrant. There are an estimated 1.5 million Moroccan Jews around the world.

Banon greets Said Ahmidouch, wali of Casablanca-Settat region, and his wife.
Banon greets Said Ahmidouch, wali of Casablanca-Settat region, and his wife.

Moroccan Jews, of course, have their share of Chanukah customs—no latkes here. At the Casablanca event, sfenj (linguistically related to the English word “sponge”), the Maghrebi fried doughnut traditionally eaten on Chanukah to recall the miracle of the oil, were served. Unique to them, Moroccan Jews also mostly use what is called a “Moroccan menorah,” an ornate, triangular shaped menorah that is hung on the doorpost.

The Chanukah event was organized by Jeunesse Chabad of Morocco, as well as the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco, the SOC, and David Hamelech Synagogue.

A children's performance of Chanukah songs.
A children's performance of Chanukah songs.

Amid flashing cameras, Serge Berdugo, the King’s ambassador-at-large and president of the Council of Jewish Communities, kindled the giant menorah.

In addition to Berdugo, the wali and the governor—both of whom are King Mohammed’s appointees—dignitaries included longtime Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rebbetzin Reizel Raskin, and Rabbi Sholom and Rebbetzin Gittel Eidelman; Pierre Sibony, president of the SOC; and Gabriel Ruimy, president of David Hamelech Synagogue. Visiting from abroad were Dayan David Banon, a leading rabbi in the Moroccan and Ashkenazic Jewish communities in Montreal; and Rabbi Mendel Raskin, director of Chabad of Cote S. Luc, near Montreal, both Moroccan Jewish expats.

Serge Berdugo, King Mohammed VI's ambassador-at-large, kindles the giant menorah as Banon and more than 800 members of Casablanca's Jewish community look on.
Serge Berdugo, King Mohammed VI's ambassador-at-large, kindles the giant menorah as Banon and more than 800 members of Casablanca's Jewish community look on.

Chabad’s roots in Morocco stretch back to the 1940s, and it was the very first place the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—sent permanent emissaries—Rabbi Michoel and Taibel Lipskar, to Meknes—following his assumption of leadership of the Chabad movement in January of 1950. Later that year, the Rebbe sent Rabbi Shlomo and Pessia Matusof to Casablanca, and Chabad’s network of Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Jewish schools and yeshivahs would eventually reach 70 communities throughout the country.

“It’s not an accident that the Rebbe started his work here, in Morocco,” says Rabbi Levi Banon, who together with his wife, Chana, settled in Casablanca in 2009.

Chanukah at Beth Habad Loubavitch in Casablanca back in 1987. The late Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who spearheaded those events, is standing seventh from the left.
Chanukah at Beth Habad Loubavitch in Casablanca back in 1987. The late Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who spearheaded those events, is standing seventh from the left.

Rebbetzin Raskin’s late husband Rabbi Leibel Raskin first pioneered grand Chanukah celebrations over his decades of work in the Moroccan Jewish community. Last year’s joint communal Chanukah event was the first to be reported by Arab television, and Banon told the crowd that it did not go unnoticed.

“My colleague Chabad Rabbi Chaim Matusof of Toulouse, France, called me up and said he had arranged a Chanukah party in a small town near Toulouse, and a middle-aged Jewish man and his wife arrived unannounced,” recalls Banon. “This man had not celebrated Chanukah in many years until he saw the televised Chanukah celebration here in Morocco. He said, ‘If Jews can celebrate Chanukah openly in Morocco, why am I not doing it here in France?’ He dusted off his menorah, found Chabad’s party in his town online, and showed up together with his wife.”

A class at Yeshivah Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch of Casablanca in the 1950s. Rabbi Nissen Pinson, who later founded Chabad of Tunisia, is at left. Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, the Rebbe's second emissary to Morocco, is second from the right.
A class at Yeshivah Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch of Casablanca in the 1950s. Rabbi Nissen Pinson, who later founded Chabad of Tunisia, is at left. Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, the Rebbe's second emissary to Morocco, is second from the right.

In a 1985 exchange of letters between the Rebbe and King Mohammed VI’s father and predecessor, King Hassan II—coinciding with the occasion of Maimonides’ 850th birthday—the Rebbe underlined Morocco’s unique history of tolerance for minorities, first and foremost its Jewish subjects.

“Your Majesty and all Moroccans have cause for particular affinity with this historic commemoration, since it is in your land, and the city of Fez, that Maimonides with his family found refuge from religious intolerance ... ,” wrote the Rebbe. “It is highly gratifying to be able to draw a parallel between the gracious attitude of the Royal family to Maimonides in Maimonides’ time and the contemporary Jewish position in your Majesty’s gracious reign, continuing the tradition of your illustrious father, his Majesty King Mohammed V, of blessed memory.”

While Morocco's Jewish population is a fraction of what it once was, it remains active and vibrant.
While Morocco's Jewish population is a fraction of what it once was, it remains active and vibrant.

In the conclusion to his letter, the Rebbe paraphrases the message with which Maimonides opens and closes his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, “that the knowledge of G‑d is the basis of mankind’s future; the ideal world in which there is no jealousy nor animosity among individuals and nations, but only peace, justice and benevolence under One G‑d.”

“This Chanukah celebration and the continued growth of Jewish life here,” says Banon, “are a testament to the fact that, as the Rebbe wrote, ‘peace, justice and benevolence’ can be a reality.”

Dignitaries at Sunday's Chanukah event.
Dignitaries at Sunday's Chanukah event.
Visiting rabbis and local Jewish leaders stand with the menorah before them.
Visiting rabbis and local Jewish leaders stand with the menorah before them.