Pessy Matusof, a longtime Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who as director of the Jewish girls high school in Casablanca influenced the educational and spiritual development of thousands of Moroccans, passed away Oct. 11 at the age of 86.

Together with her husband, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, the Russian-born educator established a far-reaching network of schools for an Arab-world Jewish community adjusting to the sudden international and cultural change brought on by Israel’s independence.

Born Pessiah Krassik in 1924 to Rabbi Leibel and Eidele Krassik, Matusof’s childhood was spent in Nevel – where her father served as a spiritual mentor at the behest of the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn – and, later, S. Petersburg.

In the northern metropolis – known then as Leningrad – the Krassiks lived close to the central train station, a location that allowed them to harbor Jewish activists who secretly travelled from city to city to strengthen local communities, earning the condemnation of Soviet authorities.

“She would always tell us about the Chasidic gatherings” at home, recalled her son, Rabbi Eli Matusof, a scholar and editor at the Kehot Publication Society, the publishing arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. “They were held in their home in secret. She loved the Chasidic melodies which the [spiritual] giants sang with cravings of serving G‑d.”

Memories of Soviet oppressions stuck with Matusof long after she made it out of Russia and established her home in the constitutional monarchy of Morocco. Every Friday night, as she lit candles to usher in the Jewish Sabbath, she recalled the trepidation she once had that any moment, the KGB would catch her family observing Judaism.

“With all of the fear,” she said, “we never missed the lighting of the candles.”

During World War II, Matusof’s father served in the Red Army in an ammunition factory. Matusof, her mother and siblings found themselves, like most of the city, without their father and husband during the great Siege of Leningrad.

“The summer months were not bad,” she recalled, “as [people] were able to bring food through Lake Ladoga, but once the winter months arrived and the lake froze it became difficult to bring food to the city and people were dying in the streets from hunger.”

The lake became Matusof’s route of escape, and she made it out of the city to join her father in the Ural Mountains. Her sister Chiyena joined them shortly thereafter, but several months later, their father passed away from a sudden stroke. After they buried him, the sisters learned that their mother had succumbed to starvation back home.

The orphaned sisters decided to head to their uncle Yona Poltova in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he headed a large part of the national network of secret Lubavitch schools. They set out with bundles of their family’s heirlooms and papers, but tragedy struck once more when robbers left them without any property or identification.

Desperate, they turned to a government office to apply for transit visas, but were denied. With no family, or money, they headed out to the street when Matusof heard someone call out to her, using her Russian name Pola.

The woman happened to be someone that Matusof helped obtain daily rations in Leningrad. The woman’s husband was a government official, who arranged for the girls to get the travel visas they needed to make it to Uzbekistan.

After the war, the girls again made an escape, this time out of the Soviet Union on into France, where Matusof became a teacher and earned a reputation as a gifted educator.

As a young girl, Pessy Matusof fled the Siege of Leningrad and, after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union.
As a young girl, Pessy Matusof fled the Siege of Leningrad and, after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union.

From Russian Hell to Unfamiliar Morocco

In 1950 in Paris, Matusof married and soon afterward, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, instructed the young couple to move to Casablanca and help run the nascent network of Lubavitch institutions in Morocco.

When they arrived in the Francophone country, the Matusofs found a restless populace demanding for independence. Violence was widespread.

“My mother remembered the violent rebelling in the streets,” said daughter Baila Palatinsky. “She literally went from the fire to the frying pan, leaving the war in Russia and arriving at war in Morocco.”

Undeterred by the politics of the moment, the Matusofs and other Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries enrolled Jewish children in their schools. The mission of the educational network was simple: to raise the level of Jewish scholarship and bolster religious observance in the face of an assimilation that run unchecked under the French-influenced society.

Despite the hardships, “she never questioned or complained,” said Palatinsky.

According to the daughter, life in Morocco those first few years was not easy. The family ate canned fish during the week, and if they were lucky, had fresh fish on their Shabbat table. The young couple refused to ask for more financial support from abroad, but when the Rebbe learned of the situation at the Matusof home, he immediately instructed the European Bureau of Chabad-Lubavitch to increase the family’s allotment of funds.

Keepers of Local Traditions

In Morocco, the new arrivals were welcomed by the local Jewish population with open arms, said Danielle Gabay, one of Matusof’s students.

“Whatever they did, they had great respect for the local customs,” recalled Gabay.

Illustrating the point, Bitya Ashkenazi said that although the Matusofs and other school officials adhered to the customs of Eastern European Jews, they insisted that “Jewish laws and customs be taught by a local Sephardic rabbi.”

The Matusofs “lifted the bar for the girls to a much higher level,” said Gabay, “and gave them the tools to deal with the wave of assimilation.”

“When I came to the United States, I was up to par and continued in my education in medicine,” echoed Ashkenazi. “In Judaic studies, my friends became deans of schools across the globe. I did not feel that our education was any less than the American system.”

According to Gabay, Matusof treated her girls – who came from far and wide to live in the dormitory in Casablanca – not as students, but as family members.

“If she knew someone who was sick, she would go check up on them after school,” said Gabay. “She always had the right touch and the right words to tell them.”

The Matusof home was constantly full of visitors from the school and local community, many of whom turned to the educator for advice.

“As she’d peel potatoes,” recalled Palatinsky, “there would be someone standing there speaking about issues she was having with her kids.”

Matusof “understood people and listened to all they had to say,” said Gabay. “You always knew that she would never, ever repeat what you told her.”

When Pessy Matusof came to Morocco, she spoke fluent French but arrived to a foreign, tumultuous world.
When Pessy Matusof came to Morocco, she spoke fluent French but arrived to a foreign, tumultuous world.

Self Sacrifice

That the Matusofs left a community of fellow Lubavitchers to move to a foreign land in North Africa only earned the respect of locals in their new home. The departure of the Matusofs’ children for Lubavitch schools back in Europe underscored the family’s self sacrifice.

“The separation from her children was very painful for my mother,” said Palatinsky. “I remember the weekly letters that would come from the kids in France and the great excitement when the letters were opened.”

In a private audience with the Rebbe, Matusof once complained about how hard it was to be away from her children and suggested that maybe it was time for the family to move back to France.

The Rebbe responded with a smile and turned the mother’s attention to how her children were getting by.

“There are such great reports of your children’s progress in their studies and in their participations after study hours in spreading Judaism,” he said before showering Matusof and her family with blessings.

“It was amazing that they were so far from their family,” said Ashkenazi. “People greatly appreciated that.”

Worldwide Legacy

Among the innovations Matusof brought to Jewish life in Casablanca was a weekly Shabbat lecture for women. She arranged the speakers, while locals took responsibility for the refreshments. In little time, the gatherings got so large that they had to move to the school, where an average of 200 women took part.

“This gave the community an opportunity to learn even though they hadn’t been in school for years,” recalled Ashkenazi.

Matusof, whose French was excellent, prepared booklets for the local community on various Jewish traditions. She also tutored women on the Jewish laws of family purity.

“She had so many students and she molded so many people,” said Gabay. People “all over the world see her as their spiritual mother. This is a great loss to the Moroccan Jewish community across the globe.”

The mourning extended to the Moroccan government.

“No words can express our feelings for the loss of such a great lady,” Mohamed Karmoune, Consul General of Morocco in New York, wrote to the family. She “gave so much of her time and effort to assist Chabad-Lubavitch, the Talmud Torah, and the Otzar Torah schools in Morocco.”

Matusof’s children and grandchildren serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries around the world. The latest of her descendents, Rabbi Arele and Chaya Matusof, moved just this month to Canada to establish the Friendship Circle of Calgary and run Jewish youth activities in the city.