A five-year program to repair Morocco’s Jewish cemeteries was cited as an example of “peaceful coexistence” at a ceremony marking its accomplishments.
Houses of Life, as the program is known, was celebrated Nov. 17 at the Russell Senate Office Building. Under the auspices of the Moroccan government, it has repaired 12,600 graves. Its next phase calls for continued upkeep and protection of the cemeteries.
The program demonstrates that Jews are an important part of Morocco’s heritage, Serge Berdugo, president of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco, said during a presentation that featured a slide show of the restored cemeteries; speeches by Moroccan, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim leaders; and a dinner of Moroccan foods. Morocco once had one of the largest Jewish communities outside of Israel; today, however, Morocco is home to fewer than 3,000 Jews, most of whom live in the country’s cities.
Until the program’s launch in 2010, most of the 167 Jewish cemeteries in Morocco, a predominantly Muslim country, had deteriorated to the point where they were merely untended land with scattered debris and broken gravestones. Project participants weeded and cleared 2 million square feet of land, and built a fence and access door at every open burial place.
Berdugo praised the restoration work, which was done under the direction of King Mohammed VI, for its interfaith efforts. In a world where there is “so much hatred between Muslims and Jews,” Houses of Life stands out as an example “of peaceful coexistence,” he said.
“May we go on working our way peacefully in the memories of all the deceased. May they rest in peace,” he told the 150 attendees at the event, which was sponsored by American Jewish Committee and the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco. “We hear calls to close doors to refugees, but tonight we’ve all come together, because we know this is the wrong path. Humanity cannot grow on mistrust and fear.”
To further show its appreciation of the interfaith community in the United States, the Kingdom of Morocco bestowed its highest medal to three Washington clergyman. Rabbi Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation; Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington; and Imam Talib Shareef, president of The Nation’s Mosque. Each received the Order of Ouissam Alaouite.
“In a world torn with terror” in which Muslims “are put under the microscope, we come together,” Lustig said after receiving the award.
When people of different faiths are honored by the Kingdom of Morocco, “the king is telling the world, especially the Muslim world, we care,” Lustig added. “We who work for harmony should not be shy.”
Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) praised the honorees: “The world needs great people of faith. We should never underestimate the good power of people of faith to change the world.”
While the AJC did not play a role in the cemetery restoration project, Jason Isaacson, associate executive director for policy, said his organization has a lengthy history of working with Morocco. He called Houses of Life a “totally rare, a unique situation” and praised the Moroccan government for its efforts to preserve Jewish heritage.
But Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer, who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Morocco with 23 Bethesda Jewish Congregation congregants, painted a different picture of life for Jews in Morocco.
While touring the newly restored cemeteries, he noticed that “Muslims are doing it. The Jews themselves aren’t that interested in it.”
The gatekeepers of the synagogues there “are all Muslims. They open the synagogues for you” to tour, he said at the end of the program.
Morocco’s few remaining Jews tend to be wealthy, Schnitzer said. They often send their children to Europe for college, advising them to form new lives there.
“They have decided,” said the rabbi, “there is no future” for Jews in Morocco.