By Jonathan Rubenstein
Sarah is in the 11th grade. She was born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco, and when she finishes high school, she wants to move to France so she can study medicine and eventually become a doctor.
Brenda also was born and raised in Casablanca, and she, too, is in the 11th grade. After high school, Brenda wants to leave Morocco and move to New York City to continue her studies.
Sarah and Brenda are the best of friends. They have played together since they were very young. They have grown up together. And now they study alongside each other at the Lycée Maimonide in Casablanca.
On the surface, the story of Sarah and Brenda seems rather ordinary. We see stories about children growing up together and sharing formative experiences with each other many, many times over in Dallas and throughout the United States. But the story of Sarah and Brenda is anything but ordinary.
Sarah is a Muslim. Brenda is Jewish.
Along with 130 friends and colleagues from the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet — including eight of us representing Dallas — I recently had the opportunity to meet Sarah and Brenda in Casablanca, during our Cabinet trip to Morocco and Madrid. Each year, Cabinet takes a trip abroad so we can see firsthand the impact of Federation’s overseas dollars through the JDC and Jewish Agency.
This year’s trip was a fascinating contrast between two Jewish communities on different trajectories. In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain and, for centuries thereafter, there were zero Jews in the entire country. Jewish life is being revived in Spain, though. There are now approximately 50,000 Jews in Spain, and the communities are thriving. The Moroccan Jewish community, partially because of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain, numbered approximately 300,000 at its peak. But once Israel became a state, many people left, leaving only 3,500 Jews in Morocco today.
During our trip, we had tremendous access to politicians and public figures. For example, Cabinet members met with one of Morocco’s foreign ministers in a regal setting near the Royal Palace to discuss Morocco’s relationship with Jews and Israel. We also met with a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Morocco to discuss the historical relationship between the United States and Morocco. Interestingly, Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the United States as an independent nation. And while in Madrid, we had a private meeting with Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra to discuss the shared history and values of Jews and Catholics.
Back in Casablanca, Sarah and Brenda joined us for lunch one day at the SOC Club — the only Jewish social and sports club in Morocco. It was at this lunch, and in particular during the panel on which Sarah and Brenda spoke, that we learned about Morocco’s inspiring religious tolerance.
On the panel with Sarah and Brenda were two of their teachers from the Lycée Maimonide — a school funded in part by our Federation dollars. The school is a Jewish high school, with both Jewish and Muslim students. Historically, Jewish students composed 80 percent of the student body. Now, as the Moroccan Jewish community ages, the population is 80 percent Muslim and 20 percent Jewish.
Our group was excited to hear about their experiences in this unique Jewish high school with such significant religious diversity. The first question came from the panel: “Tell us about some of the challenges you face in the school with respect to the mixed religions.” One of the teachers responded, “There are no challenges.” The other teacher followed suit, “I agree — the same answer as her.”
The room was silent. The answers were not what we expected. We expected to hear a discussion about tensions that exist between Jewish and Muslim students — much like what we are accustomed to hearing on the news.
Surely the next question would spark some discussion, we thought. The moderator asked the students, “Tell us what makes this school exceptional.” Brenda responded, “Nothing really.” Sarah said, “It’s really just like any other school.”
More silence filled the room. It was that uncomfortable, awkward feeling when a live event does not unfold as planned, leaving a lot of dead air to fill. People in the audience were expecting to hear a good story showcasing this Federation-funded school as an example of an exceptional accomplishment in religious pluralism.
And then it hit us. The story was that there was nothing exceptional about a Jewish school in a Muslim country with a predominantly Muslim student body. It was just a school. With kids. Who have friends. They do not see the world divided up by religious lines. These kids just see people for who they are.
And they live in a country that fosters this kind of thinking. Less than a decade ago, King Mohammed VI amended Morocco’s constitution to add language specifically recognizing the Jewish people as an important part of the country’s history and culture. Something unique from a predominantly-Muslim country. This same king, while driving through the streets of Marrakech’s Jewish quarter several years ago, noticed that many of the street signs, which used to bear Jewish names and Hebrew script, had been changed to Arabic names and script. The king ordered that they all be changed back. Morocco’s commitment to preserving Jewish culture and promoting a peaceful coexistence with Muslims is remarkable. And the Lycée Maimonide is a byproduct of that.
The line from our lunch panel that really captured the moment came from Sarah. She said about Brenda, “We have been very close friends since elementary school, and I hope that we can be very close friends for the rest of our lives.”
This small example of religious coexistence can speak to people and communities across the world. There are millions of Sarahs and Brendas out there. If tikkun olam happens one step at a time, this is a great place to start.
Jonathan Rubenstein is a Dallas attorney and member of the Jewish Federations of North America National Young Leadership Cabinet. He participated in the NYLC trip to Spain and Morocco recently.