CHIEF RABBI, HACHAM SHAUL KASSIN 5681 – 5779 / 1921-2018

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By: Machla Abramovitz

Rabbi Eliyahu Attias may be in his mid-70s. Even so, his voice rings loud and clear as he delivers his Shabbat drasha, Torah that combines Ashkenazi learning tinged with a Moroccan flavor. For now, Rabbi Attias’s new synagogue is located in the converted garage of the Tchiprout family. The male congregants, young and middle-aged fathers and children, sit together on one side, while the mothers and daughters listen attentively from behind a one-way window that separates the Tchiprout’s family room from the rest of the synagogue. The painted walls and gleaming floors lend an aura of renewal to the new shul and to the entire enterprise.

Raphael Tchiprout, 31, and the father of three children, looks on with well-deserved pride. This Shabbat minyan is the first of its kind in Jackson, and is one of the first initiatives undertaken by this unique community – the only Moroccan community for b’nai Torah in the U.S., which Tchiprout helped to found. It is situated off Hwy 195, a mere 15-minute walk to the outskirts of Lakewood and a 35-40-minute drive to Deal. The Jackson community started with only three families. It now boasts twenty families, with others living in the vicinity taking advantage of the synagogue’s minyanim and shiurim. Besides the Shabbat minyan, there is also a Sunday night minyan for Maariv, as well as a Thursday night Humash shiur by Rabbi Attias that is attracting more and more attendees. Soon the synagogue will host the first-ever weekday Shacharit minyan in Jackson. Next onthe agenda is the opening of a night kollel. After that: a mikveh? a synagogue complex? “With Rabbi Attias at the helm, the possibilities are endless,” Tchiprout says.

A Moroccan Dream

Only two years ago this kind of community was inconceivable. Tchiprout’s dream of founding a community of Moroccan b’nai Torah located an eight-minute drive from the Bais Medrash Govoha was realized much faster than he dreamed possible. And it was to be headed by a Torah scholar of the caliber and stature of Rabbi Attias! Rabbi Attias is recognized as a Torah giant in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Torah communities. “Rabbi Attias epitomizes the best of both worlds. He learned in Torat Emet, RavMoshe Schneider's yeshiva in London, England; he studied with Rav Aaron Kotler, as well, and held a makom kavuah in the synagogue of Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l.
Rabbi Attias speaks fluent English, Yiddish, Arabic, and Hebrew. He also helped found the Scranton Yeshiva, and together with Rabbi Naftali Friedler opened Yeshivat Ner Israel in Toronto. Moreover, for 23 years he, together with Rav Nissim Yagen, administered the Kehilas Yaakov Kollelin Yerushalayim. He bridges both worlds, which define the character of today’s Moroccans attracted to what Lakewood is offering,” Tchiprout said.

It was not assured that Rabbi Attias would accept this position. When Tchiprout first invited Rabbi Attias to head this newly-established
yeshivah community two years ago, the Rosh Kollel did not commit. At this stage of his life, the decision to uproot himself and his wife Mina Raisel (Cookie) from Yerushalayim and move to New Jersey was not easy. True, they had family here, and for the Rav and Rabanit,moving close to Lakewood was like coming home. In the 1960s, the two lived beautiful Torah lives here. Ultimately, it was the challenge of contributing to Torah learning that clinched their decision. “There was no minyan in Jackson. It was a midbar,” Rabbi Attias explains. “And if we cando something for Torah and the Jewish people, well, that’s our job.”

The Draw of Jackson –
A Community with a Moroccan Flavor

For Tchiprout and other community members, Jackson offers much more than just affordable housing in a preferred neighborhood. It fills a void that touches the core of their being. Tchiprout had grown up in a vibrant, established Moroccan community in Toronto. Even though he attended Ashkenazi yeshivot, he accompanied his father to a Moroccan synagogue every Shabbat and yom tov. So, when his three-year-old son asked to accompany him to shul on Shabbat, and he noticed that there were no children there – the Lakewood synagogue in his neighborhood could not accommodate 250 children as well as their parents – Tchiprout realized that hischildren would not experience what he had growing up. "What will become of our minhagim?" he asked himself.

The issue, though, is more profound than accommodating children in shul. “The Moroccans who live in Canada, in Montreal and Toronto, as well as those living in France, South America, and Israel, developed strong communities and Moroccan identities. However, in the U.S., where the numbers of Moroccans are small (following the second exodus, Moroccans mostly emigrated to French and Spanish speaking countries) our sense of identity is weak. Subsequently, we’re disappearing as a community,” Rabbi Attias said.

He points out that there is something special about Moroccans' adaptability, for better and for worse. Moroccans have an uncanny ability to camouflage themselves into their surroundings. Unlike other Sephardic groups, Moroccans who study in Ashkenazi yeshivot speak Yiddish and wear their tzitzitdangling out of their slacks, for example. Moroccans are also innately spiritual. In Uman, for instance, they comprise the largest minyan by the Breslover Rebbe’s grave, and they are also heavily represented in Chabad.

Despite that, Moroccans never founded yeshivot in the U.S. Subsequently, more and more religious Moroccans will continue attending Lakewood andother elite U.S. yeshivot and will marry into the Ashkenaz or Eidot HaMizrachcommunities whose minhagim, mannerisms, and heritage differ from their own. More ominous are the large numbers of non-observant Moroccans assimilating into secular culture. Between the two factions, one way and another, the Moroccan mesorahis being lost. “In sixty years, we won’t have a Moroccan community in North America, even in Montreal, where 40,000 Moroccans live and flourish. Today, most of them are traditional; their children are less traditional, while their great grandchildren will probably end up going to shul only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Tchiprout says.

The Moroccan community of Jackson is trying to curb that trend by establishing a nucleus of b’nai Torah strongly committed to their heritage, and whose influence extends worldwide. Community members aspire to building a place that Moroccans can call home. By the number of inquiries Tchiprout receives, and from the growing numbers of participants that attend their minyanim and shiurim, it is evident that many Moroccans want to be part of this nucleus. Whether they come for selichot, or Megillahreading, a pride of identity is developing, especially among young Moroccans who, until now, saw themselves as a minority compared to the vibrant Syrian community in New York and New Jersey.

Offering a New Home

Mordechai Dahan* is one of those “disappearing Moroccans.” His history is somewhat typical. Dahan’s grandfather was a highly respected rav in Queitra, a tiny village in Northern Morocco. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, penniless. With no rabbanim or nucleus of Torah to keep them intact as a religious community, the family retained a sprinkling of minhagim, such as the Pesach Maimuna, the sfengsponge donuts that are a must to eat on Hanukah, and eating couscous on Shabbat. Mordechai's father married an Ashkenazi woman. Mordechai and his siblings grew up disconnected from, and even ashamed of, their 2000-year-old Moroccan heritage.

It was not until he traveled to Israel that Mordechai started connecting to his Sephardic roots, and began identifying more as a Sephardi than an Ashkenazi, despite his Ashkenazi yeshiva background. Because there was no Moroccan community in New York for him to cling to, he latched onto the Syrian community, which was well-established and close-knit. Unlike many of his Moroccan friends, who changed their names to Ashkenazi ones and married Ashkenazi spouses, he married a Syrian woman from a large extended family, and is raising his children according to the Syrian traditions. He expects his daughters to marry Syrian b’nai Torah. “To me, the Syrian community is beautiful. I don’t practice anything Moroccan,” he says.

How do the two traditions differ? "There are more similarities in mentality than differences between them. Still, differences do exist. Whereas the words in our siddurimare the same, the havarais different, as are the foods we eat. The way we talk to one another and greet each other differs, as well. Syrians and Moroccans have different accents, and name their children different names. The major difference, though, is that Moroccans born and raised in the U.S. are ashamed of their heritage, whereas the Syrians are very proud of theirs.” Dahan wants to see that same kindof pride manifested within the Moroccan community.

So, when the Jackson community opened in his neighborhood, and mainly since Rabbi Attias’s arrival, this renewal of Moroccan pride spoke to Dahan’s neshama. He recognizes the community’s enormous potential. Even though he does not live within walking distance of the shul, he encourages the community’s efforts. This year he prayed with them selichotand is looking forward to attending the night kollelwhen it opens. He could not agree more with the community’s raison d'être. “What better way to strengthen the Moroccan community from within than to have a nucleus of Torah, even if it’s in Jackson and far from the major Moroccan communities in the world?I feel this might be a way to save the few remnants of Moroccan Jewry that still exist in North America, as well as strengthen the religious commitment of more traditional Moroccan communities living outside of Israel,”
he says.

Moshe Chaim Suissa –
Steeped in Moroccan Mesorah

Unlike Dahan, Moshe Chaim Suissa grew up proud of his heritage. He was born and raised in Annecy, France, home to a significant Moroccan community. However, after moving to the States and studying in various American yeshivot, he fully understands Dahan’s sentiments, and is saddened by them. “I keep meeting Moroccans who don’t share my sense of pride. Intellectually, they understand that they share a significant and beautiful Moroccan mesorah, but they don’t feel connected to it. They see themselves as a minority, and they want to move towards the majority. Since there are so few Moroccans left here, they tell me, why bother perpetuating a legacy their children won’t inherit? In Monsey I met pockets of Moroccans who were proud of their heritage, but they were few and in between,” Suissa says.

Despite his mother being Ashkenaz and his wife Syrian (her uncle is Hacham Yosef Harari-Raful, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Ateret Torah) and easily integrating into the Ashkenaz and Syrian communities, the 41-year-old father of six identifies as fully Moroccan. With no established Moroccan community in sight, he felt a profound void in his life. So, when Raphael approached Suissa with the idea of founding a Moroccan community for b’nai Torah, he enthusiastically came on board.

Even though he learned in Ashkenazi yeshivot, Suissa says he grew up steeped in the mesorahhe received from his father and his community. This applied to his derech ha’limud, as well. After leaving Morocco, his father, NaftaliSuissa, studied in the Sunderland Yeshiva, but his approach to learning remained very much Moroccan, an approach he passed on to his sons. The elder Suissa appreciated the Moroccan way of learning Talmud so much that he augmented Moshe Chaim’s yeshiva studies by hiring a private rebbefrom Morocco to learn with him a few hours a day for two years. It was a derechappreciated by Ashkenazim, as well. “My rebbewas so beloved that Rav Aaron Schechter hired him to be his son’s private tutor,” Suissa recalls. It was an excellent move on his father’s part. Suissa now integrates both approaches into his learning. “Each of these worlds has its tradition. I take the best of both worlds to end up with the best understanding of Torah that I can.”

Influence of Isaac Shalom

The strong connection between Moroccans and the Ashkenazi yeshiva world began in 1947 with the founding of the Otzar HaTorah Educational Network. This involved a collaborative effort by Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz and Jewish leadersin Morocco and Tunisia, and was in conglomeration with the JOINT, directed by Isaac Shalom. Its purpose was to strengthen traditional Judaism in Northern Africa, as well as to counter Alliance Francaise, a pro-Zionist, pro-secular educational network whose influence was widespread throughout the Sephardic world. Otzar HaTorah established 28 yeshivot in Morocco that included Neveh Shalom, named after Isaac Shalom, as well as Talmud Torahs and girls’ schools. Rabbi Kalmanowitz also arranged for student visasfor some boys to attend North American yeshivot, such as the Mir and Chaim Berlin. Other teenagers went on to study in the Torat Emet yeshiva, as well as the Sunderland Rabbinical College in England, while others were sent to France to study in Yeshivat Aix Les Bains and Ohr Yosef Novardok Yeshiva. Each of these yeshivot produced outstanding talmidei hachamim.

Yehudah Azoulay, is of Moroccan descent and is the founder of the Sephardic Legacy Institute for Sephardic Heritage that promotes Sephardic Judaism. Azoulay commends fellow Torontonian Raphael Tchiprout, as well as Moshe Chaim Suissa for their efforts in founding this community. “As long as they keep trying to get closer to their Moroccan heritage, they are on the right path,” he says.

Revival of Moroccan Culture

Suissa points out that Israel is experiencing a renaissance regarding Moroccan culture. When he was last there, he discovered a store called Yotzrot Ha’Maghreb that carries only books from and about Jews of Morocco. Azoulay bought a coffee table book with 1000 photos of the Jews of Marrakesh alone, as well as a three-volume set profiling its hachamim. “Ours is a beautiful legacy and heritage that must be preserved,” he says.

Suissa could not agree more. “Our mesorahis ancient and represents a unique derechin approaching tefillaand avodat Hashem. The feedback we get from congregants attending our minyanim– even the Ashkenazi ones – is that they can feel the strength of our mesorahin the prayers alone. My four-year-old son now loves coming to shul. For the sake of our children, we must keep our mesorahalive. In the States, that won’t happen naturally; our numbers just aren’t large enough. Therefore, we must create this outcome for ourselves.”

*The name was changed to protect privacy.