TORONTO — Moroccan Jews are celebrating 50 years since they began to settle in Toronto.
Some community leaders who have been here since the beginning are reflecting on how far they’ve come in such a short time.
Maurice Benzacar, who was one of the first Moroccans to make the move to Toronto reflected on how quickly the community flourished.
Benzacar came to Toronto from Casablanca in 1957, a year after Morocco, a country that had previously been under French rule, gained independence. He worked with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services [JIAS] for more than 30 years as the director of settlement.
He said that while he helped many eastern European Jews settle in Toronto, he also volunteered to greet Moroccans at the airport and helped them find accommodation and work.
Although Benzacar and JIAS offered services and aid to help the new Canadians settle into a life in a foreign country, something was missing.
“When we first arrived here, we didn’t have a place to pray… We have different minhag, we have different customs, we have different melodies, and it was impossible to blend [into the existing Ashkenazi congregations]… They are Jews like us, but we were different,” he said.
“In those days, in 1957, we used to gather at the YMHA at Spadina and Bloor,” which is known today as the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.
A year later, the Petah Tikvah Anshe Castilla Congregation was formed, but it wasn’t until 1968 that the community raised enough money to purchase a synagogue on Brunswick Avenue.
From the community’s humble beginning at a JCC, the population of Moroccan Jews in Toronto, which Benzacar estimates is at about 1,100 families, now have plenty of choices.
Petah Tikvah, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Tiferet Israel Congregation and the Sephardic Kehila Centre are just a few of the synagogues in the Greater Toronto Area that offer the same Sephardic customs the community grew up with in the Northern African country.
Rabbi Amram Assayag, the chief rabbi of the Abir Yaakob congregation at the kehila centre, who came to Toronto from Tangier in 1968 soon after Israel’s Six Day War, is also amazed at the community’s accomplishments.
“People came here without any religious leadership, contrary to other communities that moved with their rabbis. This community came by themselves and a few people had the vision that there was something to safeguard, and they began a congregation some 50 years ago. There wasn’t much hope for anything big. They were happy if they could just continue [praying] in [another shul’s] basement,” Rabbi Assayag said.
“They have a culture that many years ago we were told that we have no chance to maintain outside of the Sephardic lands, and today, it is not any different than it was in the Sephardic lands… Today, what they experience in Toronto, they never dreamed they could have.”
Max Benaim, a Petah Tikvah board member and a Sephardi Jewish community volunteer, said that the Sephardi community wouldn’t be as strong today if not for the success of the Petah Tikvah Youth Organization (PTYO) that kept Moroccans united.
Benaim, who arrived in Toronto 43 years ago in 1964, began volunteering when he was only 15 years old. Soon after, he founded PTYO.
“In our community, in the Spanish-speaking community, it was like a brand name. Everybody knew the name, PTYO… It was the only Sephardic youth organization in the city. We used to do all kinds of social, educational and religious services. And out of that… close to 40 couples got married. That is quite an accomplishment,” Benaim said.
“They got married, had children and grandchildren, and they always talk about PTYO and that brand name never disappeared. That’s what I’m proud of.”
Despite his disappointment that this organization no longer exists and that social programming for his children’s generation isn’t the focus it was when he was a teenager, Benaim said he is proud of the tight knit Moroccan community he helped build.
“All the parents came to this country ignorant of the country – where the country was located, the weather, the language – completely ignorant. I could not believe it. But the majority have been successful. Most Moroccans that came to Canada, they came without money,” Benaim said, adding that it is important to acknowledge the help they received from JIAS.
“We have come a long way. We have doctors in the community, we have investors. I would say a majority of the people have achieved what they wanted to achieve. Moroccans are go-getters,” he said.
But the Moroccan community isn’t just celebrating where they are today, but also where they came from.
Last month, hundreds gathered at the Sephardic Kehila Centre for an event called A Night in Morocco.
The event featured a screening of a documentary called Jewish Morocco, by Meyer Ifrah. Ifrah recently travelled to Morocco to conduct interviews with locals, visit the Jewish ghettos where thousands of Jews used to live and film centuries-old synagogues and cemeteries in which renowned tzaddikim are buried.
Following the screening, Mohamed Tanji, the Moroccan ambassador to Canada, spoke to the audience about the positive impact that the Jewish communities had on the country.
Moroccan Jews contributed to the religious, cultural, political and economic development of Morocco, and the religious leaders of the Jewish community had the respect, not only of their own followers, but also the Muslim community, Tanji said.
But Benaim, who has been a dedicated community volunteer for decades, is always looking ahead and is currently working on another ambitious project.
“My goal now… is to build a senior citizens’ home for Sephardim, because of the language barrier. There will be a retirement home for these old folks who vegetate eight or nine months out of the year in their apartment alone, with nobody to talk to,” he said.
“If we had a senior citizen retirement home, they would be housed there, they would be able to speak to their neighbour who speaks Spanish or French, and have certain activities for them.”
Benzacar is also looking to the future and said he is optimistic because some of the youth are even more exposed to and involved with Judaism than their parents were at their age.
“I’ll give you an example: years ago, when we came to a small Moroccan synagogue on Sukkot, we probably had one lulav for the whole synagogue and today, every congregant is carrying a lulav with his children… We built synagogues, and there are more people attached to religion today than there was before.”