By Bruria Efune – Chabad.org
When Rabbi Levi Banon and teams of rabbinical students and volunteers arrived on Sunday morning in the devastated Old City of Marrakesh, Morocco, the area was unrecognizable and still fraught with danger. Buildings collapsed around them, while search-and-rescue teams dug by hand through the rubble, desperately looking for survivors. Banon, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Morocco, and the rabbinical students had traveled from Casablanca to assist in any way they could.
A day earlier, on Shabbat, a devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the ancient city, killing more than 2,100 people, and leaving a trail of devastation across the Marrakesh region. The Old City’s infrastructure, already deteriorating from age, suffered significant damage. Particularly ravaged was the Mellah, the city’s historic 2,000-year-old Jewish Quarter.
“Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people are sleeping outside,” Banon told Chabad.org. “The Mellah courtyards are full of tents since 90 percent of people here are unable to return to their homes.”
Moroccan officials are organizing teams of structural engineers who will go to each home to assess its integrity and determine whether or not it’s safe for residents to return. Many of the homes are half destroyed or have ceilings and walls caving in. There have been no reported casualties among Morocco’s Jews, the rabbi said, and the Jewish community has mobilized to help in the relief effort.
The rabbi and his wife, Chana Banon, have lived in Casablanca since 2009. Chana Banon was visiting New York with the Banon children at the time of the earthquake.
Suddenly, a Wall Collapses, Killing a Passerby
On Sunday night, as Banon was helping out locals in the Old City with food, water and words of comfort, he witnessed the harsh reality residents now face. “I was walking with local community members when suddenly a wall collapsed from post-earthquake damage. It landed on a passerby, who was instantly killed,” he said. “The area is still very dangerous.”
Banon, Chabad volunteers and members of the local Jewish community brought warm meals and essentials for the many people who were now homeless and were grateful for the assistance, care and compassion.
“In Marrakesh, we get along very well with our Muslim brothers,” Banon explained. “It’s good to be able to help everyone in need, and we are in touch with local authorities to see what more we can do.”
Active in Morocco Since Late 1940s
Chabad has served a key role in the Moroccan Jewish community since the late 1940s, when the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—began laying the groundwork for a massive Jewish educational network. After his passing in 1950, his son-in-law and successor—the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—continued the work, sending Rabbi Michoel and Taibel Lipskar to Meknes, Morocco, as Chabad’s first permanent emissaries in North Africa. The Lipskars established a yeshivah in the mountainous city and would lead its ancient Jewish community for decades.
The Lipskars were followed later that year by Rabbi Shlomo and Pessia Matusof, who were sent to Casablanca to direct Chabad activities throughout Morocco. Over the years, they were joined by many Chabad rabbinic couples, and Chabad’s Oholei Yosef Yitzchak network of Jewish schools and yeshivahs would eventually reach 70 communities throughout the country.
Other pioneering emissaries to Morocco included Rabbi Nissan and Rachel Pinson, who came to Casablanca in 1953, later establishing Chabad of Tunisia, where Rachel Pinson, 95, still directs Chabad. In 1959, Rabbi Sholom and Gittel Eidelman arrived in Morocco a week after their wedding and spent a life devoted to helping the Jews of Morocco, assisting the Moroccan chief rabbinate by forming Beth Midrach LaRabanim VelaShochatin VelaSofrim—an advanced yeshivah to train rabbis, scribes and ritual slaughterers—and establishing mikvahs around the nation. Mrs. Eidelman continues to serve the community today as director of Mikvah Tahara of Morocco.
No one reshaped Moroccan Jewish life more than Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who, with his wife, Rebbetzin Raizel Raskin, energetically served the country’s Jews for more than 44 years until his passing in 2004. Rebbetzin Raskin remains director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Morocco.
Earlier this year, a historic conference of rabbis from Africa, the Middle East and Europe was hosted in Fez by the Moroccan-born Rabbi Banon and his U.S.-born wife, Chana. The couple have served as emissaries in Casablanca since 2009, after a visit to Banon’s local grandmother resulted in many requests for them to stay and dedicate themselves to the local Jewish community. Rebbetzin Raskin then appointed the Banons to lead the next generation of Moroccan Jewry.
Support from the Rebbe After 1960 Earthquake
Saturday’s earthquake is not Morocco’s first. Back in February of 1960, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake devastated the coastal city of Agadir, killing 12,000 people (about a third of the city’s population at the time), including students of the local Chabad yeshivah. The Rebbe immediately dispatched a telegram to Rabbi Shaul Danan, the Chief Rabbi of Agadir, expressing his condolences:
Together with our dear Moroccan brethren, we bemoan the “fire that ravaged” the community of Agadir, and our heartfelt prayers are with you … . May G‑d bless you in your efforts of rebuilding with inner peace and magnanimity….
P.S. I have encouraged the Chabad community to increase their prayers and charity this Thursday, which is a fast day, in commemoration of the tragedy.
The earthquake took place just a week before the Jewish holiday of Purim. At the farbrengen gathering held in his synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Rebbe spoke about the tragedy in Agadir, focusing on the idea that restoration that comes after destruction could be even greater than what had been prior to the destruction. He brought the example of the second tablets at Mount Sinai, which contained many additions and were “double in strength” in comparison to the first set, explaining:
Therefore, in the place of one [learning] center, there must be numerous ones, and in the place of one student there must be many more… ! This growth will not only benefit the community and school but also the souls of the departed, who were sadly cut down in their prime, and who will derive gratification when the empty places on the yeshiva benches they left behind will once again be filled.
‘Phone Ringing Off the Hook’
Rabbi Banon said his phone has been ringing off the hook since the earthquake struck, with people in need or concerned relatives of local residents and people wishing to help.
He spoke of a beloved community member, Titi Haliwa, who until now, had a constant stream of guests in her home, which was destroyed.
“Every Shabbat, she had tables full of guests,” said Banon. “She would host 20 to 30 people at a time, often on weekdays, too, serving up generous kosher meals in the heart of the Mellah. Anyone who needed kosher food knew that they could go to Titi. Her home was one of the ideal examples of hachnasat orchim, but now the earthquake left it in complete ruins.”
The group is visiting communities in the mountainous areas around Marrakesh, where the devastation and needs are even more acute.
Chabad of Morocco has launched a drive to collect essential supplies to help people who have lost everything. Those wishing to help the relief effort in Morocco can donate online here.