By Laura Porter
From listening to Muslim and Jewish children singing Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” in Casablanca to celebrating Shabbat with Jewish day school students in Madrid, Ben Lyons’ recent trip to Morocco and Spain underlined the rich connections among Jews across the world.
Lyons, a first-year member of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, was one of 140 Cabinet members from 39 Federation communities to take part in the recent Study Mission. From Worcester, he currently serves as vice president and campaign chair on the governing board of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts as well as on JFCM’s Harold Grinspoon Life and Legacy team.
The goal of the six-day trip, which took place from April 23-29, was for Cabinet members to “experience the intersection of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and understand how historic cycles of persecution triggered Jewish migration between Spain and Morocco, and how the respective Spanish and Moroccan cultures influenced Jewish life and practice,” says Rabbi David Kessel, who is AVP to National Young Leadership and NextGen engagement.
Traveling to Casablanca and Rabat in Morocco and to Madrid and Toledo in Spain, the group visited a wide variety of sites, including day schools, synagogues and senior centers. They also met with the Israeli Ambassador to Spain as well as David Hatchwell, the former president of the Jewish Community of Madrid, and the Archbishop of Madrid.
For Lyons, the specifics of this mission touched a number of personal interests.
“I’d been to Spain before and was aware of the deep roots to Jewry in Spain prior to 1492,” he says. Moreover, “there are some Sephardic roots in the family. Sephardic culture has always been interesting to me.”
He also grew up with a neighbor who was a Moroccan Jew, raised in France.
“I had always loved the culture and the food. It was exciting to be somewhere that was a Muslim nation with a significant Jewish presence. You don’t get the full story when you turn on the news or read the newspaper about what happens in those countries. I wanted to see it first-hand.”
In Casablanca, the group visited the Neve Shalom Kindergarten & Primary School, where three-quarters of the students are Muslim rather than Jewish. The school is supported by the JDC, which helps Jewish students pay for tuition.
“In the classroom, Muslim kids sat next to Jewish kids, and you could feel the mutual acceptance, the inclusiveness, the warmth and love for each other,” says Lyons. “It was truly an example of what we should be seeing elsewhere in the world.”
The stark contrast to the current divisiveness and separation – racial, political and cultural – in the United States was striking.
“Here we are in a Muslim-dominated country, and you have these kids who choose to enroll in this Jewish day school,” says Lyons. “They want to learn about Jewish culture and the Jewish holidays. It was a wonderful thing to see.”
A second highlight in Morocco was the JDC Levine Senior Residence, where Cabinet visitors shared Moroccan food and pastries with the residents. Lyons recalls the center as “something out of World War II – very bare bones.”
In Madrid, the group got a chance to meet members of the thriving Spanish Jewish community, 600 years after Spain expelled the Jews and led those who remained to choose conversion.
The group spent Shabbat at the Ibn Gabirol ORT School, joining the 450 Jewish students for an afternoon of singing and dancing. The excitement and level of joy was heightened by the surprise visit of popular Israeli a cappella group, Kippalive.
“We were all dancing arm in arm with perfect strangers,” says Lyons. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off anyone’s face. Here [we are] across the sea, Jews from wherever we come from in the United States or Canada, connecting with Jews in Europe through Shabbat and music. I felt as if I was home.”
Lyons said he is still assimilating the myriad experiences of a few short days. The nature of the mission helped to drive home the importance of Federation and the global reach of its programs.
It also underlines how “Jews around the world care for other Jews. No one is going to take care of the Jewish people other than the Jewish people. We have to take care of each other around the world.”
For more information about the National Young Leadership Cabinet, contact Ben Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAP: Ben Lyons meets day school students in Morocco..