When was the last time you heard of a contingent of Orthodox Jews from the United States dancing and singing in Hebrew with locals in an Arab country? Well, that is what happened earlier this month when Rabbi Aaron Lankry of Kehillas Ohr Chaim in Monsey, New York, led 100 Jews to visit Morocco and Tunisia.
The diverse group, made up of modern Orthodox, Hassidic, Sephardi and Ashkenazi members, visited the graves of sages in Morocco. In Tunisia, they met with President Beji Caid Essesbi.
“We were able to bring light to Muslim communities, and break stereotypes and bond with each other on a human level,” Lankry told The Jerusalem Post.
“They were warm and accepting,” he said, adding that the Tunisian president was very kind, saying that anything the Jewish community in Tunisia needs, the country would provide. Essesbi mentioned that ancient Jewish manuscripts were being properly cared for.
In Morocco, local women blocked the pilgrims from entering the grave site of one of King Solomon’s sons, but Lankry’s group thawed a sensitive situation by initiating dancing and singing with the locals.
The group wore djellabas to be sensitive to local custom, and brought 30 goats and sheep as gifts.
A Moroccan sheikh gave the Jewish group gifts and blessed them as they were served tea and dates. For the group, it was an experience of coexistence, a positive story that rarely finds its way into the newspapers.
Asked about if they felt any anxiety, the Rabbi Lankry responded, “We were nervous and didn’t know what the reaction would be. My father told me we were crazy for going into the lion’s den, but the result was positive.”
“People are people, and with good will there is a chance for coexistence.”
Rabbi Lankry said there were no security problems on the trip.
They hired drivers in Morocco and were able to travel freely. In Tunisia, however, the security issue was tenser, he said.
Rabbi Lankry himself traces his Sephardi roots back to Morocco and his Monsey community is meant to be a melting pot of different kinds of Jews.
Ohr Chaim members have previously visited Jewish sites in Europe and China.