Morocco makes history with Arab world’s 1st university synagogue

House of worship at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University near Marrakech built next to new mosque.

 Mehdi Boudra, Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, Magda Haroun, Sammy Ibrahim, Abdeslam Filali, Chaymae Aboubou, at the Rabbi Pinhas Synagogue, Marrakech, Morocco.  (photo credit: Courtesy of Mimouna Association/American Sephardi Federation)
Mehdi Boudra, Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, Magda Haroun, Sammy Ibrahim, Abdeslam Filali, Chaymae Aboubou, at the Rabbi Pinhas Synagogue, Marrakech, Morocco.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Mimouna Association/American Sephardi Federation)

The fruits of the rapprochement between Israel and swathes of the Arab world continued to ripen this week, with Morocco becoming the first-ever Muslim country to inaugurate a synagogue at one of its universities.

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The thaw in relations between the Jewish state and countries in the region resumed two years ago with the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE – the first treaty of its kind since Israel and Jordan signed a peace deal in 1994.

Israel and Morocco agreed to establish diplomatic relations in December 2020, two months after the Abraham Accords were signed. The new synagogue at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P) symbolizes the ongoing embrace of the Jewish world by the North African country.

The inauguration of the synagogue comes in no small part thanks to the efforts of Mimouna Association, a Muslim-founded Moroccan nonprofit organization that aims to promote the country’s Jewish heritage, and the American Sephardi Federation, which has offices in the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

The event was attended by Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates in the UAE; Magda Haroun, the president of the Egyptian Jewish Community; and Jacky Kadoch, the president of the Jewish community of Marrakech-Essaouira. Guests also included representatives from Mimouna Association and other Moroccan Jewish and non-Jewish leaders.

 Bahrainis, Egyptians, Emiratis, Moroccans, and Israelis around the same table for kosher lunch in the mellah of Marrakesh, Morocco. (credit: Courtesy of Mimouna Association/American Sephardi Federation) Bahrainis, Egyptians, Emiratis, Moroccans, and Israelis around the same table for kosher lunch in the mellah of Marrakesh, Morocco. (credit: Courtesy of Mimouna Association/American Sephardi Federation)

The synagogue is called Beit Allah, “like the House of God,” Mimouna Association founder and president El Mehdi Boudra, told The Media Line.

Boudra said that not only was a synagogue built on a campus in the Arab world for the first time ever, but it was also constructed directly next to a new mosque – “with only a wall between them” – as an example of Moroccan coexistence in action.

“It’s not a big synagogue but it can have a minyan [the quorum of 10 men required for public Jewish prayer services], and the Torah scrolls and all the religious articles were donated by the Jewish communities of Fez and Marrakech.”

El Mehdi Boudra

“It’s not a big synagogue but it can have a minyan [the quorum of 10 men required for public Jewish prayer services], and the Torah scrolls and all the religious articles were donated by the Jewish communities of Fez and Marrakech,” he said.

Jewish culture plays a major role in Moroccan history and identity

Boudra believes that Jewish culture plays a major role in Morocco’s history and identity and that the synagogue has the full blessing of the king. Moroccan Crown Prince Moulay Hassan bin Mohammed, he pointed out, attends the Rabat branch of UM6P.

Moroccan Judaism is really a part of Moroccan society for 2,000 years. Morocco is also a Jewish land and we celebrate the diversity of Morocco traditionally,” he said.

King Mohammed VI has restored 167 Jewish cemeteries around Morocco in the last 10 years. He restored more than 20 synagogues around Morocco, and he restored the mellah, the former Jewish neighborhood.”

He sees the inauguration as a celebration for the entire Jewish community of Morocco.

“The president of the Jewish community of Marrakech gave a mezuzah, we have [placed] it on the door of the synagogue and they made the first prayer in presence of Jewish people from the city of Marrakesh and Fez,” he said, adding that there were also guests from the UAE and the United States as well as Muslim students and participants.

“It was not a big ceremony, but it was a meaningful ceremony. And within the synagogue, its purpose is not only religion but it’s also an important place for Muslim students to know about Judaism,” Boudra told The Media Line.

“Mimouna Association has offered a touch screen to the synagogue and to the university so students can come … and learn about Judaism, about Moroccan Judaism, about Jews in Morocco. So it’s also a source of information for those students,” he said.

Boudra also paid tribute to the people he said were the driving force behind this synagogue – Mostafa Terrab, CEO of the OCPGroup and adviser to King Mohammed VI, who first came up with the idea; UM6P President Hicham El Habti; and the director of the university’s Institute of Biological Sciences, Prof. Gabriel Malka, who is a Moroccan Jew.

“The significance of opening a synagogue at the university in Morocco, especially one that is named after His Majesty the King, is of great import,” Rabbi Abadie told The Media Line. “It gives recognition of the Jewish community and Judaism as part and parcel of the Moroccan population and academic institutions.”

According to Rabbi Abadie, “The synagogue will be used as a place of prayers, lectures and gathering for the Jewish students in particular and for all students who would like to participate in these events and activities.”

Jason Guberman, the executive director at American Sephardi Federation, told The Media Line that the synagogue was built by the university itself.

He said that while the school currently does not have any Jews enrolled, it has “recently concluded several research partnerships with Israeli institutions and anticipates an influx of Jewish students.”

Guberman also highlighted the fact that “a Moroccan Jew, Prof. Gabriel Malka, serves as the director of the UM6P Institute of Biological Sciences and was instrumental in the synagogue project.”

Magda Haroun, president of the Egyptian Jewish Community in Cairo, told The Media Line that she attended the opening of the synagogue because the Moroccan experience is a unique one. Haroun said that she was very impressed by the event.

“I hope one day this is repeated in other countries; not only the opening of a synagogue in King Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, but the acceptance of the other is very specific to Morocco.”

Haroun said she hopes that the inauguration is something that is shared by other countries in the region. She told The Media Line that she wants to learn from the Moroccans, especially the work done by Mimouna Association, and discover how they deal with coexistence, young people and Jewish-Arab interaction.

“The fact that there is a synagogue next to a mosque, means they have a component of society that gives the young people who have no opportunity to visit a synagogue this experience,” Haroun said, adding that a small synagogue in a university is a kind of acceptance of the differences of the other.

Hanoun was born in Alexandria but lives and works in Cairo. While there are only a handful of Jews left there, she believes that Egypt was never empty of Jews.

“Moses went out of Egypt, [but] it can’t be the end of Jews in Egypt,” she said.

As Guberman mentioned, this is not the first outreach by UM6P in the wake of the agreement with Israel. In March, the university signed an agreement with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology based in Haifa, to advance academic cooperation between the two schools.

“Today we are signing a piece of paper but what is more important is what stands behind it – the mutual desire for cooperation, which will lead to student and faculty exchange from both institutions,” UM6P President Hicham El Habti said at the signing ceremony held at the Technion.

“We are part of a historic era, and we must continue to strengthen ties between Morocco and Israel,” he said.