Travelling through Technology: A Visit to Jewish Morocco

posted by Madison Jackson, 2020 Virtual Insider Trips: Morocco Participant

This summer I travelled to Morocco in the middle of a global pandemic.

Yes, you read that right. COVID-19 is ripping apart the world as we know it and in the midst of all the social distancing and mask wearing…I got out my passport, boarded a plane and flew across the world.

Kind of.

The passport may have been a booklet of activities that I printed off my computer, the airplane my silver, metal desk chair, and the world my bedroom in Cleveland, Ohio…but close enough, right?

In this day and age, I would certainly say it counts. In reality, I had the opportunity to participate in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine first ever virtual trip to Jewish Morocco. Over the course of five days, I along with 17 other young adults from across North America, gathered through Zoom to visit Morocco from the comfort of our homes.

At one point in history there were 350,000 Jews living in Morocco, but today the community consists of approximately 2,500 people. Yet, even with the small size of the population, there are 26 active synagogues in Casablanca, where the majority of Moroccan Jews live today. Of this population most Jews observe Shabbat traditions and observe Kashrut dietary laws. As one of the speakers on our trip described it, Morocco is one of the few “Islands of Judaism inside the Islamic world.”

Moroccan Jewry consists of Toshavim, Jews who came earlier and settled in the Atlas Mountains, also known as Berber Jews, and Megurashim, Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal and came to the Northern parts of Morocco. The non-Jewish Berbers were not happy when the Jews left Morocco; they considered the Jews a blessing. As an example, we were told about the existence of an 850 year old synagogue still around in the Atlas Mountains today, respected by the non-Jews who live there.

We “visited” the Casablanca Jewish Museum, the only Jewish museum in all of the Arab world.

When we asked a Moroccan Jewish high schooler if she felt unsafe in her country, she immediately responded “not at all.” She was grateful to be a Moroccan Jew. Although some Jews leave Morocco after high school to pursue opportunities abroad, it seemed the consensus amongst the Jewish youth we spoke with was that Morocco would always be their home.

While nothing will ever replace being able to see the sites of a country in person, my fellow travelers and I soon learned that there are many positive sides to virtual group travel.

These days virtual travel presents itself everywhere. We can tour an entire museum online, participate in a lecture about life in another country, or even go on a virtual walking tour without leaving our front doors. But what is missing from many of these virtual travel opportunities is human connection. We sit on our side of the computer screen and “travel” as individuals. We have no one to pass thoughts back and forth with; there is no one listening if we question out loud.

One of my companions on the Morocco trip brought up an interesting point: for the entire duration of the trip we looked at each other’s faces. We engaged in one conversation as a group. Had we been travelling in person, we would have spent more time looking around us and less time looking at each other. There would likely have been more group separation, individual circles of conversations.

Throughout the various group trips I have participated in over the years I have learned that reflection is the key to understanding and learning. In order to really process what we have seen, smelled, tasted and heard, we need to share it with others and think about it more in depth. During our time in Morocco we did more than click pages on a website about a museum. We traveled and we reflected—with likeminded peers who were experiencing the same things.

As the days went on (dare I remind myself, that somehow, what felt like an entire jam-packed week spent loading and unloading from the bus, was actually only 10 hours?) I found myself gaining my confidence amongst a group of strangers I had never met in person. I unmuted myself and asked questions out loud to the group. I shared pictures in the WhatsApp chat. Within the span of just a few hours—and a number of those hours spent listening to others speak and adding our contributions in the chat box of Zoom, I felt like I was getting to know the members of my group.

This, is the power of group travel.

Regardless of how group travel takes place, whether it is in person or over a computer screen, sharing a specific point of time with a group creates a special connection between people.

Do I get to say now that I have been to Morocco? Is that one country I can cross off the map of places I have visited? Although JDC Entwine now counts me as an alumna of their travel programs, I don’t think I really get to cross that destination off my bucket list. In fact, instead of checking Morocco off the map, this trip put Morocco on the map for me. Before the virtual Morocco trip I had never given much thought to Morocco. I didn’t know anything about the country. Now there are so many thoughts about Morocco running through my head that I find myself constantly saying to people I speak with: “Did you know that in Morocco…”

As I sit here writing this, I feel the same melancholy, nostalgia floating through me as I do when I return home from actually travelling. The world seems (even more) different now. My schedule seems like it is missing something. I yearn to go back in time to when I was in Morocco and excitedly awaited the announcement of where we were going next. That is the impact that travel has on a person. And until the world opens up and we can travel between different time zones again, I feel so lucky to have brought the world a little closer to my home and experienced Jewish Morocco through this lens.