Last updated February 2020
CASABLANCA, Morocco—Vanessa Mamane picks her way through a melee of toddlers in full recess mode in the courtyard of Narcisse Leven, the Jewish day school she directs in Casablanca. Once inside the relative quiet of her office, Mamane points to a poster on the wall with a collage of photos from last year’s reenactment of the Purim story. It would be the last school-wide Purim celebration at Narcisse Leven. Because of dwindling enrollment of Jewish families, this year is the first that the preschool has opened its doors to Muslim students. “We found ourselves with a knife against our throat and we didn’t have a choice. It’s a wonderful school, and we couldn’t just let it die,” said Mamane.
A few miles away, École Normale Hébraïque is wrestling with the pride and the consequences of maintaining a 100% Jewish student body. The covered walkways between classrooms that once held hundreds of middle and high school students feel cavernous as a few students trickle quietly into class. “You can’t have one teacher for every three students. That’s the whole problem,” said headmaster Gabriel Elkaim, his voice echoing off the walls of the empty corridor. “If you ask me, there are seven or eight more years, maximum. No more. There are no more students.”
Morocco’s Jewish community has declined quickly, from about 250,000 in 1948 to only 2,000 today, a tiny minority among the North African country’s population of 35 million. Of the 100-plus Jewish schools that once operated throughout Morocco, only five remain, all of them in Casablanca, the country’s largest city. Three of the five are mixed-religion schools, including Narcisse Leven’s elementary and preschool divisions. The others will soon face a choice: become majority-Muslim or shut down.
Most young graduates of schools like Narcisse Leven and École Normal Hébraïque will leave Morocco to study or work. At first, the newly established Israel drew many Jews away from Morocco. Once the Jewish neighborhoods started to empty out, the momentum of emigration only grew stronger. Cecile Ruimy, 55, said that in addition to the allure of educational and work opportunities abroad, for young people “to be part of a disappearing community is not a good feeling.” Ruimy sent her daughter to Narcisse Leven and later Lycée Maimonide, another mixed Jewish-Muslim school in Casablanca, but decided to move her family to Israel so her daughter could finish high school there. “You see that there are less and less people, less and less children, less and less Jewish businesses, and you feel that the future is not there. As much as you love the country, you have your roots, but no future,” Ruimy said.
In the pockets of Morocco where communities still exist, Jews are struggling to preserve the rich culture that is in danger of extinction. In order to ensure that Narcisse Leven remains a Jewish school despite the mostly-Muslim student body it caters to, the curriculum is not identical for Muslim and Jewish students. All students learn Hebrew language starting in preschool. Jewish students have an extra two hours a week of religious education, when they learn prayers and lessons from the Torah. This component is extremely important, according to Mamane. There were some who were opposed to the integration of the preschool “because they were scared that Muslims would enter and everything religious would be eliminated,” Mamane said. “But they saw that we were going to maintain our traditions, that we kept the prayers and everything, and so they said, ‘OK, it can stay.’”
Of the 56 preschoolers enrolled this school year, only 14 are Jewish. In order to accommodate both Muslim and Jewish students in a Jewish institution—and stay on the right side of Morocco’s laws against proselytizing to any religion other than Islam—only Jewish students participate in prayers and Jewish traditions, including the annual Purim performance. Muslim students are required to go home early on Friday afternoons to be with their families for the Friday call to prayer, leaving the Jewish students free to hold a Shabbat observance at the school.
For some, the Jewish component of an education at Narcisse Leven is the reason to come, while for others, like Ruimy, it is just an opportunity for an affordable private education with the added benefit of some Hebrew language instruction and Jewish history. “I’m not a religious person,” she said. “For me it’s more tradition, culture, and roots.”
The choice to admit Muslim students into the Narcisse Leven preschool has made some positive impacts on the school, Mamane said. She expressed her appreciation for the respect between new Muslim families and Jewish families. “On Rosh Hashana, Muslim parents wished us a happy new year, which really touched my heart,” she said. When Muslim or Jewish students bring birthday treats to class, they are asked to bring mini-chocolate rugelach and nutty shortbread cookies from the few remaining neighborhood kosher bakeries so that everyone can enjoy them.
Alia Lahlou, 31, was among the growing number of Muslim students enrolled at Lycée Maimonide, an Alliance high school, when she enrolled for 9th grade in 2003. Even though the school seeks to foster a respectful multicultural environment, the picture Lahlou painted was not exactly one of harmonious coexistence. “There’s a wonderful history of coexistence, but it’s all based on ‘You do your thing, and we’ll do ours,’” she said. “There’s still this mentality of separation.”
Lahlou recalled that while the school encouraged friendships among all students, there was an unspoken line between Jews and Muslims when it came to dating. That line was not just accepted but enforced. Lahlou remembered that two of her classmates, one Jewish and one Muslim, got in trouble with the school’s administration when they discovered that the pair were romantically involved. Some of the more conservative Jewish male students would not talk to her in school. Moroccan law prohibits marriage of Muslim women with non-Muslim men, but Lahlou noted that the agreement on the boundaries between communities “comes from both sides.”
Unlike Narcisse Leven, traditional Jewish education is the main reason Jewish parents send their children to École Normale Hébraïque. Parents are usually conservative or orthodox Jews that want their children to learn biblical lessons along with their secular studies. The upper level of the school building is a synagogue, where a rabbi teaches Torah. A sign posted on the wall among announcements for assemblies and cafeteria menus reads, “Kippahs required in this establishment,” referring to the cap worn by observant Jewish men.
Tradition and legacy runs strong among alumni of École Normale Hébraïque, scattered as they may be. Albert Dahan, currently the director of the Jewish Community Center in Casablanca, graduated from the school in 1972 and said that he sent his children there primarily because he felt such nostalgia for the place. For Dahan, the biggest draw toward the school is how little it has changed since he was a student. Although he is quick to say that he is not orthodox, the depth of the Jewish education was something he wanted for his children.
“Oh, it’s more than sad,” Elkaim said about the decline of the Moroccan Jewish community. While he acknowledges that the decision to leave Morocco is not his to make, he considers it essential that his students leave with a strong sense of Jewish identity, wherever they end up. For him, that in itself is a success.
Hajar Outamamat of Connect Institute contributed reporting to this article.