Montreal’s Jewish community is raising funds to help the earthquake victims in Morocco

Volunteers with the Israel-based organization Hatzalah arrive in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, to help victims of the earthquake.

The Montreal Jewish community is working with the embassy of Morocco to transfer and distribute funds raised in Canada for earthquake relief.

Avraham Elarar, president of the Canadian Sephardi Federation (CSF), said he is in contact with Ambassador Souriya Otmani and the CSF is “already initiating a process for raising funds that will be sent to Morocco in the coming days.”

The CSF, a national organization based in Montreal, is partnering with the Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec (CSUQ) and Federation CJA to coordinate efforts after a devastating earthquake struck Morocco on Sept. 8.

As of Sept. 11, over 2,800 people were known to have died, and thousands more were injured in the disaster which had its epicentre some 100 km from Marrakesh.

“No Moroccans of the Jewish faith are dead, but some suffered minor injuries,” Elarar said of the community of an estimated 1,500-2,000, including about 120 in Marrakesh. In addition, over 400 Israelis were believed to be in Morocco at the time. A recently renovated synagogue in Marrakesh sustained some damage, he added.

“You can take a Moroccan from Morocco, but you can never take Morocco from a Moroccan – no matter her or his religion,” said Elarar who stressed that this is an opportunity for Jewry to show its good faith to Morocco, which agreed to normalize relations with Israel in December 2020.

The Moroccan government has set up two accounts at Bank al-Maghrib, the central bank of the Kingdom of Morocco: one for donors from within and the other for donations from outside Morocco, said Elarar.

Donors can give directly to this account or via an institution such as Federation or the CSUQ, he said.

Elarar stressed that any funds collected will be for the benefit of Moroccans of any religion. Moroccan-born Elarar, who grew up in Israel, has worked for years to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims of Moroccan origin, and described Ambassador Otmani as a “good friend.”

The federation opened a tab on its website for donations, and CEO Yair Szlak said inquiries about how Jews here can help began coming in immediately after the earthquake’s devastation was known.

The federation is in contact with the Joint Distribution Committee, which has had a presence in Morocco since the 1940s, to get its assessment of what the country needs, both for Jews and the broader population.

Szlak said the approximately 60 Jews from Montreal who were in Morocco at the time of the earthquake for a hilloula, or commemoration, of Rabbi Haim Pinto, who died in 1845, are safe. The event took place in the coastal city of Essaouira, well away from the earthquake’s centre.

Szlak said the Montreal Jewish community feels a special connection to Morocco, which was home to a quarter-million Jews before 1948. Jews of Moroccan descent have been an integral part of the Montreal Jewish community for over six decades, he said, and today they represent over 20 per cent of the community.

“We know that many still have deep ties and family members in Morocco and return frequently to visit,” he said.

Szlak said the federation is awaiting the latest information from its office in Israel before deciding how best to help the stricken country.

A mission to Morocco by the federation’s major donors will leave as planned on Oct. 31, Szlak said. The knowledge that the community is doing what it can to support relief efforts will “make this trip all the more meaningful for the group going.”

Elarar was in Israel for a joint academic conference with Moroccan academics when news of the earthquake broke. The quake, in fact, occurred on the last day of the event and what had been a celebration of the normalization of relations turned suddenly sombre, he said.

Elarar said he has no relatives in Morocco today, but has many friends and allies in his quest to bring Jews and Muslims closer together. “I go to Morocco more often than Israel, and I go to Israel three times a year,” he said.

He praised Morocco’s King Mohammed VI for his efforts on behalf of the Jewish community’s welfare. The regime last year established a new relationship with the community that bodes well for the maintenance of its synagogues and cemeteries and the furtherance of Muslim-Jewish co-existence, Elarar said. He called it the most significant accord with the community since 1945, when Morocco was under French control.

On Sept. 12, Congregation Or Hahayim, a Sephardic synagogue in Côte St. Luc, is devoting its evening prayer service to the victims of the earthquake, in cooperation with the CSF, CSUQ and the federation. The event is open to everyone.