The High Atlas Foundationʹs fruit tree nursery project
Muslim-Jewish goodwill blossoms in Morocco

Since 2012, the Moroccan Jewish community has been helping local farmers by donating land around ancient cemeteries for the planting of fruit tree nurseries. The aim: ending systemic rural poverty by transitioning from grain to crops more suited to local growing conditions. By Yossef Ben-Meir, director of the High Atlas Foundation

In 2010 Morocco launched a national project to restore its Jewish cemeteries. Approximately six hundred Hebrew "saints" are buried in various parts of the kingdom. Many were laid to rest over a millennium ago and 167 of the sites have seen work begin on the preservation of graves and their immediate surroundings. Starting in Marrakesh, the Jewish community began lending land to the High Atlas Foundation near seven of these cemeteries, with the idea of planting organic fruit tree nurseries for the bene­fit of farming families and schools.

Other public and private donors to the High Atlas Foundation community tree nursery initiative include the Moroccan High Commission of Waters and Forests and the Fight Against Desertifi­cation, provincial of­fices of the Ministry of Education, as well as universities and co-operatives. Yet it is the land contributions that are vital for the success of sustainable, organic and integrated agricultural development using community tree nurseries.

Moroccan farmers are currently transitioning from growing traditional barley and corn to more lucrative fruit trees, meaning saplings are in high demand. According to Morocco’s Agency for Agricultural Development, staple grains are grown on about 70 percent of the countryʹs agricultural land, yet they account for only 10-15 percent of agricultural revenue.

Farming families – who generally own small plots unsuited to cultivating barley and corn – are deprived of education (particularly at secondary school level) and health infrastructure, while communities lack livelihood diversity. In many rural areas, for instance, fewer than half the girls continue their formal education after primary school. Dormitories, clean water and sanitary facilities would go a long way to improving conditions in rural schools.

The organic fruit tree nursery, which produced 150,000 fig, pomegranate, almond, lemon, and grape saplings since 2012, is maintained by local caretakers (photo: High Atlas Foundation)
Jewish cemeteries provide a new lease of life: in 2014, a pilot nursery on Jewish communal land was created near the village of Akrich, near the seven-hundred-year-old tomb of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. In the past three years, 150,000 (33,000 in 2018) almond, fig, pomegranate, argan, carob and lemon seeds have been planted in the nursery and – once matured into saplings – transplanted to private plots

Across the nation, drinking water remains the top priority of rural communities, though the same is also true of some city neighbourhoods, including the Marrakesh mellah, as the cityʹs Jewish quarter is known. For villages in the High Atlas, for instance, irrigation infrastructure would have a transformative impact, both economically and environmentally. For most rural communities, however, it remains to be implemented.

Employment opportunities for the majority of rural and urban youth are also chronically scarce. The planting of fruit trees is one way in which farming families are looking to end systemic rural poverty. Other vital measures include processing product, co-operative building, attaining greater market access and securing organic and carbon credit certi­fications.

Multi-cultural interfaith initiative

Growing fruit trees from seedlings on land lent by the Moroccan Jewry and distributing them to marginalised rural communities is not only helping to meet a major development priority, but also constitutes a multi-cultural interfaith initiative.

For those benefitting from these historic cemetery sites, the project has served to deepen their appreciation, reinvigorating relationships between the Muslim farming families and Jewish community members. After all, it takes two years to grow tree saplings from seed and Moroccan farming families simply could not afford to give up cultivating their land for two years, just to transition to fruit crops. The donation of new land for community tree nurseries, from which the two-year-old saplings are transplanted into families’ agricultural plots, overcomes the argument that there is not enough land for fruit tree production.

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A Celebration of Muslim-Jewish Amity Reborn In Israel
Rabbi Allen S. Maller

A traditional Moroccan celebration of Muslim-Jewish amity and friendship is being reborn in the State of Israel. The North African Jewish festival of Mimouna (pronounced Meehmuna), a 24-hour food centered festival, begins right after the week of Passover ends.

For many centuries Moroccan Jewish homes were purged of leavened bread during the week of Passover. At the end of Passover, Jews could eat bread and pastry, but they had no flour at all in their homes to bake with, until their Muslim neighbors came by to return the flour that the Jews had entrusted to them.

Ashdod resident Shaul Ben-Simhon, who immigrated to Israel in 1948 at age 18, said that in Morocco the holiday brought Jews and Muslims together each year. “Our home was open to everyone, including Arabs,” he said. Ben-Simhon recalled the tradition of Arab neighbors bringing flour to his home, so his mother and grandmother could make baked goods.

Usually, but not always, this was the same flour that Jews had given to their Muslim neighbors a day prior to the start of Passover, so Jews could rid their homes of leavened flour, prior to Passover. When, after the end of Passover, Arabs came to Jewish homes to return the flour, they were always invited to stay for a few hours and enjoy the soon to be baked goodies.

Thus, Jewish homes were filled with neighbors, friends and family exchanging traditional Arabic blessings of success ( some say that the name Mimouna derives from an Arabic word for “wealth” and “good luck”) while awaiting the laden trays of delicious Mimouna baked goods. The celebration often was repeated the next day with more pastry and joy.

In Israel unfortunately. for the first two decades of statehood, the festival was hardly marked at all. “In the early days of the state, we Moroccans were busy with absorption and working hard, often in construction. We didn’t have the energy or self-confidence to celebrate Mimouna,” said Ashdod resident Shaul Ben-Simhon.

That changed in 1968, when Ben-Simhon, now 38 and a high-ranking official at the Histadrut, Israel’s trade union alliance, organized a Mimouna celebration in Lod in a bid to help the integration of Moroccan immigrants into Israeli society. His effort to raise the community’s morale attracted 300 participants. The next year, Ben-Simhon moved the celebration to Jerusalem, got then-mayor Teddy Kollek's support, and managed to draw a crowd of 5,000.

This grew into a major celebration in Jerusalem's Sacher Park that today draws over 100, 000 people. This event inspired the revival of Mimouna across Israel, and usually includes the president and prime minister in the celebration.

Across the country, Moroccans and Israelis of all ethnic backgrounds flock to smaller public and private celebrations. A special law even requires bosses to grant employees unpaid leave on the day of Mimouna if they want to carry on celebrations from the previous evening.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox Rabbinical bureaucracy has arraigned for a formal “sale” of all the leavened flour in a city to a few Arab Muslims or Christians, so the much more personal, private “sale” to one's Arab neighbors rarely takes place in Israel.

Perhaps, a restoration of this part of the Passover tradition will help bring Jews and Arabs in Israel closer together. Ben-Simhon believes that Mimouna promotes unity between families and neighbors. (In Morocco, it was a day when people would visit each other to bury grudges.)

There are several theories regarding how the celebration got the name Mimouna. I think that it comes from a word that sounds similar to Mimouna (Amina in Arabic, Ahmina in Turkish, Emunah in Hebrew) all three of the words mean faith or trust.

Jews trusted their Muslim neighbors to guard the flour faithfully from becoming impure, and their Muslim neighbors always did so. Mimouna is thus a celebration of Jewish-Muslim amity, fellowship and good neighborliness.

One of the best parts of Mimouna for most people is the varied menu of baked goods. According to Elisheva Chetrit, a historian of Moroccan Jewry at Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, in Morocco the yearly celebration began with the eating of nuts, dates and dried fruit, as Muslims do when braking the daily fast during Ramadan.

Then Arabs neighbors would arrive with flour needed to prepare bread and pastry and the celebration would begin. Ari Hegnon, a self-described foodie says, “I’m Ashkenazi, (an East European Jew) and while there are many Moroccan-style restaurants, I feel it’s only on Mimouna, when every Moroccan that I know has their door open and their best home-cooking for me to try, that I get the real taste of this cuisine,”

Rabbi Allen S. ...22.09.2018 | 10:00 Uhr