A Young Filmmaker’s Journey Inside Jewish Morocco

June 7, 2011


Dina Kadisha, a young LA-based filmmaker who has produced and directed over a dozen films, including the documentary “Operation Promise: Exodus from Ethiopia,” traveled with a JDC Young Professionals group to Morocco in February 2010. She chronicled the trip and the group’s experiences in “Inside Jewish Morocco with Dina Kadisha,” which was recently screened as a documentary at Festival de Cannes in the Short Film Corner.

The film is the first in the “Inside…” documentary series she is creating with JDC to capture the unique stories of isolated and relatively unknown Jewish communities around the world. JDC sat down with Dina to discuss the film and her unique Jewish journey.

JDC: Thank you, first of all, for taking the time to discuss your film and your visit to the Jewish community of Morocco with us.

You set out on the trip asking many things, including what it’s like to be a Jewish child growing up in Morocco, how people manage to maintain a Jewish dentity in a Muslim country, and how JDC helps. What did you learn and what surprised you most?

DK: I was impressed to find out JDC has been involved in Morocco since 1940 and has supported programs in Casablanca, Marrakesh, and beyond.

I was most surprised by seeing Jewish and Muslim high school students coexist where I thought there would be a lot of conflict. And it was impressive how the curriculum was structured for both Jews and Muslims to study side by side. Finally, what struck me is that the school organizes an annual trip to the concentration camps in Poland; for them, the genocide of the Holocaust is not only a Jewish story but a humanitarian lesson.

JDC: Your group saw a number of the schools that JDC supports through the Alliance and Ozar HaTorah networks, which together service over 700 students. In the visit you just mentioned, you asked the students about where they plan to attend college. How did you feel about their overwhelming response saying their intention was to go to France and elsewhere to continue their education?

DK: Young students especially in Morocco are ambitious and aspire to see what lies outside the bubble they grew up in. For them to say they want to leave Morocco and explore their studies expresses their desire to elevate their knowledge and to have the opportunity to progress in their education at the top universities in Western Europe. But these Moroccan students were also eager to come back home, where they have stable structure and support systems from their families and community.

JDC: You yourself are an American Jew with Iranian heritage and mention in the film that visiting a Jewish community in a predominantly Muslim country was eye opening for you. How did your background and personal story shape your experience? What did you find in common with the young Jews you met?

DK: My parents were born in Iran and I was born and raised in Los Angeles. The Moroccan culture is so similar to Persian culture in its diversity, food, and music … in all of its richness and energy. I felt like I could really relate to this community that was like a home away from home.

My family can’t go back to Iran because my grandfathers were both Zionists when the revolution broke out and helped a lot of Jewish Iranians to escape. So for me it was an emotional experience, knowing this was the closest I would get to what my family experienced or what it would be like to be in a Muslim country. What I found here was that a remarkable and real co-existence between the communities.

One of the more interesting stories I heard when I was in Morocco was that when the Nazis came to North Africa and demanded a list of the names of the Jews of Morocco, the King of Morocco told the Nazis that he had no Jews, only citizens of Morocco. He protected the Jewish community and this exemplary behavior has given his nation something to aspire to and really set the tone for all of his citizens.

JDC: Your first stop was Casablanca, home to 3,000 Jews, where you visited a single mom and her children in their run-down apartment and the Levine Residence where dozens of elderly Jews were relocated from their from their dilapidated homes. What were your impressions of JDC’s work and care for them?

DK: We often take it for granted that we have clean water and clean air and a laundry machine at our disposal. We went on this home visit in an area that was not safe, into a building that was completely dilapidated. The conditions were really astonishing. You could see that the mother was struggling to keep a smile on her face for the sake of her daughters.

And then we went to the Levine Residence. For me it was really incredible how much JDC goes above and beyond the call of duty to secure a safe, livable, beautiful environment for people who are in need.

JDC: From there you traveled to visit some of the smaller communities outside of Casablanca, and the tone of the film changed dramatically. Your visits included going to La Zama, a 500-year-old synagogue in Marrakesh, which is home to 200 Jews today. And you visited individual JDC clients who live in the periphery. How did those visits differ from what you saw in the larger cities?

DK: When we went to the Atlas mountains, we visited an elderly man who was receiving JDC aid and it was such a contrast to the bustling city. It was really heartwarming see how far JDC goes to help this one Jewish man who had stayed behind to take care of the Jewish cemetery.

I always say that JDC is like the Jewish Red Cross and the Jewish UN put together. The caliber of their rescue, relief, and renewal mission is unparalleled by anything I’ve ever witnessed.

It was also very interesting to note that JDC tailors its assistance to what every community needs. This is an organization that’s very careful to assist communities, investing in their ability to stand on their own.

JDC: In the film you talk to each of the trip participants about their experiences and they mention how impressed they are with the leadership, relief infrastructure, self-sufficiency, and vibrancy of the community. And, nearly all of them talk about their new feeling of connectedness to a joint heritage and a shared responsibility to the larger Jewish community. How did this experience contribute to your Jewish identity?

DK: Part of my family are refugees originally from Russia, who fled to Tehran, Iran, and escaped the revolution to Israel before coming to the US.

Every Jewish family has an immigrant story and people would be surprised to find out that in most Jewish families their ancestors probably received aid from JDC at some point.

I think it’s extraordinary to be able to give back at this stage when we are so fortunate and can help. At some point we were on the other end and JDC was here for my ancestors.

JDC: You asked the interfaith group of students what message they wanted to share with the group and they told you about their hope to show the best of their cultures and to become great people that can change the world by accepting differences and learning tolerance. Why do you feel it’s important for Jewish young professionals in the US today to care about or connect to Jews overseas?

DK: There are so many reasons, but the most critical is that crisis can develop in Jewish communities-and those communities that are less fortunate and don’t have governments that will be able to protect them need the kind of security we, through JDC, can provide.

We are very lucky to be able to help. There are so many ways to reach out, whether it’s rescuing Jews from Ethiopia or renewal programs in Morocco or giving assistance in Cuba. I don’t think people are aware of how far and how deep JDC’s caring goes, so many miles from our home in the US.

In each case, it’s our Jewish obligation to help these communities that are really in dire need. And it’s important for young Jews to gain this sense of connectedness and learn about the work so they can help spread the message.

JDC: What is the message you hope your film gets across?

DK:Morocco is only one example of how far a little bit of attention can go in helping to stabilize an entire community. I want to educate people as to the sheer extent of Jewish needs around the world. Each day hundreds of thousands of Jews across all time zones count on JDC support. From the one Jew in Algeria to 200,000 underprivileged Jewish elderly and children all across the former Soviet Union, JDC provides critical care to people in need and their effort is undoubtedly responsible for so many vulnerable Jewish communities’ survival throughout the century.

JDC: Anything else you’d like us to know about what’s inspired you to do this “Inside … ” Jewish film series with JDC?

DK: I always say I’m very lucky to be able to shoot the material that I do with JDC because really the content speaks for itself. There are real people with real stories and it’s the most fulfilling feeling to travel and witness history playing out in different parts of the world.

I remember how proud I was to learn that JDC donated incubators to the first Haitian babies born after the earthquake last year. It’s my hope that people will feel connected because these kinds of stories are not only appealing to our community on a Jewish basis but really on a humanitarian level. That’s the most important aspect that draws me to work with such an incredible organization.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories