Because of Covid, travel has been limited. You can’t really go to Morocco right now to see the Jewish quarter. Nor can you stop by Kurdistan to catch a glimpse of the tomb of Nahum.
Or can you?
Well maybe you can’t do it the traditional way, but S.F.-based JIMENA has launched a program attempting to create the next best thing. The organization, whose acronym stands for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, is taking small groups of young adults for online “trips” to Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and Kurdistan.
And it’s no mere slideshow and lecture.
“A Journey through the Middle East and North Africa” consists of three sessions per country and includes videos made especially for JIMENA, as well as live discussions with activists, curators, musicians and rabbis living in those countries. It’s all designed to make participants feel like they’re there.
“It’s not like every other virtual program they attended in the last year,” said Sapir Taib, program director at JIMENA. “It’s an opportunity to meet people on the ground.”
The first “trip” began in April. On a journey through Morocco, a group of people between 21 and 35 years old watched as singer Tamar Bloch (known by her stage name “Lala Tamar”) stood in an echoey tomb in the Jewish cemetery of the port city of Essaouira and talked about the once-thriving community.
“In the beginning of the 20th century, more than half of the population was Jewish,” explained Bloch, a Moroccan Israeli singer who lives in Morocco. “It had a big impact on the way of life, the way the people were living here, the coexistence.”
Bloch’s city tour took the group to an ancient synagogue being watched over by an elderly Muslim woman (who inherited the job from her father) and through the halls of the Beit Dakira museum (built around a synagogue). After the tour, she joined the Zoom call live to talk about the gnawa music she studies in Morocco.
The program is sponsored by a grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for young adult programming (hence the 21- to 35-year-old age restriction).
JIMENA is making the tours a bit more real by sending a gift basket to each participant; for Morocco, it was tea glasses and tea, which will be used by group members when they are together online.
“We’re trying to pick objects we can have an experience around,” Taib explained.
That’s really the point, Taib said. While it’s difficult for people to actually travel and experience these countries in person right now, they can still take this opportunity to get a little bit of a taste of them, one that will maybe teach them something new and give them a break from their everyday surroundings.
“It’s something different!” Taib said.