Small Islands of Jews in a Muslim Sea: The rabbis of Jewish communities in Islamic countries join together to strengthen each other

It was an impossible situation. Dozens of Israelis who had been visiting Morocco prior to the coronavirus outbreak were stranded in the North African country after its borders were sealed. Eventually after a few weeks of hard work by numerous parties involved, the Israelis were allowed to leave Morocco and were flown home on a private jet. “Over 80,000 Israelis visit Morocco each year,” Rabbi Levi Banon of Chabad in Casablanca tells me. “We made sure to provide them with kosher food until they were able to leave.”
“I had a real scare two days ago,” relates Rabbi Levi Duchman, who serves as the rabbi in the Jewish community in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “I’m the person who’s on call in case Jewish communities in nearby countries need the services of a chevrah kaddisha. Unfortunately, a Jew in a nearby country was deathly sick and not likely to survive. The community wanted to know that if needed, and they could arrange a private plane for me, would I be willing to come? The question was not so simple.
While they’d be able to bring me, they weren’t sure if they’d be able to get me back to the UAE. Of course, I would go. I would have no choice but to give this Jew a kosher burial.”
After 24 hours, Rabbi Duchman had his answer. Baruch Hashem, that Jew had a miraculous turnaround and is now on his way to recovery.
I am attending a Zoom meeting with an interesting group of rabbis: Rabbi Levi Banon is in Casablanca, Morocco; Rabbi Mendy Chitrik is in Istanbul, Turkey; and Rabbi Levi Duchman is in Dubai. I am joining them from Telz Stone, Israel. The rabbis are all leaders of the newly formed organization called ARIS, the Association of Rabbis in Islamic States.
“Rabbi Chitrik was chosen as the president, Rabbi Banon is the chairman and I’m the undersecretary,” says Rabbi Duchman. “But of course, there are many other members in dozens of other countries.”
Where else in the Middle East are there still Jewish communities large enough to warrant rabbinical leadership?
“Also in our group is a rabbi from Iran, Rabbi Shneor Segal in Azerbaijan, Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen in Kazakhstan, Rabbi Arye Raichman in Kyrgyzstan and Rabbi Chaim Azimov in North Cyprus. And there are more rabbis in Albania, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Turkey and Uganda. We also work with communities in many other countries that we cannot discuss for security reasons, but we assist them with whatever they need.”
Rabbi Chitrik and Rabbi Segal are both located in countries that share a border with Iran. “We provide the Iranian Jewish community with lulavim and esrogim as well as sefarim and matzah, and we’re in touch with them on a daily basis,” Rabbi Chitrik tells me. They aren’t currently able to visit the Jews of Iran, but once he is part of a larger organization, he feels that they will wield the power to be able to do so.
“Unlike other regions of the world, there has never been a vaad harabbanim for Islamic countries,” says Rabbi Banon. “Something like this has never existed, even though it’s been in the works ever since the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent his first shliach to Morocco in 1950. While all of us have actually been working together for years, we’re strengthening our umbrella.”
The seed for ARIS was planted last November, when these three rabbis were in New York for the Chabad Kinus Hashluchim.
“We had a small gathering of all the rabbis who live in Muslim countries,” said Rabbi Chitrik. “We already had our own WhatsApp group, so we decided to take the next step and establish our own organization. As a group, we wanted to help each other navigate the specific issues we face, such as our relationships with Islamic governments and religious organizations, and now that it’s Ramadan there are additional issues as well. A lot of the situations we find ourselves in are different from those encountered in other places.”
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