Coronavirus forces first ever closure of centuries-old Marrakech synagogue

The centuries-old Slat Al Azama Synagogue in Marrakech, Morocco, sat silent for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The synagogue, built in 1492 for exiles from the Spanish Inquisition, at one time hosted 10-14 prayer services per day and no less than 500 people learned Torah there, synagogue director Isaac Ohayon told Ynet. “It was a pleasure to pray in Slat Al Azama.”

Today, less than one hundred congregants remain.

“We are growing smaller and smaller,” said Ohayon. “We are the last guard. [We are] holding the keys of the synagogue and cemetery, protecting them until God has mercy.”

Kobi Ifrach, a Moroccan-Israeli Jew, founded a Jewish Museum in the synagogue about five years ago. The synagogue held morning prayers every day and, on Yom Kippur, 50 people usually attended.

This year, however, the museum was closed and the synagogue closed its doors for the first time in centuries.

“For the first time, we did not have prayers on the High Holy Days,” said Ifrach. “There are almost no congregants, and even the tourists refrained from arriving. The elderly are afraid to leave their homes.”

The prayers were instead held in the Beit El synagogue in the newer part of the city. On Rosh Hashanah, only 16 people arrived for prayers.

“There are nearly 2,000 dead and thousands are infected every day. Only now has tourism started to return, although we don’t expect Israeli or Jewish tourists,” said Ifrach.

Approximately 16 Jews in Morocco died due to the virus during the first wave. They made up about 10% of all coronavirus deaths in the country, Ifrach told Ynet.

“We’re in contact with everyone,” said Ohayon, who went from house to house to blow the shofar for the elderly who were scared to leave their homes. Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto delivered packages of wine, meat and necessities to the Jewish community during Passover and the High Holy Days.

In spite of the pandemic and their dwindling numbers, the community does not intend to “give up on a single service,” says Ohayon, who is eagerly anticipating a return to normalcy for the community.

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