Moroccan Jews in the United States

From a Jewish family that originated in Debdou, Morocco, the Marciano brothers moved from France to Los Angeles and started Guess Inc., the famous maker of jeans


In the US, Moroccan Jews live mainly in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. Most of them moved to the US after 1973. Many Moroccan Jews who first emigrated to Canada then migrated to the US. Other Moroccan Jewish immigrants came from Israel and Latin America, while only a small number of Moroccan Jews immigrated directly to the US from Morocco. Restrictive US immigration laws and lack of English language skills discouraged many Moroccan Jews from making the US their first choice for a home. Neither US Census data nor private surveys identify the number of Moroccan Jews. Those in Moroccan Jewish communities estimate the number to be about 25,000.

Early Moroccan Jewish Immigrants

One of the rare photos of Moses Elias Levy

A few Moroccan Jews moved to the US during the early 19th century, including Moses Elias Levy. He was born in Mogador (now called Essaouira). After building a fortune through trading in the Caribbean, he became an agriculturist and philanthropist in Florida beginning in 1821, prior to it becoming a state. In North-Central Florida, he initiated a large cooperative agrarian refuge for Jews suffering from repression in Europe, the Pilgrimage Plantation. He helped five Jewish families to join the Plantation, which was destroyed by war in 1835. In 1825, Levy traveled to England, where he sought support for this initiative. In London, he led inter-religious debates where he challenged Christians to end antisemitism. Returning to Florida in 1828, he led the first campaign for free education in public schools in the Florida territory. Levy owned slaves and employed them in several Florida plantations. Nevertheless, in London he advocated for abolition of slavery. In Florida, however, given the hostile climate for abolitionists, he advocated for the education and gradual emancipation of slaves.

David Levy Yulee by Mathew Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

David Levy Yulee was the youngest son of Moses Elias Levy. In 1836 he was elected to the Florida Territory’s Legislative Council, serving from 1837 to 1839. He was a delegate to the Florida territory’s constitutional convention in 1838. He was elected in 1841 as the delegate from the Florida Territory to the United States House of Representatives and served four years. He represented Florida twice as a Democrat in the US Senate after Florida became independent in 1845. He served from 1845-1851 and 1855-1861. In the Senate, he strongly supported slavery. He led the construction of the Florida Railroad from 1855-1861 and served as President of multiple railroad companies.

The Twentieth Century

In the 1950’s, a few Moroccan Jewish students moved to Brooklyn to study at a yeshiva. They integrated into the local Sephardic community, particularly the community of Syrian Arabic-speaking Jews. Immigrants from Morocco from the 1950’s through 1990’s also included English-speaking Jews who worked on American military bases during and after World War II.

Many Moroccan Jews who eventually moved to the US were francophone, particularly those who attended schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. Their ability to speak French made it easier for them to immigrate first to France and the Quebec province of Canada. In Canada, many of them learned English. Some of the Moroccan Jews who emigrated to Israel also learned English. Moroccan Jews who moved to Latin America spoke Spanish and Portuguese. 

Leaders of the Em Habanim Congregation in Los Angeles, 2014

Starting in the 1970s, hundreds of Moroccan Jewish emigrants relocated from France, Canada, Israel and Latin America to the United States. Los Angeles has the largest number of Moroccan Jews in the US. Most of the Moroccan Jews from Latin America moved to Miami. The New York area has about 2,000 Moroccan Jews, mainly immigrants from Canada and Israel.

Initially, many Moroccan Jewish immigrants to the US moved to areas inhabited by Sephardim, those descended from the Jews who were exiled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. While some Sephardim came to the US in the 17th and 18th centuries, others immigrated from Europe and Syria in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews make up 250,000-300,000 out of about 7 million American Jews.

Much of the Sephardic community initially resisted integrating the Moroccan Jews, who had different languages, prayer melodies and culture. Ashkenazi Jews dominate American Jewish institutions, and some Moroccan Jews experienced racism and discrimination in their interactions with them. Over time, Moroccan Jews developed their own synagogues, cultural centers, groceries, butchers and bakers. Some Moroccan Jews intermarried with non-Moroccan Sephardim, Ashkenazim or non-Jews. While many Moroccan Jews remain practicing Jews, many of them, particularly the second generation, are secular.

Moroccan Jews in Los Angeles

Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation and Community Center in Los Angeles

In 2019, Los Angeles was estimated to have over 10,000 Moroccan Jews. The Los Angeles area now has eight Moroccan Jewish synagogues, mainly in the San Fernando Valley.  The two largest congregations are Em Habanim and Baba Salé. Each congregation uses liturgy that is comfortable to its members, whether they moved to the region from France, Canada or Israel.  Young people are typically less interested than their parents in attending Moroccan synagogues. The region also has Moroccan Jewish restaurants and groceries.

Koutoubia Moroccan Restaurant in Los Angeles

Moroccan Jews in Miami

Miami Exhibition of Sephardic Jewish Portraits by J. Thomas Lopez

Congregation Hechal Shalom in Surfside, Florida meets the needs of Moroccan Jews in the Miami area. It preserves Moroccan liturgy and customs and teaches them to children and teenagers. Other Sephardic congregations meet the needs of Spanish-speaking Moroccan Jews who moved to the area from Latin American countries.

Moroccan Jews in New York

Congregation Netivot Israel in Brooklyn opened in 1980 and was the first Moroccan Jewish synagogue in New York State. Rabbi Gad Bouskila created Netivot Israel to pass on the legacy of Moroccan Judaism, in the middle of an area withother Sephardi synagogues. While 200 Moroccan Jewish families belong to this synagogue, others attend Sephardi synagogues that do not follow the Moroccan tradition.

Entrance to MJO (Moroccan Jewish Organization) Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens, New York

Another Moroccan synagogue in the New York area is MJO (Moroccan Jewish Organization) Shaar HaShamayim. Founded in 1972, the congregation moved into a permanent building in Forest Hills in 1983. The synagogue provided an opportunity for Moroccans to participate in traditional Moroccan prayer services. In addition, the MJO has hosted famous Moroccan singers such as Sami El-Maghrebi and Jo Amar. It also has hosted important Moroccan rabbis from the US and around the world, such as Rabbi Haim Louk, Baba Baruch, Rabbi Yosef Sitruk, former Chief Rabbi of France and Rabbi Shalom Messas, Former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. During his visit to New York, Moroccan King Hassan II recognized MJO as the first organization of Moroccan Jews in the US.

Links with the Jewish and Moroccan Communities in the US

Moroccan Jews are reaching out to the broader Jewish community but mainly focus on building their own. They are also part of the larger Moroccan immigrant community, which numbered 120,000 in 2016.