This past Sunday, March 11th, a most extraordinary singular ceremony was held at the auditorium of the Center for Jewish History, in Manhattan, to a standing room only crowd. Rabbi Raphael Benchimol, chief rabbi of Manhattan Sephardic Congregation became a Knight of the Order of the Throne by order of His Majesty the King, Mohammed VI (Ṣāḥib al-Jalālah al-Malik Muḥammad al-Sādis) of Morocco.
The evening opened with Mistress of Ceremonies, Founder and Honorary President of the American Sephardic Federation, Liliane Shalom introducing the event, and dignitaries present (members of the diplomatic corps, activists and more).
Marc Hazan, Cantor at Manhattan Sephardic Congregation sang beautiful renditions of the American and Moroccan national anthems.
Mr. David Dangoor, President of the American Sephardi Federation, followed with the opening remarks. Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Rabbi of the star-studded Hampton Synagogue, spoke next. He opened his speech with an amusing and well known anecdote concerning Pablo Picasso.
An art dealer once came to Pablo Picasso with a painting, purportedly signed by the artist, to have its authenticity verified. Picasso quickly looked at it and pronounced it a fake. Three years later, the same dealer came back with another painting and an impoverished artist in tow, and once again Picasso pronounced it a fake.
Enraged, the impecunious painter cried out: “But Pablo, I saw you paint it and you yourself gave it to me!” to which Picasso responded, “Pablo Picasso also paints fake Picassos sometimes.”
The point of the anecdote was that we all “paint fakes,” all except the evening’s honoree,whose indefatigable work on behalf of his people radiates his true luminosity constituting Rabbi Raphael Benchimol’s core badge of honor… Rabbi Raphael Benchimol, whose genuineness, has repeatedly shown he does not “paint fakes;” his work as a rabbi, his travails on behalf of his congregation, his espousal of causes that benefit Moroccan Jewry, his heartfelt speeches and deep wonderful insights on Torah prove he only is capable of “painting” what’s truly real…
Royal Ambassador Serge Berdugo – who flew in from Morocco followed. He spoke of the Moroccan Jewish Community then and now, the love of His Majesty for the tradition and rich history of Jews in in the kingdom and the peaceful coexistence between the kingdom’s various faiths.
He mentioned the Preamble of the New Constitution adopted by Referendum on the 1st of July 2011, establishing that “the National Unity, forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic, [saharo-hassanie] components, is nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]“.
Ambassador Berdugo presented Rabbi Benchimol, a medal bestowed on him by King Mohammed VI and a proclamation naming him a Knight of the Order of the Throne.
Rabbi Benchimol concluded his remarks with a blessing in Hebrew for the King of Morocco and the Royal Household in and then translated it to English for the enthralled attendees. He then unveiled a gift to His Majesty, a magnificent silver crown encased in a glass case and wood case.
Rabbi Benchimol explained that the silver crown is traditionally used to adorn the holy Torah scroll. He elaborated that this gift was specifically chosen in gratitude to His Majesty and to his predecessors, who as Commanders of the Faithful have for generations protected and preserved Judaism in Morocco.
The inscription on the display case reads:
To His Majesty, Mohammed VI King of Morocco
With our Deepest Gratitude
Manhattan Sephardic Congregation
“May G-d Always watch over you and protect you”
Ambassador Serge Berdugo gave a video presentation on the extensive and elaborate Jewish cemetery project under way in Morocco.
The ceremony ended with the Moroccan Ambassador to the US, His Excellency Rachad Bouhlal reminiscences of his childhood and the respect Moroccan children were taught to have for their elders regardless of religious creed.
The evening ended with light dips, salads, cakes and a superb Moroccan coffee in a room transformed to look like a Moroccan lounge. A truly memorable evening for a most exceptional man. May his many merits, both hidden and known, inspire us all to meritorious action on behalf of our people and fellow citizens of the world.