Weinstein JCC official shares family’s story of fleeing persecution

By Jeremy Slayton

Richmond Times Dispatch

March 18, 2013

Orly Lewis was born in Israel, but traces her roots to Tunisia in North Africa.

Her parents and grandparents immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, leaving behind their businesses and homes in the capital city of Tunis to flee the growing persecution against Jews, Lewis said. One grandfather was a spice dealer, while the other was a craftsman who made furniture for Tunisian nobles.

The families left one night in 1956 in a boat bound for the young state of Israel. Her parents were just teens when they made the journey. After the family disembarked from the boat, they were taken by truck to tent cities that had been erected to house the flood of refugees.

Lewis, the assistant executive director at the Weinstein JCC in Henrico County, said her family maintained “a sense of optimism despite everything they had endured. They never took anything for granted … and were proud to be part of the establishment of the state of Israel.”

Her family’s story is similar to those experienced by the nearly 1 million displaced Jews from North Africa and the Middle East who fled their homes in Arab countries as their communities were destroyed after World War II. Some shared their stories in the 2005 documentary “The Forgotten Refugees.”

According to the San Francisco-based nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), nearly 856,000 Jews lived in countries in this region in 1948. As of 2005, only 5,110 lived there, including 1,100 in Tunisia. Some countries, such as Libya and Algeria, saw Jewish populations drop to zero by 2005.

“Very few of us know the stories and the destructions of very vibrant Jewish communities in Arab lands,” said Lewis, who shared her history during a program Sunday afternoon at Virginia Commonwealth University.

JIMENA seeks recognition for the nearly 1 million Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa who were displaced from their country of origin. The organization aims to preserve the Mizrahi and Sephardic culture and history.

Indigenous Jewish communities have maintained a continuous presence in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 2,500 years. As the Arab conquest emerged from Arabia in 622 and swept through the region, Christians and Jews became second-class citizens called dhimmis, or people of the book.

With substandard status, Jews and Christians faced social inequalities and were subjected to discriminatory laws. In the 1930s, Nazism spread across Europe, and in late 1942, German forces invaded Tunisia, forcing Lewis’ family to flee the city. They were sheltered on a farm by a Muslim family for six months.

“Whatever the families provided them for food and shelter, that’s how they survived,” Lewis said. “Many people know the stories of Auschwitz and other horrible concentration camps, but no one really that the Jews of the Arab lands have also incurred terrible conditions and destructions of very vibrant Jewish communities.”


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