Leisah Woldoff

The day the Earth shook

Phoenix natives returning to the Valley after a long absence are often shocked by the city’s development over the past decade, with neighborhoods and businesses standing on what they remember as open desert land.

Now imagine the opposite – land plush with vegetation dominating your childhood neighborhood; memories of a thriving, prosperous Jewish community coming to terms with the sight of the open space where buildings you frequented once stood.

One Scottsdale man recently experienced this after returning to his hometown in southern Morocco 50 years after the area was destroyed by an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, killing about 15,000 people. This was the same magnitude as the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif., which killed 60 people, injured 7,000, left 20,000 homeless and damaged more than 40,000 buildings, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Jacky Sebag visits the grave of his uncle. Photo courtesy of Jacky Sebag

Last year, Jacky Sebag, a member of Ahavas Torah in Scottsdale, received an e-mail from a cousin about “Hagadat Agadir,” a book written about his hometown, Agadir. The book, released last year, gave an account of the city’s history and testimonies from survivors of the Feb. 29, 1960 earthquake that killed the majority of the city’s Jewish community in the residential area of Talborj, which was the epicenter of the earthquake. Ninety-five percent of the total population of Talborj died, says Sebag, who lost 19 family members; he was among the 5 percent who survived.

Sebag contacted the book’s author, Dr. Orna Baziz, a senior literature lecturer at David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem and a survivor of the earthquake.

After he e-mailed Baziz to introduce himself, she called “me within a few minutes,” he says. After she shared with him her childhood name, he realized that they had attended school together. She told him that she had written about his parents in her book because they were among the pioneers of the city’s Jewish community. “It was very exciting,” Sebag says.

During their conversation, Sebag asked Baziz if she had heard anything about a 7-year-old girl who had been found alive in the rubble of a building after the earthquake. “Are you talking about Lydia?” Baziz asked. Lydia Waknin, whose parents died in the earthquake, was Sebag’s cousin, whom he had lost touch with as a child. Baziz put Sebag in touch with Waknin, who is now the principal of a Jewish school in Paris; Sebag, with his wife, Chana, traveled to Paris three months later to be reunited with his cousin.

After Baziz told Sebag that she was planning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the earthquake on the Hebrew date of Rosh Chodesh Adar – which fell on Feb. 15 of this year – with a visit to Agadir, Sebag and his wife decided to join her, as did Waknin.

After the earthquake, Sebag and his family had moved to the Moroccan seaport of Casablanca. His father, who lost all his brothers and nephews in the earthquake, decided that if he had to start a new life from scratch, “he would rather start his life in Israel.” So the family made aliyah a few months after the earthquake and Sebag lived there for 20 years, serving in the Israeli army in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, before moving to Phoenix in 1979. His visit to Morocco in February was the first time he had returned to his native country.

During his visit to Agadir, Sebag attended a Torah dedication ceremony at a local resort; the resort’s owner donated the Torah in memory of the more than 40 students of the local yeshiva, Ohaleh Yossef Itshak, who died in the earthquake. “It was very moving,” he says.

The commemoration also included a memorial service at the cemetery for all of the yeshiva students and all the Jewish people who died in the earthquake, Sebag says. Baziz also “reunited many of the families who also are survivors … and introduced them to the current local Jewish community.”

“We had an excellent Jewish community in Agadir,” Sebag told Jewish News. About 1,800 of the city’s 2,300 Jews died in the earthquake, and the community never recovered; the “very small Jewish community is left with one synagogue,” and another synagogue is occasionally open and is part of the resort, Sebag says.

About 200 people from around the world attended the commemoration (thousands attended a memorial organized by the government two weeks later on Feb. 29). “Each one would tell me about my parents,” Sebag says. “It was very emotional to hear.” Participants asked each other about their families and they talked about who they lost in the earthquake.

Sebag recalls his memory of the earthquake, which took place at 11:45 p.m. His family had moved into a new home after 20 years in their previous neighborhood, and his uncle, Maurice Abenhaim, was in town to attend the dedication of the new house. His mother was trying to persuade her brother to stay at their house during his visit, but he preferred to stay at a hotel. A small earthquake earlier that day made him nervous since their house was close to the shore. He ended up returning to the hotel just one hour before the earthquake; the hotel was totally destroyed.

Although the resort area is known for its sunny skies, on the 50th anniversary of the earthquake, it rained as Sebag stood at the graves of his family members who died that day.

This article first appeared in the Aug. 13, 2010 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.