A Jewish Studies teacher at ORT Montreuil High School was the sole French representative at a workshop on the collection of North African Jewish manuscripts in the Yale University Library recently.
Moroccan-born Simone Mrejen-O’Hana, who has taught at the ORT France high school since 1983, was among 12 scholars invited to the week-long workshop at what is recognised as one of the world’s top three universities. And she was commissioned to undertake research on epitaphs written by Rabbi Yosef Messas in Algeria and Morocco between 1920 and 1960 which she presented at a symposium, Jews of the Maghreb “ﾓ The History and Culture of North African Jewry. Contained in an unpublished body of work in Hebrew, the poetic epitaphs provide insights into the great figures of the region’s Jewish communities as well as reveal the extraordinary scholarship of the author, who went on to become Chief Rabbi of Haifa’s Sephardi community until his death in 1974.
“This is a unique manuscript because no-one was writing epitaphs in Morocco until the arrival of the French,”? Dr Mrejen-O’Hana said. “Besides its novelty and style, this body of work tells us about the gender, onomastics, ancestry, social and family status, date, age and sometimes the causes and circumstances of death”ﾦ It is, therefore, interesting from historical, anthropological, linguistic and demographic points of view.”?
Participating in the workshop and symposium was an enriching experience, she said, adding that she was grateful to ORT Montreuil Director Esther Douieb for facilitating her attendance.
The multi-faceted nature of the research she presented at Yale is indicative of much of Dr Mrejen-O’Hana’s work. Her 10-page curriculum vitae lists various degrees, including a doctorate from the Sorbonne, facility in six languages, lecturing positions at the Sorbonne and Hebrew University (among others), and a body of published research spanning historical, cultural and linguistic aspects of various Jewish communities.
Despite this, she has never relinquished the teaching of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at ORT Montreuil.
“I started my teaching career at ORT Montreuil in 1983 and I decided to stay with ORT because I love being a teacher,”? she said. “I have always wanted to teach young Jews about their history and culture so it has been important for me to keep this relationship with ORT as a way of maintaining this connection with Jewish youth.”?
Dr Mrejen-O’Hana says she does not like suggestions that she is over qualified to teach high school students.
“ORT plays an essential role in providing the necessary support for young Jews to be aware of their heritage and to maintain their sense of belonging to the Jewish People,”? she said. “I love ORT and I am devoted to improving its provision of Jewish Studies. I have high standards; I believe we can always do better!”?
And the need was great, she said.
“Many of the children that come to ORT know nothing of their heritage. They may wear a Magen David but they don’t really know the history of their people or much about their religion. I want to commit them to this history.”?
True to the ORT approach, Dr Mrejen-O’Hana is a keen advocate of technology in the transmission of knowledge. She finds that using modern technological aids increases the interactivity of lessons and prevents the children from becoming bored. And she is excited by the potential of videoconferencing equipment to teach contemporary Jewish subjects to ORT students internationally.
“I am very glad that ORT continues to adapt to changing circumstances,”? she said. “For 130 years it has adapted to modernity unlike some other organisations which have had to change their role or simply faded away.”?