The group at Fes Palace Plaz
The group at Fes Palace Plaza.

A group of Jewish Metro Detroiters scrambled to get home from afar.

On March 11, 46 Metro Detroiters geared up for a trip to Morocco with Temple Israel. The tour was scheduled for nine days, with an optional extension to visit Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains.

At the same time, the novel coronavirus outbreak was spreading quickly, wreaking havoc on travel plans.

The Temple Israel group, led by Rabbi Paul Yedwab, Rabbi Marla Hornsten and Cantor Michael Smolash, boarded the plane from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, where they had a layover scheduled before the final leg to Casablanca. But the spread of COVID-19 was hitting its peak, and worry began to settle in.

“Literally two hours after we left for Morocco, things got bad in Michigan,” said trip participant Robin Murav of Farmington Hills.

Despite unsettling texts from friends and family back home, Murav boarded the plane. But soon after take-off, she watched group participants frantically booking flights back to Detroit. As soon as they landed in Paris, at least four people headed straight home.

“There was a little bit of angst on the plane,” Murav recalled. “It was a worry — I still had total faith in Temple Israel.”

Most of the group stayed on for the flight to Casablanca. Despite growing concerns about border closings in Europe, the first night of the trip in Morocco was a memorable one.

“We were dancing…we were really happy we were there,” Murav said. “There was this immediate bond with everyone.”

Sheldon and Marla Hornsten visit Sheldon's grandparents' gravesite in Morocco
Sheldon and Marla Hornsten visit Sheldon’s grandparents’ gravesite in Morocco. Courtesy of Robin Murav

The group explored Casablanca and Fes as planned. On Saturday evening, March 14, the group huddled together in a circle for a Kabbalat Shabbat service.

“We all said how happy we were there, happy to be there — it was just so warm,” Murav said.

“Then, Rabbi Yedwab got up and spoke, and he was just choked up. He told us that he loves us, and I know he does. He had gotten word from the U.S. Ambassador [to] Morocco that we needed to get out of there ASAP. We were all in shock.”

Rabbi Yedwab told the Jewish News, “I couldn’t be more proud of my colleagues” at Temple Israel who remained in Detroit to oversee congregational challenges arising with the spread of COVID-19. Neither Rabbi Yedwab nor any of the other Temple Israel clergy would comment specifics of the trip.

While the Morocco group knew they might be leaving the next day, they had no additional details. They continued to tour into Sunday, staying relatively close to the airport.

Suddenly, the tour stopped short — the group was instructed to board a bus headed straight for the Casablanca airport. They needed to leave immediately.

According to AP News, Morocco placed a ban on international passenger flights and ships that same day. The country now is in full lockdown mode, shutting down hotels, restaurants and more. Many U.S. citizens are still stranded there.

Susan and David Deutsch
Susan and David Deutsch in front of a synagogue in Fes. Robin Murav

Temple Israel worked with the tour organizer, Arza World Travel for Reform Judaism, to schedule flights for all participants on Royal Air Maroc to Miami, New York, Washington D.C. and Boston. From there, everyone was booked on connecting flights to Detroit.

“It was like we were a moving target and things were escalating very quickly,” said Linda Kovan, who resides in Novi. She and several other participants went through Washington D.C. in order to get back to Detroit.

All participants made it back safe and sound to their respective homes. Temple Israel clergy sent a letter to the group, urging them to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“I’m staying with friends, because I can’t stay with my dad, who is 97,” Murav said. “But I feel really fortunate — I feel fine. Everyone on the trip is good.”

Murav says no trip participants have contracted COVID-19, but she personally knows people who have it.

“I feel for these people who are so sick,” she said.

She is thankful for good friends who have dropped off food, since her self-quarantine leaves her unable to go to the grocery store right now. She says she keeps busy by going for walks and talking to the Temple Israel-Morocco group on WhatsApp.

Murav is now staying with Kovan, and both agree that Temple Israel did a “yeoman’s job” of getting them home safely.

“We all got out — we got there in the nick of time,” Kovan said. “it was pretty amazing.”

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