Restored Beirut synagogue will open next year

Who exactly will worship in the 600-seat Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut when it opens next year? The man behind its restoration, and self-styled community leader, Isaac Arazi, exaggerates the numbers of Jews living in, and passing through, Lebanon. In fact, the community at its peak never exceeded 14,000. Jews left in response to antisemitism from 1948 on, and not as the article says, as a result of the 1975 civil war.

June 30 (Bloomberg) — Restoration of Beirut’s only synagogue will be completed in October and religious services will be held there in 2011 for the first time in more than three decades, the leader of the country’s Jewish community said.

“We started from zero with this project and now we hope with the restoration we will be able to once again rebuild a community in Lebanon,” Isaac Arazi, 67, said June 24 in an interview in Beirut.

The Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Wadi Abou Jmil, the city’s historic Jewish quarter, opened in 1926 and once hosted a thriving community that has been eroded by decades of civil war. Prospects for stability have improved since elections a year ago were won by the pro-Western coalition of Saad Hariri, which formed a national unity government with rival Hezbollah and the Muslim group’s Christian allies.

The synagogue’s restoration has so far cost $700,000 and the final bill is expected to reach $1.2 million, Arazi said. Most of the financing has come from Lebanese Jews outside the country, while Christians and Muslims have also contributed.

About 100 Jews now live permanently in Lebanon, while there are some 1,900 living abroad who still own property in the country and visit regularly, according to Arazi, who owns a food-machinery business. In the mid-1960s, there were as many as 22,000 Lebanese Jews, he said.

Historically, Lebanon was a haven for Jews, some of whom descended from people who fled the Spanish inquisition. The country later served a similar role for refugees from Nazi Germany. (Not many of these ended up in Lebanon – ed) Lebanon had “no history of anti-Jewish tensions,” and was the only Arab country whose population of Jews increased after Israel’s creation in 1948, said Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of “The Jews of Lebanon.”

Jews began to flee Lebanon, emigrating to Europe as well as North and South America, after sectarian fighting broke out in the 1970s among the nation’s Christian, Muslim and Druze factions (not true – 90 percent left in 1967). The last religious service at Maghen Abraham was held around the middle of that decade.

When it opens again early next year, the synagogue will have seating for 600 men and 300 women. Religious artifacts such as the Torah and other books and items required for services will be brought from Turkey and Syria, and the synagogue will seek to appoint a rabbi familiar with Middle Eastern and North African Sephardic Jewish rituals from the region, possibly from Yemen, Egypt or Turkey, Arazi said.

The community has also begun to repair the Jewish cemetery in Beirut, where about 4,500 Jews are buried, at a cost of about $200,000, and there are also plans to restore defunct synagogues elsewhere in the country, including one in Bhamdoun, a town 23 kilometers (14 miles) from the capital.

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Update: the synagogue in Beirut will be nothing more than a museum, a Lebanese Jew pointed out to me recently. The few Jews still in Lebanon – and they mostly live in poverty – reside on the outskirts of Beirut. It is unlikely that they would walk into the city centre to attend Shabbat services.


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