Alexandria synagogue comes to Tel Aviv museum

The model of Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue now at the Museum of the Jewish People, Beit Hatefutsot

A model of the largest synagogue in the Middle East, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, has been unveiled at Beit Hatefutsot in Tel Aviv, the Museum of the Jewish People (formerly the Museum of the Diaspora). The model was built in memory of Sami Cohen with a donation from his sister Shosh Hadar. Both were born in Egypt and Shosh now lives in Jerusalem. The model of the Italian-designed synagogue, which rivals the Florence synagogue in size and beauty, took 18 months to build and will be on display at the entrance of Beit Hatefutsot for two months before joining 20 other models in the museum’s permanent collection. Haaretz has this report:

The synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, is considered to be the biggest in the Middle East. It was built in its current form in the mid-19th century, but prior to that it was destroyed twice – the last time under the decree of Napoleon. It was later repaired by an Italian architect and financed by members of the local Jewish community together with Sir Moses Montefiore.

In the second century, Rabbi Judah bar Ilai praised the synagogue of Alexandria and its boulevard lined with columns, saying it was so large that he who stood by the chazzan had to wave a flag to signal the praying congregants when to say “Amen.”

In the ancient days of the synagogue, Alexandria was home to a thriving Jewish community. The masterpiece of the spiritual activities in the city was the “Seventy Translation,” which translated biblical verse to Greek. Even the Jewish philosopher, Philon (of Alexandria), lived in the city. In 1940, the Jewish community was 40,000 members strong, but in the years that followed, the numbers dwindled as a result of a fear that the Nazis would advance to Egypt, and following that as a result of the rise of Abdel Nasser’s regime. By the 1990s, only 50 Jews were registered as living there.

The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue still stands in Alexandria today and is maintained by one Jew living in the city and by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, which considers it both historically and archaeologically important. The authorities had intended to carry out wide-scale renovations of the place, but those plans fell through when Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

A replica of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue of Alexandria, which is on display at the permanent collection of Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv.

A smaller replica of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue of Alexandria, on display at the permanent collection of Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv. (Photos: Yaakov Brill)

Levana Zamir, chairwoman of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, which was responsible for building the synagogue’s replica, said, “Despite the difficulty in arranging a program to renovate the synagogue, we decided to support the opportunity of building a replica in any way possible. To do this, we used the photos and sketches that were at our disposal.” Pesach Ruder, who built the model, added that he “saw a great challenge in building it. We recreated the synagogue and all the details that were in it, using the photos as inspiration.”

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