Hope for Beirut's Jews as a synagogue is reborn

Vikki Miller reports from the Lebanese capital where an embattled community has cause for celebration

September 16, 2010
An artist decorates walls as part of renovation work at Maghen Abraham, Beirut’s oldest synagogue

An artist decorates walls as part of renovation work at Maghen Abraham, Beirut’s oldest synagogue

All the other buildings in the block have been torn down, scheduled to be rebuilt as luxury apartments. Only one building remains standing - the last edifice of a once-thriving Jewish neighbourhood.

Rising out of a sea of rubble, its newly-painted white and gold facade gleaming in the harsh Beirut sun, the Maghen Abraham Synagogue is a powerful symbol of a community that refuses to be defeated.

Despite the evident security risks, a small number of Jews have remained in Lebanon throughout the decades of violence and are now just months away from realising their communal dream - the restoration of their biggest and most magnificent synagogue.

"We started from nothing and now we are so, so close," says Sameer, standing outside the synagogue. He is a businessman in his fifties who sits on the Jewish Community Council, the tiny community's organising body, and has been overseeing the restoration project. "I have a hope that Maghen Abraham will act as a focal point and bring people back to our congregation."

Life for Jews in Beirut is tough. They have not been allowed to work in certain professions, including government jobs or the police, since 1967 and, until last year, were obliged to have their religion marked on their ID cards. Once numbering more than 20,000, the community has today dwindled to a mere 100-150 members, most of them over 50 years old. Its leader is the 65-year-old Isaac Arazi, who has been at the forefront of raising funds for the restoration.

But the discrimination and ever-present security threat does not deter this small community who say they are, on the whole, happy with their lot.

"Some days it is hard, other days not. You never know which it will be," says Sameer. "But I do not hide that I am a Jew, I am open enough with my religion. It is important to be proud to be Jewish."

They say they stayed in Lebanon because of a profound sense of feeling Lebanese. Beirut is their home and they have ties here - most own, or are employed by, small businesses in the city.

Before the restoration work began

Before the restoration work began

"Why would I move?" questions Sameer's friend and fellow businessmen, Joseph (both men have asked for their surnames not to be used - speaking to a western journalist may result in unwelcome attention from the authorities). "My life is here. Everything I have is here."

The main bugbear of the community is the Lebanese's wilful confusion of the terms Israeli and Jew. Not only is this perilous in a country where Israel is a reviled enemy, it also infuriates the Jews, who do not consider themselves Zionists.

"I am a Lebanese Jew, I am not Israeli," says Joseph. "They refuse to understand that Israel is not important to us. I do not feel warm towards Israel, the same as most people in my country. I feel Lebanese, I speak Arabic, not Hebrew."

The Maghen Abraham synagogue was once considered among the most beautiful in the Middle East. Opened in 1926, it was ironically damaged by Israeli shelling of Beirut in 1982 and was left abandoned until renovations began last year.

During the brutal Lebanese Civil War between 1975-90, the synagogue - like the Jewish community - was decimated. Everything inside was plundered: the bimah, prayer books, benches, window panes, even the floor slabs.

But now, much to the community's delight, the gaping hole in the roof has been repaired, graffiti scrubbed off the walls and specialist painters have just put the finishing touches to three large, golden Stars of David on the pale blue roof inside.

The restoration has received a rare consensus from the country's often divided factions. Even Hizbollah, the militant Islamic group, has given its tacit approval, saying it respects divine religions and their right to worship in historic buildings.

The old Jewish neighbourhood in which the synagogue is located, Wadi Abou Jmil, is these days a subdued area on the edge of Beirut's bustling downtown. Just a stone's throw from the imposing Government House and the bullet-ridden, abandoned Holiday Inn hotel, this is where violent battles raged during the civil war between Muslim militias and their Christian counterparts.

Security is still tight. Heavily armed guards from a private security firm are placed every 100 metres on the road, alongside the Lebanese Army who are on constant street patrols. A tank is parked 50 metres away.

Jews no longer live here. The ageing community is now spread out across the city with no Jewish schools or shops. They pray separately in their own homes, coming together only for the High Holy Days.

It was not always this way. Contrary to its recent turbulent history, Lebanon has been a country that prides itself on its religious tolerance and diversity. Judaism is one of 18 officially recognised religions, and the country was historically a haven for Jews fleeing persecution. "If Jews in the region ever found themselves in trouble, they would always go to Lebanon," says Dr Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer on Middle East History at the London School of Economics and author of the book, The Jews of Lebanon. "It was the only Arab country whose Jewish population grew after the establishment of Israel in 1948, swelled by Jews fleeing countries like Iraq and Syria."

During the 1950s Wadi Abou Jmil prospered. Small Jewish businesses abounded and children attended Jewish schools there. The Maghen Abraham synagogue hosted grand weddings, lectures and study sessions.

The community's demise began in earnest after the 1967 Six Day War, which ushered in 200,000 angry Palestinian refugees and a negative change in attitude from the Lebanese authorities. "Around 50 per cent of the Jewish population left between 1967-70. It became a dangerous place for them," explains Dr Schulze. "Most people went to France or America. They didn't want to go Israel as they viewed it as a nanny state for those not able to cope on their own, for Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors. They saw themselves as strong and looked down on people who moved there."

The final blow to the community came at the start of the Lebanese Civil War, when the vast majority of the 3,000 or so remaining Jews fled as the country turned on itself. The few who stayed have long yearned to rebuild Maghen Abraham, to bring some of the splendour of the old days back again, despite the risks. But they had to postpone renovation plans several times: first due to the war with Israel in 2006, then again in 2009 as funding failed to materialise. Lebanese Jews outside the country - there are an estimated 2,000 across the world - rallied round and almost $1.2 million (approx £770,000), has now been secured. When it opens at the beginning of next year, Maghen Abraham will have seating for 600 people.

In front of the synagogue in Wadi Abou Jmil, Sameer glances up at the Ten Commandments perched on the new roof. "We know this is an important building, a symbol," he says. "We have waited 30 years and now we only have a little bit more. Soon, our community will be able to pray together again in our synagogue."

Last updated: 10:23am, September 16 2010