Can Beirut's last synagogue still be saved?

By Josie Ensor, October 29, 2009
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A scheme to renovate Beirut’s last standing shul is running out of money.

Maghen Abraham Synagogue, located in the former Jewish quarter of the Lebanese capital, was destroyed by Israeli shelling in 1982. It has been abandoned ever since, leaving Lebanese Jews without a synagogue building.

Renovation work began on the 85-year-old synagogue in August. The rusty padlocked gates were removed and benches once used for prayer were restored to their former state.

But now, the Lebanese Jewish Community Council (LJCC), the non-profit group in charge of the renovations, has been forced to appeal to the international community as funds run low.

“Your support for the synagogue is not merely a financial gesture, but a reaffirmation of your belief in Lebanon’s rich tradition of cultural pluralism and religious diversity,” said LJCC’s Aaron-Micaël Beydoun. “Help us ensure we can continue with the renovation, be part of history and contribute today.”

Lebanon is officially estimated to have just 100-150 Jews, down from 24,000 in 1948 — although some believe the real count is higher, with many Jews afraid to identify as such. The synagogue’s last rabbi fled in 1997.

While there were once 17 synagogues operating in Beirut alone, there are now just four synagogue buildings remaining in the whole of Lebanon — all of them disused. Jews in the capital have spent the past 30 years praying in specially designated houses as they wait to have their places of worship restored.

The renovation project was first given the green light by the late Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri more than five years ago. It unexpectedly received the public support of Hizbollah, with a party spokesman welcoming the work.

Earlier this year Solidere, a major Lebanese construction firm owned by the Sunni Hariri family, agreed to pay $150,000 towards the renovations. This was part of a larger donation made to 14 religious groups to help them restore their places of worship.

But the LJCC is yet to receive the first of three promised payments.

LJCC says $1 million (£660,000) is needed to complete the building work, which is expected to take a year.

“The limited ‘Phase 1’ funding of this historic renovation was made possible by the Lebanese Jewish Council and Lebanese Jewish businessmen abroad,” Mr Beydoun said. “These funds merely cover the cost of a new roof, a clean-up and vital infrastructure repair.

“The money we have is from our own modest resources and I can’t imagine the first phase taking too long before [more] funding will be needed to continue,” he says.

Much of the funding already received has come from the 65-year-old leader of the diminishing community, Isaac Arazi, who raised $40,000 (£26,400) from private donors in the expatriate Lebanese Jewish community and other anonymous benefactors in the diaspora.

    Last updated: 3:22pm, November 7 2011