Restoration for Lebanon's oldest synagogue

By Jessica Elgot, August 7, 2009

Beirut's oldest synagogue, Magen Abraham, was devastated during the Lebanese civil war, but work has finally begun to give it a new lease of life.

Magen Abraham, which was built in 1926 in the traditionally Jewish neighbourhood of Wadi Abou Jmil, fell on the Muslim side of Beirut during the war which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

Two other synagogues still remain in Lebanon, in mountain towns east of Beirut, but they have been closed since the war.

Less than 200 Jews now remain in Lebanon from what was once a 22,000-strong community. The violence from the civil war forced many to emigrate — to Europe and America — and those that remain have tended to practise their religion only in private.

Plans to revamp Magen Abraham have been affected by steadily declining numbers, particularly as tensions worsen between Israel and Lebanon.

An official of the Lebanese Jewish Community Council told the Associated Press: "The project might take a year or so to complete, depending how much money we can collect,"

The $1.5 million renovation was set for 2006 but the Israel-Hizbollah conflict put the brakes on the project and the global economic crisis has put off wealthy foreign donors from investing.

But now builders have finally set to work on clearing debris from the shul, dismantling the roof and erecting scaffolding, even though the small community still does not have the funds to complete the work.

"So far, no donations have come from Jewish donors overseas," the Jewish official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There has been a surprising consensus among Lebanese leaders that the historic synagogue should be rebuilt and even Hizbollah leaders have lent support.

Last updated: 9:47am, August 10 2009