I took my father’s seat

February 19, 2020 16:39

V Egypt is traditionally associated with departure for Jews — during the Exodus, and more recently for those forced to leave between 1948 and 1970 following the Arab–Israeli wars.

From a community that numbered 85,000 in its heyday and which contributed significantly to Egypt’s political, economic and cultural development, fewer than 10 Jews remain today.

As if symbolising this decline, the roof of the main Eliahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, built in the 1860s and one of the largest in the Middle East, collapsed four years ago. Refusing funding from abroad, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities launched a $4 million (£3.1 million) restoration programme which also uncovered the ruins of a 13th century synagogue upon which the actual one had been built.

As work completed last December, the Nebi Daniel International Association, which is dedicated to the preservation of the Jewish cultural and religious heritage in Egypt, decided to celebrate Shabbat on February 14-15. Jews born in Egypt gathered at the shul with their families in Alexandria, numbering 180 in all.

Funds had been raised to clear the three Jewish cemeteries from overgrown trees and kaddish was recited over the graves. A Chanukat Habayit ceremony to re-dedicate the synagogue was held in the afternoon when a new mezuzah was affixed by Rabbi Baker of the American Jewish Committee, in the presence of the US ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen, former Israeli Ambassador David Govrin, and British and French consuls.

Three Sifrei Torah were carried into the synagogue under a tallit and the shofar was sounded, followed by chants and speeches marking the return and thanking the Egyptian authorities.

Memorial candles were lit and the names of departed relatives recalled. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was celebrated by two rabbis, including Yosef Nefoussi, son of the last rabbi in Alexandria.

The Shabbat service on Saturday morning included the procession of 12 Torah scrolls before the largest congregation in that synagogue for 50 years.

This return stirred deep emotions: nameplates have been preserved and I was deeply moved when praying in my father’s seat.

“Visiting our dear ones at the cemeteries signified a return to say that in spite of all past problems, we have not abandoned you, we are back to see you, you are not forgotten,” says Elie Chilton, who was born in Alexandria.

Levana Zamir, head of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, added: “I never imagined I would see my grandson here, holding a Sefer Torah. I cried, there is so much emotion, it was just like seeing my father there.”

Alec Nacamuli was born in Alexandria and left in 1956 after the Suez Crisis

February 19, 2020 16:39

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