The dilapidated structure of the Magen Avraham synagogue is nearly all that remains of the Jewish presence in Lebanon. A once vibrant community that numbered in the tens of thousands is now almost non-existent. The few Jews that remain in Lebanon live as discreetly as possible. A new project to raise $1 million, launched by the Lebanese Jewish Community Council to restore the Magen Avraham synagogue in downtown Beirut, holds the possibility of bringing back the community’s presence. Those behind the renovation plan want to reestablish Magen Avraham as a functioning synagogue, and they’ve raised hopes that an overt Jewish presence in Beirut and the Mount Lebanon environs — which has Jewish history that may stretch back as far as 3,000 years — can emerge again.
The Magen Avraham synagogue — the name means “Abraham’s Shield” — was built in 1926 in what was the Jewish quarter of Wadi Abu Jamil in downtown Beirut. The grandness of the synagogue plans meant that a great deal of money needed to be raised. The Lebanese Jewish Community Council, just after World War I, managed to raise some funds for its construction, but it was considerably less that what was needed for the ambitious project.
While the community kept a very distinct Lebanese identity, the majority were also part of the transnational Sephardi Jewish community. The Sephardi Jews originally came from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and North Africa and, despite their early geographical dispersal, kept a distinct identity and liturgy separate from the Jews of Eastern European descent, the Ashkenazi, and the Jews who remained in the Middle East, called Mizrahi Jews. Thus, the Lebanese Jews used this Sephradi Jewish network to raise funds for the synagogue. The community appealed to Moise Abraham Sassoon from Calcutta, who donated money toward the completion of the Magen Avraham synagogue, while the land was donated by Raphael Levy Stambouli. Sassoon would dedicate the synagogue to his father.
The synagogue was designed by architect Bindo Manham and was built in the imposing symmetrical style of the Renaissance. When completed the synagogue would be declared the grandest in the Middle East and secured Wadi Abu Jamil as the focal point for the Lebanese Jewish community. Jacques Baghdadi, who grew up in Wadi Abu Jamil and left when he was 18 (in 1970) to the United States, described to Executive what it was like living in the Jewish quarter of Beirut.
“It was very cliquey; it was like living in one big family,” he said. “We had two schools and everyone went to the two schools… so it was a very cocooned area and I have very fond memories of the community there.”
The wider community
Despite the fact that the Jewish community was “cocooned” in Wadi Abu Jamil, there is a historical Jewish presence in other areas of Beirut as well. One noticeable trace of the once thriving community is the Beth Elamen cemetery just off Sodeco square that, similar to the synagogue, is in disrepair and overgrown with trees and weeds. According to Georges Zeidan, who wrote an article on the history of the Jewish cemetery in Beirut in French, entitled “Histoire du Cimetière Juif à Beyrouth,” the first Jew was buried in the cemetery in 1829. Now the gravestones lie in tatters.
The Jewish community also had a presence in other parts of Lebanon.
“The first significant wave of Jews to Lebanon came in 1710 when a significant number of Andalusian Jews fled from the Spanish inquisition to the safety of the Chouf mountains,” Kirsten Schulze wrote in her book “The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict.”
In Miziara, a village in the mountains above Tripoli in northern Lebanon, Diab Doudib, in his 70s, said Jews had once lived there. “If you look at the patterns of the olive trees, that is not our way, but the Jewish way of planting. They were here a long time ago, but there are no Jews here now,” he said.
Contribution in Lebanon
Where they are now
Jacob E. Safra was a banker from Aleppo who fled to Beirut when
the Ottoman empire
Safra opened the J. E. Safra bank in Beirut in 1920. The bank would become the bank of choice for the Lebanese Jewish community.
Edmond Safra, the son of Jacob, was born in Beirut in 1932. The Safra family moved to Brazil in 1952, where Edmond Safra built on his father’s business to accumulate personal wealth of $2.5 billion. Joseph Safra, the son of Edmond, now runs the Safra group and was listed as the fourth richest South American by Forbes, with an estimated wealth of $8.8 billion.
Originally from Baghdad
Credited with bringing modern banking to the Middle East and formed a central part of the commercial and finance activites in Wadi Abu Jamil. The family was among the wave of Syrian and Iraqi refugees that moved to Lebanon in the 1940s.
83 year old Ezra Zilkha inherited Zilkha & sons, a private investment company, from his father Khedouri Zilkha. The family moved to New York in the 1950s. By the 1980s, Ezra was listed on the Forbes 400. Ezra now concentrates on philanthropy and is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Brookings Institution trustee.
Originally from Damascus
A prominent business family in Wadi Abu Jmiel who founded the Talmud Torah Selim Tarab school. The school was located behined the Magen Avraham synagogue and
was demolished in April 2008.
Isaac Tarrab was killed in 1986 in Beirut by The Organization of the Oppressed People on Earth. His son, David Tarrab, emigrated to the US, and now lives in New Jersey where he works as a pediatric dentist. His brother is an attorney in New York.
Deir al-Qamr was the location of one of the first concentrations of Lebanese Jews. The Chouf village is still home to the oldest synagogue in Lebanon, but like most of the remnants of the Lebanese Jewish presence, the synagogue is in a ruined state. From the Chouf, the Lebanese Jewish community spread to Saida and Tripoli as they increasingly moved toward commercial hubs.
This migration would ultimately lead the community to Beirut and Wadi Abu Jamil, as the city was becoming an ever-more dominant trading hub at the beginning of the 20th century.
Lebanese Jews would rise to prominence around the world for their business acumen, although unfortunately not in Lebanon. “Being Lebanese and Jewish was a real winner when it came to trade and banking,” George Lati, a Lebanese Jew who left Lebanon when he was a teenager and immigrated to the US, told Executive.
The Latis are a famous banking family whose members still own property in Beirut and exemplify the business success of the Lebanese Jewish community.
“Italy saw an export resurgence in the 1970s thanks to Lebanese Jews [who emigrated] as well as Hong Kong, Mexico, Brazil, Panama, USA [and] Canada, where there were all successful Lebanese Jewish businesses,” he said.
Most famous of all the Levantine Jewish families was the Safra family. The Jacob Safra Bank was a central banking institution in Beirut for many of the Sephardi Jewish families of Lebanon and Syria. Safra’s son, Edmond Safra, was born in Beirut and earned a reputation for being one of the outstanding figures in 20th century banking, and died a billionaire. The Safra family would move from Lebanon to Italy in 1949, just after Israel declared statehood. Although the Safra family left Lebanon when Israel was created, this was not typical of Lebanese Jews.
“Lebanon was the only Arab country in which the number of Jews increased after the first Arab-Israeli war,” Schulze wrote.
Lebanese Jews were highly integrated into Lebanese society and became the only Jewish community in the Middle East to be constitutionally protected in the proclamation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. Even after the first Arab-Israeli war, the tradition of sharing religious festivals continued.
“In 1951, during the Passover celebration, the president of the Jewish community Joseph Attie held a reception at Magen Avraham synagogue which was attended by Lebanese Prime Minister Sami as-Solh, Abdallah Yafi, Rachid Beydoun, Joseph Chader, Habib Abi Chahla, Charles Helou, Pierre Gemayel and the Maronite Archbishop of Beirut,” Schulze wrote.
A gradual exodus of Jews began with the internal strife in Lebanon in 1958. Jacques Baghdadi, a Lebanese Jew who left the country in 1970, described to Executive how tensions increased after the Six Day War.
“We never felt the threat like in Syria and Iraq. We never felt oppressed, but after the Six Day War you felt in the air a certain bothering feeling,” he said. “Even though we were born Lebanese, you felt not welcome… so [the Lebanese Jewish community] left… and it was like a sixth [sense]; sure enough the civil war broke [out].”
The decisive moment was the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, which was effectively the beginning of the end of the Jewish presence in Lebanon. Robert Fisk, a British foreign correspondent who lived in Beirut during the civil war, wrote in his book “Pity the Nation,” that “incredibly, the Israeli shells even blew part of the roof off the city’s synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil, where the remnants of Beirut’s tiny Jewish community still lived… The last 10 families to worship there padlocked the door after the Israeli shells came through the roof.”
The Israeli invasion of 1982 left the Lebanese Jewish community particularly exposed to the vicious violence that would occur post-invasion. Wadi Abu Jamil was the scene of fierce fighting, and was first occupied by the Palestine Liberation Organization and then the Amal Movement. The Amal logo is still on the walls of the synagogue to this day, along with torn pictures of the late Amal leader Musa Sadr. Former Associated Press bureau chief Terry Anderson, who was kidnapped in 1985 and held for six years, was reportedly taken into the Wadi Abu Jamil area.
Between 1984 and 1987, 11 leading members of the Jewish community were kidnapped and killed by a militant Shiite Islamic organization called “Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth,” according to Schulze and news reports from the time. The terminal decline of the community began, as did the underground nature of the remaining Jews.
Fred Kanter, whose great-grandfather was a rabbi at the Alliance School in Beirut (a Jewish school system founded and funded by the Rothschild family), articulated the fear of those few Jews who did remain.
“I was in touch with a young Jewish man in Beirut who photographed the gravestone of my grandfather,” Kanter told Executive by email. “When a Jewish friend went to visit Beirut, he was afraid to be seen meeting a Jewish person from the West.”
Executive contacted a number of Jews still residing in Lebanon, but none were willing to talk about the community, even anonymously.
Of those that have left the country, many in the Lebanese Jewish community have maintained a strong cohesion. Jacques Baghdadi said that despite leaving Lebanon nearly 40 years ago, he is still in contact with the Lebanese Jews who he grew up with in Wadi Abu Jamil.
“We see each other in synagogues… there are two big synagogues [in Brooklyn] that are especially for Lebanese Jews… the Lebanese by nature are very clannish people and we hang out with all Lebanese — Christians or Muslims — it doesn’t matter here.”
A testament to the strength of Lebanese Jewish identity is the Maghan Avraham synagogue in Montreal that was set up by Lebanese Jewish immigrants.
The Internet, and particularly social networking sites like Facebook, have also enabled Lebanese Jews to maintain contact. Most recently, the official Lebanese Jewish Community Council website (www.thejewsoflebanonproject.org) has been launched that now gives an official public face to the community. The website was also set up to help raise funds for reconstuction of the Magen Avraham synagogue.
“Those who don’t have a past don’t have a future,” Isaac Arazi, president of the Lebanese Jewish Community Council, is quoted as saying on the website’s welcome page — ostensibly linking the renovation of the Magen Avraham synagogue to the reconstruction of a Jewish presence in the country.
“It pains me immensely that I have to pass by [Magen Avraham] every day without being able to enter,” wrote one anonymous Lebanese Jew on the website. “If only to view the destruction, to say a prayer (even though I do not know how to say prayers), to stand there and imagine and visualize what the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were like.”
Mira Elmann and other Lebanese Jews are already discussing how the synagogue will function once it has been renovated.
“The Magen Avraham synagogue will only succeed as a place of worship for the Orthodox Jews. Services must be with an Orthodox Rabbi,” she wrote in an email.
Elmann, a Lebanese Jew who left Lebanon in October of 1968, believes that if the reconstruction of the synagogue is achieved, the Lebanese Jewish community may even come back.
“The only way the Jews will ever return to Beirut would be because of the renovation of the synagogue,” she said. “The Lebanese Jewish community of the Diaspora is looking forward for the day to go back to the new Wadi Abu Jamil.”
Yet, it is unclear whether the synagogue will be rebuilt soon or not, as Executive was unable to interview the head of the Lebanese Jewish Community Council, Isaac Arazi.
An article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper on May 27 said the renovation of the synagogue was about to start. The article, entitled “Beirut shul [synagogue] to be refurbished, and even Hezbollah’s on board” stated:
“The ruined main synagogue in central Beirut is due to be renovated in the coming weeks, after an agreement between various religious denominations and permission from the Lebanese government, planning authorities and even Hezbollah.”
If the Haaretz article is accurate, then the reconstruction of the synagogue, and Lebanon’s Jewish community, could come soon. There is good reason for skepticism, however, as it is not the first time a newspaper announced the imminent refurbishment of Magen Avraham.
Haaretz reported that Solidere was to donate $150,000, but cited unnamed sources regarding $200,000 more that had been raised through private donations.
Nabil Rached, Solidere’s press officer, confirmed Solidere’s contribution, but would not say whether reconstruction would actually take place.
“The [financial] contribution is an old decision taken by Solidere for the restoration of each one of the religious buildings in the Beirut City Center,” Rached said. “But the restoration of each religious building is done by its respective community. So it is not a Solidere project.”
Angus Gavin, the planning advisor for Solidere, also refused to comment on the renovation of the synagogue but added that it’s “about time [the synagogue] is reconstructed.”
A Bloomberg article in September 2008 also claimed that $240,000 had been raised, quoting the Lebanese Jewish Community Council President Arazi. Unconfirmed reports suggested the Safra Foundation put up $100,000 of this money with another unnamed Swiss bank. Arazi refused to name where the money came from, while the Safra foundation has also declined to comment.
Whether the Lebanese Jewish community has been able to obtain the $200,000 that Haaretz reported, or the other funds for the restoration, is doubted by some in the community.
George Lati is among those who throw cold water on the idea: “There just has not been the interest in the community financially to be able to raise the money; the money has not been raised.”
Like in the early 1920s, when the original synagogue was constructed with the financial assistance of the larger community of Sephardi Jews, a similar approach may be underway regarding the rebuilding. Regardless of whether the Lebanese Jewish community actually has the money now or not, the community council appears determined to see that the reconstruction of the synagogue eventually does take place.
“The plans to renovate the Magen Avraham synagogue are already underway,” the website states.
The community council seems convinced that as long as the Maghan Avraham synagogue remains in its current dilapidated state, so too will the status of Lebanon’s 18th sect.
Jacques Baghdadi told Executive that while the return of Lebanon’s Jewish community is not yet at hand, there is no reason why in the long run the community cannot reestablish.
“There was a time of Jewish persecution in Spain and again you have a Jewish population in Spain, the same in Italy and Portugal… history repeats itself, people come back.”
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles profiling Arab Jewish communities Executive will publish in the coming months.)