A synagogue in Bahrain? Not your average prayer in the Persian Gulf

“This is historic,” Houdie Nonoo said. “It is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve been in this synagogue with a morning minyan, and more than a minyan”

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June 26, 2019 21:09
3 minute read.
A synagogue in Bahrain? Not your average prayer in the Persian Gulf

General view of Bahrain World Trade Center in Manama, Bahrain, February 21, 2019. Picture taken February 21, 2019.. (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)

 
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MANAMA, Bahrain – In the center of the city just off of a busy street, there’s a small unmarked synagogue where a group of 15 Jews gathered on Wednesday for a morning minyan (prayer quorum). At the end they joined hands and danced around the bima, singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (The People of Israel Lives).

 
This was not your usual minyan: Not everyday is “Am Yisrael Chai” sung in a Persian Gulf synagogue.



Among those participating was Jason Greenblatt, Washington’s Middle East mediator and one of the architects of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop taking place here. Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, a top aide to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, gave a brief “dvar Torah” after the services. 
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, led the services.


Houdie Nonoo, Bahrain’s former ambassador to the US and a member of the tiny Bahraini Jewish community, was also on hand – she opened the shul, saying that she was “moved,” and that “this is historic.”
 

Nonoo said that sometimes a minyan takes place in the small local cemetery for a memorial service, but not in the shul. “It is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve been in this synagogue with a morning minyan – and more than a minyan.”


The small synagogue was built in the early 1900s to serve the small Jewish community, most of whom came from Iraq. The community peaked at some 1,500 in the 1930s. Ransacked during riots in December 1947, the synagogue fell into disuse and disrepair until being renovated in 1996. 


The community dwindled to some 500 before the Six Day War, and after riots took place at that time, it dwindled even further. Today an estimated 35 Jews live in Manama.





The synagogue, which is used by the community predominantly on special occasions such as Hanukkah and Purim, has a small ark but without a Torah scroll. 


Instead, there is a silver menorah inside. On the wall next to the ark is a picture of a letter of the deed of ownership for the land on which the synagogue sits. 


There is a mezuzah on the door, but no sign or indication outside that it’s a synagogue. It is located in a busy area surrounded by shops, which was once the area where most of the country’s Jews lived.


Although there is no sign or physical indication that the building houses a synagogue, the shopkeepers nearby know of its existence. “Synagogue?” I asked a man outside a nearby store, as I was looking for directions. He smiled, nodded, and pointed me in its direction.


“The synagogue is the secret weapon of the Jewish community,” said Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center, who took part in the minyan. “As soon as you walk in, you’re home.”


Even in Bahrain.

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