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(photo credit: Brenda Gazzar)
Inside the grand Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in this bustling seaside city, five mostly elderly women and a middle-aged man from the Jewish community here gathered Tuesday evening to commemorate the holiday of new beginnings: Simhat Torah.
For the dwindling Jewish community of Alexandria, where fewer than 25 members now remain, six local attendees is nearly par for the course. And new beginnings seem far away.
The last minyan witnessed by the synagogue was last Yom Kippur, when participants sent by the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and several foreign visitors attended services.
"Now you see what the situation is," said Naftali Twitoo, an Israeli of Tunisian origin who regularly visits the country to lead holiday prayers here, following the service he conducted. "It hurts me that there aren't [more] people [here], but there is nothing that can be done."
At one point during the evening service, the soulful Mizrahi chanting of Twitoo was almost overpowered by the verses from the Koran emanating from a loudspeaker at a nearby mosque. At least 15 armed guards in uniforms stood watch around the high walls of the synagogue during the brief Simhat Torah service.
Members, who mostly spoke French among themselves, kissed the Torah during the service, feasted on rich pastries and then later congratulated one another with the traditional Arabic holiday greeting: "Kul Sana w'Antum Taibeen."
But it was hard not to notice that some familiar faces were missing.
In late July, the Jewish community of Alexandria lost its president of eight years, Dr. Max Salama, at the age of about 94. A native Alexandrian and long-time fixture of the Jewish community, Salama served as the dentist to the country's noble classes, including relatives of King Farouk's family and the brother of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Indeed, a few members of this rapidly aging community are now living in convalescent or nursing homes, including the meticulous registrar; a petite, spunky woman who has recorded all the births, deaths and marriages in the community for more than three decades.
And others in the community are finally leaving. One woman, who was born in Alexandria and spent all of her 86 years here, said she was making final preparations to leave Egypt and join her daughter, her grandchildren and great grandchildren in Australia.
"I feel the necessity to be with family," she said, later asking that her name not be used for the article. "I'm a bit lonely now. I don't go out much due to transport problems. It's not easy for me."
This traditionally cosmopolitan city is said to have boasted a community of tens of thousands of Jews of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi descent, but some were expelled as French or British citizens during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. Others were expelled and/or imprisoned for up to three years during the Six Day War. Some, too, left on their own accord, feeling that there was a brighter future for them as Jews in countries like Israel, America and Australia.
It is estimated that there are no more than 75 or 100 Egyptian Jews in the whole country, with the majority being concentrated in Cairo.
But others, including Ben Youssef Gaon, the new president of Alexandria's Jewish community, decided to stay, feeling that Egypt has been their only home.
Gaon, 53, is one of the youngest members and says he has been treated well by other Egyptians because of the respectful way he treats others.
His father, Joe Youssef Benyamin Gaon, of Cairo, was a successful tailor for the upper classes, and even fitted clothes for former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. Because his father was well-known and respected, Gaon believes their family was not expelled or forced out of the country. "He wasn't involved in politics. He was a simple man," Gaon said of his father from his office, where a picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hangs above his desk. "Our religion was something that was in our hearts."
Today, Gaon says, he is still accepted as a Jew. He is often invited to dinner by friends during Ramadan, for example, and brings his friends sweets during their traditional feasts.
But it is clear that many Jews here are careful not to draw attention to themselves. Several members of the community declined to be interviewed for this article or asked that their name not be used.
Some feared their children could be affected at their workplace if it was discovered that one or both their parents were Jewish.
Many of the women in the community intermarried with Christians or Muslims and quite a few members even converted to Islam to facilitate marriage or raising children.
"We'd rather have a low profile here," said one Jewish woman, 77, who asked that her name not be used. "We don't like our stories being known all over the place because our position is not clear. When people think about a Jew, they always mix us up with Israel... Of course it upsets me, as I have nothing to do with politics."
Another woman asked a foreign visitor to contact her friends in Israel for her since she did not feel comfortable calling Israel herself through an Egyptian clerk at a call center.
But some argue that such preoccupations may no longer be of concern within the next decade or two.
"We were only four ladies for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot," the 86-year-old woman who is moving to Australia said earlier this week. "We're very few. You feel very sorry to see this synagogue empty."
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