Beirut’s last synagogue at risk after severe damages following port blast

More than a place of worship, it is the final memory of a once-thriving community, which at its peak during the 1950s was around 15,000 strong.

The facade of Maghen Abraham, Beirut's last synagogue, in downtown Beirut in 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The facade of Maghen Abraham, Beirut's last synagogue, in downtown Beirut in 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
DUBAI – Beirut’s last remaining synagogue is desperately in need of more than $500,000 in funding to help repair the damage inflicted by the recent blast at the port, which caused devastation across the city.
Amid the latest episode that devastated the war-torn city on August 4, much of the once-spectacular synagogue’s ceiling collapsed in the blast. All the window and door frames were shattered, and the Star of David also crashed to the ground.
In a double tragedy, it happened just a few years after the restoration of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, a mile away from the devastated port. Having been badly damaged during the civil war, its reopening in 2014 to a grand welcome was attended by dignitaries from across the city’s diverse religious population. However, it has not held services since then.
More than a place of worship, it is the final memory of a once-thriving community, which at its peak during the 1950s was around 15,000 strong. Now, the city’s fewer than 30 Jews pray at home, many of whom have changed their names and keep their religious identity secret in a world that is no longer what it once was.
Nagi Zeidan, a Franco-Lebanese Christian historian and author of the recently published The Jews of Lebanon, has been at the heart of the dying community, having researched his latest book for 25 years. “The community badly needs support with the repairs,” he explained.
The synagogue has been a pivotal part of the community for decades, a meeting point for the Jews of Lebanon since its inauguration in August 1926 for politics and religion alike. It was donated by Moshe Sasson, a Syrian Jew living in India at the time. It was renowned as the country’s most beautiful synagogue, designed in a classically Arab style – with its grand chandeliers, marble interiors, colorful details and ornate coves.
“Even the Jews of Sidon, who had a synagogue of their own, preferred to marry at Maghen Abraham,” said Zeidan. “It is a place full of beautiful memories which will forever remain in the minds of Lebanese Jews and non-Jews alike.”
Its preservation is critical to the history of Jews in the city, whose presence in Beirut dates back to 1800, when the Levy family settled from Baghdad. Nationally, however, Jewish history dates back more than 3,000 years, one of the region’s oldest Jewish communities, dating back to settlement in Sidon. “This synagogue is the only building that demonstrates the presence of the oldest Jewish community in Lebanon among the 17 other religious communities,” Zeidan said.
There has not been a rabbi at the synagogue since 1985, and the city’s last surviving Jews pray at home. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were 18 synagogues around the country. Lebanon was the only Arab nation after the creation of the State of Israel to see its Jewish population grow. It was only after the Yom Kippur War that Jews began to leave – and rapidly.
The interior of Maghen Abraham, Beirut’s oldest synagogue, during renovations done in 2010. (Credit: Reuters)The interior of Maghen Abraham, Beirut’s oldest synagogue, during renovations done in 2010. (Credit: Reuters)

MOSHE ZAAFARANI grew up in Beirut, and to the community, the synagogue was the core. From charity to education, sports to music, it was the community’s beating heart.
Although he left the city when he was just 14, he said that, even now, it holds a place deep in his heart.
“I feel it needs to be preserved,” said Zaafarani, the director of languages at the Education Ministry. “I know some people wonder why, when nobody prays there, but I truly hope that one day, Jews can pray there again.”
A symbol of the city’s vibrant past, it played host to all major ceremonies. As the biggest of the city’s many synagogues, and with an emerging peace across the region since the recent Abraham Accords, he holds hope that there could still be a place for the synagogue in the region’s Jewish life.
“It was very beautiful – and when you stepped inside, it felt special,” he recalled. “Even those who attended other synagogues came for these big events like weddings and funerals, so it was the one place we all gathered.” Even the likes of the president and prime minister, in addition to other heads of religions, would visit the synagogue and offer their respects during holy festivals.
Now, Zaafarani hopes that Jews both in Lebanon and abroad can rally together to support the restoration efforts.
“If people want to know more, they can contact the ILAI, the Jewish Lebanese community in Israel,” he said.
RABBI ELIE Abadie left Beirut when he was only 10. Now based in New York, he grew up in the synagogue community, the son of one of the community’s beth din rabbis, Rabbi Abraham Abadie. He still leads lectures for the small community remotely, as he has been during the High Holy Days.
“It represents history. It has to be saved,” he said. “To not save that synagogue would be to erase , 2,000 years of history of Jews in Lebanon” – though he, too hopes that, one day, a community can return to pray there once again, in the wake of the region’s burgeoning peace accords.
Jewish history is rapidly being wiped out in the country. In Sidon, in southern Lebanon, one synagogue is currently occupied by a Palestinian family of Syrian origin, said Zeidan, who has personally visited each landmark around the country in his extensive research. There is also a synagogue in Bhamdoun, all but destroyed, and the same is true in the town of Aley, where the synagogue was destroyed many years ago.
“There is still a synagogue in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, occupied by a fabric dyeing factory,” said Zeidan, adding that Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery has been transformed into a glass factory and gas station. Just two Jewish cemeteries remain – one in Beirut and the other in Sidon. Some “90% of the Jewish homes in Sidon have been requisitioned and invaded by Lebanese,” he said.
Abadie says that those responsible for the blast should pay for the damage caused on that tragic day. “Not just the synagogue, but all the buildings damaged that day should be the direct responsibility of those behind the blast.”