Amid civil war, Syria’s remaining Jews to celebrate High Holy Days

Last 50 Syrian Jews remain in Assad stronghold of central Damascus after most Jews left for either Israel or the US in 1992.

Syria synagogue 311 (photo credit: Barney R. Whitesman )
Syria synagogue 311
(photo credit: Barney R. Whitesman )
The few remaining Syrian Jews, concentrated in the center of the capital city of Damascus, have been living under the protection of the Assad regime, according to Aleph, a source in contact with representatives of the community.
Aleph, who asked that he not be identified in print to protect his identity as well as those with whom he corresponds, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that there are only about 50 Jews left in the country, most of whom are middle aged.
Aleph would not put the Post directly in touch with any of the remaining Syrian Jews out of concern that being contacted by phone from Israel would endanger their lives, but he did describe how the community is doing based on his own regular communications with Damascus.
“The average age there is around 45 or 50,” he said. “There are no more youths under that age to my knowledge. No youths, no children.”
Since Syria began allowing emigration of Jews in 1992, most members of the community have left for either Israel or the United States, drastically shrinking the country’s Jewish population.
As the two-year-old civil war has ground on with no resolution in sight, what began as a largely peaceful protest movement calling for democratization has turned into a sectarian conflict pitting the country’s Sunni majority against both Shi’ites and Alawites (the offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam to which President Bashar Assad belongs). Other minorities, such as the Christians, Druse and Kurds, have split or tried to stay neutral.
Given the location of the country’s remaining Jews in an area completely controlled by the Assad regime and the increasingly Islamist orientation of the various rebel militias, the Jewish community seems to have placed its hopes in the army.
The local Jews are “in contact with the government,” Aleph said. “They receive protection from the government in the places that the government is still operating.”
“Assad does not have a problem with Jews. He has a problem with Israelis. Like the Iranians, same thing,” Aleph said during an interview with Ami magazine in 2011.
Asked if Syria’s Jews are concerned over the possibility of further escalation of the war should the west intervene, he replied that he had been in contact with Damascus on Saturday evening and that while community members acknowledge the situation as “complicated,” it is “not an immediate threat to their lives.”
They “don’t feel” the war, Aleph said. “Everything [seen] in the press is not felt in the city center. It’s all in the peripheral neighborhoods.”
“There life goes on as normal. Assad rules there absolutely. It is pretty safe [and] they are not getting ready to leave.”
The remaining Jews have “opened the synagogue every Shabbat to pray” except for the last several weeks when it remained closed, Aleph said.
He added that a member of the community told him that the synagogue will be open for the upcoming High Holy Days.
“They will be celebrating the holidays,” he said, noting that a shipment of supplies, including kosher meat and wine will be sent to the community during the coming week.
“I am also sending their lulavim, etrogim, hadasim and aravot,” he said, referring to four plant species that devout Jews bind together and wave during the holiday of Sukkot.
Aleph has been sending religious necessities into Syria for several years, though he declined to enter into a discussion of methods and specific timing.
Despite their declining numbers and the war raging around them, Aleph said, the Jews are trying to maintain what they can of their communal infrastructure.
They “are taking care of the synagogue and the graves,” Aleph said.
Reuters contributed to this report.