Jews gone, Muslims restore synagogues in rural Tunisia

Caretakers helping restore synagogues with help of country's president while in Jewish enclave of Djerba, Jewish life is flourishing.

Djerba synagogue JTA 224 (photo credit: Larry Luxner / JTA)
Djerba synagogue JTA 224
(photo credit: Larry Luxner / JTA)
A man on a donkey shuffles by, collecting trash in the midday heat. Merchants hawk their wares in French and Arabic from stalls lining the cobblestone streets. In this a sun-drenched city of 120,000, where Jews are about as common as snowflakes, the local synagogue has become a tourist attraction. "The last Jew left in 1984," said Salem Zenan, caretaker of the synagogue known simply as the Ghribet el-Yahud -- sanctuary of the Jews. "But when I was little, we lived with Jewish people. I'm happy that visitors still come here." Zenan, 54, says about a dozen tourists stop by the synagogue every day. A glance at the official guest book reveals entries from the United States, Europe, Lebanon and even Libya. The Le Kef synagogue, among the most isolated in North Africa, is one of several across Tunisia that is enjoying a renaissance of sorts with official support from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Despite the absence of diplomatic ties between Tunis and Jerusalem, Tunisia's 1,500 Jews live relatively peaceful, prosperous lives. And their houses of worship -- from Le Kef in the northwest, near the Algerian border, to the Mediterranean island of Djerba, where the synagogue was attacked in 2002 and in 1985 -- gradually are being restored, even when there are no Jews left to pray in them. The government clearly wants to encourage Jewish tourism from Europe, Israel and the United States. But Tunisians say it's not just about bringing in dollars and euros. Tunisia's president "wants people to come back and visit the places where they were born and raised," said Monique Hayoun, a software engineer living in Paris who left her hometown of Nabeul in 1976 and occasionally returns to Tunisia to visit family and friends. "The Israelis are nostalgic. For a long time, they wanted to come back here, but in the '60s and '70s it wasn't so easy," Hayoun told JTA. "Under President Ben-Ali, there's much more openness." Nabeul is a five-minute drive from the popular Mediterranean resort of Hammamet. In 1956, on the eve of Tunisia's independence, nearly 1,200 Jews -- a quarter of Nabeul's population - lived in the town. Up to 400 people would crowd into its Great Synagogue for Yom Kippur services, while six smaller shuls served the rest of the community. But by 1976, Nabeul's Jewish population had dwindled to 115. Only four Jewish families are left now, and the Great Synagogue is of interest mainly to tourists, according to Hebrew-speaking tour guide Ben Mansour Seyfeddine. "I feel very close to the Jews," Seyfeddine, 38, said as he showed a group of Israelis around the empty synagogue. Seyfeddine explained that in Nabeul there was never a specific Jewish neighborhood, and Muslim and Jewish families often lived together -- sometimes even in the same house. That wasn't the case in Le Kef, where Jews were clustered in a district adjacent to the synagogue, which is located only a few steps away from a Byzantine basilica that later became the town's grand mosque. In the early 1930s, as many as 900 Jews lived in the town, according to Mohamed Tlili, the former director of the Historical Society of Le Kef. But after 1967, most Tunisian Jews immigrated to Israel, and by the early 1980s barely a handful remained in Le Kef. "We had a moral obligation to do something," said Tlili, the man responsible for restoring Le Kef's synagogue. "Everybody wanted to help, but they didn't know what to do. It was like chaos. There was nobody praying in there. It was dirty and in ruins." In the end, the office of the president stepped in, providing 50,000 Tunisian dinars -- about $40,000 -- for the three-month restoration project supervised by Tlili and his staff. Located in the heart of Le Kef's kasbah -- a neighborhood of whitewashed houses and turquoise-blue windows and doors -- the synagogue is a tidy little building open seven days a week, year round. Inside, the walls are decorated with 139 plaques honoring the memory of long-departed families with names like Sabbah, Levy and Sassoon. Among the more unusual features is its 600-year-old Torah scrolls written on sheepskin. A wooden circumcision chair is displayed prominently at the entrance, and black-and-white photos show the 1994 restoration at various stages. "The president of the synagogue wanted to take the scrolls to Tunis or Djerba, but the local authorities said no, so they kept the scrolls in the local museum for 10 years until the synagogue was restored," Tlili said. "Our president himself took care of the financing. He insisted it be done because it was a part of our heritage." Tlili, 58, who owns a library and internet cafe in town, said he remembers his father, a devout Muslim, trusting only the rabbi of Le Kef to slaughter his lamb to ensure no kashrut laws would be broken. He added that it was traditional for the Jews and Muslims of Le Kef to share a festive meal after Sukkot. On the island of Djerba, home to two-thirds of Tunisia's 1,500 Jews, signs of Jewish life are hard to miss -- especially in Hara Sghira, a small village that is home to the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in North Africa. In 1985, a security guard at the synagogue opened fire on congregants, killing three. In 2002, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near the synagogue that killed 21 people, most of them German tourists. These days, 15 little boys learn the Hebrew alphabet at nearby Yeshivat Or Torah under the direction of a 23-year-old teacher named Yusef. Not far away, at Gan Bet Rachel, some 90 children spend every morning except Shabbat learning numbers, letters and the names of animals. "We don't feel any different than anyone else," said kindergarten teacher Shoshana, who has family in Jerusalem. "My father stayed here, but everyone else left. The Jews who remain here are happy." Every year on Lag B'Omer, Jews come to Djerba from France, Israel and the United States to join in the Hilullah, an annual event centered at the ancient synagogue. Some 5,000 pilgrims, including 600 from Israel, celebrated the Hilullah in 2007 under heavy police protection. Just around the corner from Djerba's famous Ghriba, Shimon Haddouk is restoring his own shul. That synagogue, known as Bet Knesset Eliezer Cohen, has been in his family for more than 500 years. But now it's falling apart. "We must renovate it," said Haddouk, a 30-year-old jewelry salesman who learned Hebrew in Djerba and visited Israel for the first time four years ago. He estimated the cost of repairs at $25,000 to $30,000, but said the investment in Jewish Tunisia was worthwhile. Restoring the synagogue, he said, "will be a great honor for me."