Beirut's oldest synagogue may be about to come back to life

Even Hizbullah agrees to renovation of jewel of Jewish houses of worship.

Beirut synagogue 248.88 (photo credit:
Beirut synagogue 248.88
(photo credit:
For the last 10 days, the residents of a central Beirut neighborhood have been awakened by the sounds of hammering and heavy drilling. Just a few hundred meters from Sarayya al-Hukumi - the Lebanese parliament building - a synagogue is being resurrected. From dawn to dusk, dozens of laborers, many of them Shi'ites from southern Lebanon, are toiling amid the ruins of the once-magnificent Magen Avraham - the oldest synagogue in the Lebanese capital. The renovations began last week and will continue for at least a year - provided the Lebanese Jewish Community Council, responsible for the restoration, can raise enough funds to complete the million dollar project. Its Web site reports that the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District (Solidere) is contributing $150,000. Aside from that, it will be relying on donations. According to the Lebanese daily As-Safir, the renovations were supposed to have started in 2006 but were postponed due to that summer's Second Lebanon War. Earlier, the assassinated ex-prime-minister Rafik al-Hariri had reportedly attempted to rebuild the synagogue. Magen Avraham was named after Moise Abraham Sasson, a wealthy Jew from Calcutta who donated money for its construction in 1926. During the chaos of the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, it lay in ruins as the Jewish presence in the country rapidly diminished. There are no more then 200 Jews living in Lebanon today - the last remnants of a vanishing community. Before the civil war, approximately 22,000 Jews lived in Lebanon and owned 18 synagogues, of which Magen Avraham was the jewel. It served as an important religious and communal center for Lebanese Jews, and was considered to be one of the most beautiful in the whole region. During World War II, the synagogue became a center of underground Zionist activity and even a temporary shelter for new immigrants who stopped in Beirut on their way to Palestine. But in the civil war, all worship there ceased and the holy books were shipped out of the country. Since then, Lebanese Jews have had to pray in their own homes. The abandoned building was saved from demolition, as it was classified a historic site. The company responsible for the restoration of downtown Beirut, Solidere, had decided that it was up to each religious sect to restore its own places of worship. The Lebanese government's recent decision to allow the Jewish community to rebuild the synagogue was met with a rare display of consensus among the rival Lebanese parties, including Hizbullah, the Lebanese LBC TV station reported. A resident of of the Beirut suburb Ain Saade, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, said that "the start of the restoration has a beautiful and meaningful symbolism. The synagogue represents an important part of Lebanon's heritage and society. The restoration of the Magen Avraham is an historic event in terms of reviving the existence of a whole community that Lebanon missed for years without even noticing. I congratulate the Jews of Lebanon. I think Lebanese from all religions and sects welcome this project." This week, some Lebanese newspapers and television stations reported that Magen Avraham would not serve as a synagogue in the future, and would probably become a public museum. However, the Community Council has denied this. The council states on its Web site that "there is a rumor that the synagogue was going to be made into a museum. It's untrue as the synagogue was and will remain at the heart of the Lebanese Jewish community's religious practices and social-communal activities."