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Daily Israel Report

Restoration Nearly Complete at Beirut's Only Synagogue

Beirut's Maghen Abraham Synagogue, currently being restored, is expected to open once more in October after 34 years.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 7/4/2010, 12:48 PM / Last Update: 7/4/2010, 1:00 PM

The only synagogue in Beirut is expected to be clean and shining by October, according to 67-year-old Isaac Arazi, after decades of disuse.

The Maghen Abraham Synagogue, located in Beirut's ancient Jewish quarter, Wadi Abou Jmil, is still being restored, with expenses thus far reaching as high as $700,000. The final cost is expected to reach some $1.2 million, much of which has come from Jewish ex-pats abroad. Christians and Muslims have also contributed to the project.

When the restoration is completed, the chapel will include seating for 600 men and 300 women. Religious items, such as a Torah, prayer books and other necessities, will be brought from Turkey and Syria, Arazi said. He hopes to appoint a rabbi familiar with Middle Eastern and North African Sephardic Jewish traditions, possibly someone from Yemen, Egypt or Turkey.

A food-machinery business owner who describes himself as leader of Lebanon's tiny Jewish community, Arazi said he fully expects religious services to be held in the synagogue by 2011. The synagogue originally opened in 1926.

There are only approximately 100 Jews left in the country, with at least 1,900 others who live abroad but who still own property in Lebanon and who visit on a regular basis.

“We hope with the restoration we will be able to once again rebuild a community in Lebanon,” Arazi explained in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.

The synagogue, built in 1925, is the oldest Jewish house of worship in the Lebanese capital, and was named for the son of Abraham Sassoon, Moise Abraham Sassoon of Calcutta. It was built on land donated by Raphael Levi Stambouli, and designed by the architect Bindo Manham.

Lebanon's Jewish community once numbered up to 22,000, when the country served as a refuge for those who fled the Spanish Inquisition. But Jews fled the country during the 20th century, until finally even the Maghen Abraham Synagogue closed its doors in the mid-1970s.

In 1976, a year after the civil war began, the synagogue closed, and the Torah scrolls were taken to Geneva, where they were given to renowned Jewish-Lebanese banker Edmond Safra. There they were placed in Safra's bank vault, where they were stored until they were eventually relocated to Sephardic synagogues in Israel.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Lebanese Jews were offered Israeli citizenship, but it was often declined, despite their being targeted by Islamic terrorist groups. Eleven Jewish community leaders were kidnapped and executed, and only two Jews remained on Wadi Abou Jmil Street itself by 1991.

The Jewish cemetery – where some 4,500 Jews are buried -- is now also undergoing repair, according to Arazi, at a cost of approximately $200,000. He added that there are plans to eventually restore other synagogues in the country, including a Jewish house of worship in Bhamdoun, 23 kilometers (14 miles) from Beirut.