Remnants of bygone times, Egypt’s synagogues suffer neglect

Sunday 23/10/2016
A painting at the prayer hall of the Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue of Yacoub Cattaui, who was responsible for the construction of the synagogue in Cairo in 1900. (AFP)

Cairo - The space outside the Sha’ar Hashamayim syn­agogue on Cairo’s Adly Street has nothing of the sanctified surroundings of a house of worship.
Policemen stand guard outside the imposing grey building. Most people pass by without knowing anything about its history or who it belongs to.
During a recent visit, a man, holding a plastic bag, stood on the pavement opposite the build­ing and tried to decipher words written in Hebrew on a sign over the door of the century-old site. He was quickly asked by police to leave.
Egypt’s synagogues are unap­proachable, unrecognisable and overlooked, by antiquities authori­ties and the vast majority of the people in the predominantly Mus­lim country.
There are 19 synagogues — a few well-preserved — throughout Egypt. They are witnesses of the once-strong Jewish presence in Egypt, which has almost vanished. All the synagogues are closed sim­ply because there are not enough Jews in the country to perform prayers.
“Worse still, there are no rabbis to lead the prayers inside the syna­gogues,” said Magda Haroun, pres­ident of the Jewish community in Egypt.
When a member of the commu­nity died a few weeks ago, a rabbi had to be brought in from France to lead the funeral.
His death brought Jewish com­munity membership to nine — six women in Cairo and three men in Alexandria — a sharp contrast to the 80,000 Jews who lived in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century.
Egypt’s Jews face the painful re­ality that their community is com­ing to an end.
“They were part of Egypt,” said Mohamed Abul-Ghar, who wrote a book about the life of Egypt’s Jews. “Jews enriched Egypt’s cul­tural and economic life for decades before political alterations forced them to migrate.”
Jews started to see their fortunes chnage with the formation in 1948 of Israel, the self-proclaimed homeland of the world’s Jews. This was when Egyptians started to see Jews as belonging in another coun­try, not Egypt.
Jewish emigration from Egypt started especially after the 1952 military coup and the 1967 Israeli war with Egypt. Stigmatised at all levels, they started to look for an­other homeland. Some headed to Israel but the majority went to Eu­rope, the United States and Latin America.
Some Jews, including Haroun’s father, Shehata Haroun, a lawyer and a member of the leftist Na­tional Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu), refused to leave.
Haroun was a staunch anti-Zi­onist. He was once asked how he could be a Jew and an anti-Zionism campaigner. “It’s like being a Mus­lim and an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood or a white American and an opponent of racism,” he said.
Before he died, Haroun wrote in his will that he did not want a rabbi from Israel to lead his funeral prayers.
“Jews continue to live with the stigma that they are linked to Is­rael,” said Mohamed Tharwat, a re­searcher into the history of Egypt’s Jews. “This is saddening because, over the years, Jews formed the artistic, business and intellectual elite.”
Haroun, the third woman to lead the Jewish community, mar­ried a Muslim and her children are Muslim, too. As she goes around among Egyptians, she is scarcely asked about her faith but this is also how her religious identity is being lost.
However, this is not what she said she fears most. She is more afraid for Jewish heritage, part of which is the dormant synagogues.
The Sha’ar Hashamayim syna­gogue, opened in 1908, last hosted a religious ceremony in the 1960s. It was renovated a few years ago, which is why it is in a good condi­tion. Other synagogues, most of which are in Cairo or Alexandria, are in a bad condition, some near collapse.
The walls of a synagogue in the Nile Delta city of al-Mahalla al- Kubra have fallen and it has been turned into a rubbish dump.
Haroun has appealed to au­thorities to give other Egyptians the chance to see Jewish heritage by exhibiting the contents of the synagogues at the country’s muse­ums. Her plea fell on deaf ears.
“True, this is Jewish heritage but it belongs to all humanity,” Haroun said. “Jewish history is part of Egyptian history and by neglecting it, we risk losing it altogether.”