BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Reports that Beirut synagogue will reopen dismissed as rumors

The Magen Abraham Synagogue has been undergoing an extensive renovation for the past five years. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue has not been reopened and no date has been set for the building’s re-inauguration, said Bassem al-Hout, a lawyer and mukhtar for Lebanon’s Jewish community.

The synagogue, located in Wadi Abu Jamil in Downtown Beirut, was badly damaged during Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War and has been undergoing an extensive renovation for the past five years.

“The construction is basically done,” Hout told The Daily Star.

“But it doesn’t have any benches or furniture,” he explained. He refused to speculate on when the synagogue would reopen. Moreover, there are no Jewish religious leaders, called rabbis, in Lebanon to lead religious proceedings, Hout said.

The Jewish community also still has plans to move a trove of historical documents related to Judaism in Lebanon into the synagogue.

The synagogue, which was constructed in the first decades of the 20th century, was shelled by the Israeli army in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, according to news reports published by the Associated Press. Both Jewish and Muslim refugees had taken shelter in the synagogue during the Israeli siege, and were seen fleeing into the streets after the building was shelled.

The synagogue’s feeble, pock-holed shell was shuttered for decades.

The entire renovation project, Hout said, has cost between $4 million and $5 million.

Hout denied recent reports claiming the synagogue was set to reopen.

“These are just rumors made up in the press,” he said.

According to Hout, who facilitates the legal side of Jewish marriages, deaths, divorces and births in Lebanon, there are around 400 remaining Lebanese Jews, most of whom live in and around Beirut.

Hout, who is Muslim, took on the unique position as mukhtar to Lebanon’s Jewish population after his father, who had held the same position since 1978.

“The last Jewish mukhtar left in 1978,” Hout explained, “and my father assumed the position. ... He owned a building right next to the synagogue. Before the war, Jews were our neighbors.”

Hout recalls visiting the synagogue as a child each Saturday with his father and talking to members of the community.

Like many Lebanese, the majority of the Jewish population fled Lebanon during the Civil War. Many settled in France and the United States, Hout explained. “I don’t know a single family that moved to Israel,” he added.

“Now I work for them, because they’re the people from my neighborhood. I work for them just as I work with any other clients,” he said, adding that some members of the Jewish community have been his friends since childhood.

Hout says that he, along with most Lebanese Jews, has “problems” with Israel.

“They took land from Palestinians and Christians,” he explained.

Since the Israeli occupation, many Lebanese fail to distinguish between the Jewish faith, which has been present in modern-day Lebanon for millennia, and the modern Zionist state.

“They [the Lebanese] don’t understand ... that the problem is Israel, not Judaism,” he said. “Muslims and Jews, we’re cousins.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2014, on page 4.

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