Rebuilding Beirut's synagogue

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Beirut used to have a thriving Jewish community. Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s and 80s put an end to that. Now only a few hundred Lebanese Jews remain and they're trying to rebuild Beirut's largest synagogue which was heavily damaged in the war. Ben Gilbert recently paid a visit to the synagogue and sent this report.

BEN GILBERT: Issac Arazi, the head of Lebanon's tiny Jewish community meets me at the gate of the Magen Abraham synagogue. For years the gates were padlocked shut. Trees grew up threw the building's battered roof and graffiti covered the walls. Now the gates are open and workmen pressure spray thirty years of dirt and grime off the stone walls. Arazi leads me to the makeshift reconstruction office at the synagogue. It was once the Rabbi's office. The 66-year-old Arazi tells me he used to worship at the synagogue as a child.

ISSAC ARAZI: My brother was married here and I was always coming here to pray. Now we are praying at home.

GILBERT: The synagogue was built in 1926 to serve the surrounding Jewish neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jamil. Arazi says the neighborhood was once home to 22,000 Jews but conflict after conflict between Israel and the Arab states caused many Jews to leave Lebanon. Then Lebanon's civil war arrived and for a few months the neighborhood became a frontline between opposing sides. Many Jews like Arazi fled to other parts of Lebanon carrying only their passports and clothes.

ARAZI: There was a big battle here between militias. And as you see all the buildings were almost destroyed here. Not only the synagogue.

GLIBERT: Still the synagogue continued functioning until 1982. That's when Israel invaded Lebanon. According to Associated Press reports an Israeli shell hit and brought down the synagogues roof. A few years later says Arazi Islamic militants began targeting what was left of the tiny Jewish community. Arazi says at least 12 of the community's leaders were killed. Most of Lebanon's remaining Jews either left or went completely underground. Shiite Muslims displaced by the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon moved into Wadi Abu Jamil and the battered abandoned synagogue was turned into a clinic. Now the refugees are gone. The ruins of the neighborhood have been leveled to make way for new condominiums in Beirut's real estate boom. According the Lebanese Jewish community council Lebanon's Jews now number around 200 and there's only one left in Wadi Abu Jamil. Her name is Leeza. She asked we not use her last name. Save for the cats, Leeza lives here alone in a dilapidated apartment. A 10-year-old newspaper sits on a bedside table. She says her family once owned a stationary store nearby.


GILBERT: My father owned property here, Leeza says, then in 1976 during the civil war someone threatened to kill my father if he did not sign over all his properties for 50,000 dollars. He had to do it or they would kill him she says.

Leeza's family left Lebanon after that but she stayed while neighborhood changed around her. She says many Lebanese still have a hard time understanding that being Jewish doesn't mean she's Israeli.


GILBERT: I'm not Israeli. I am a Jew and I am Lebanese Leeza says.

Soon the building she lives in will be knocked down to make way for new development and the last Jewish resident of the Wadi Abu Jamil neighborhood will be gone just as the Jewish community council seeks to renovate the nearby synagogue. Arazi sees the synagogue's renovation as an opportunity to slowly raise the Jewish community's profile in Lebanon. So far the reaction's been positive. All of Lebanon's political parties have blessed the reconstruction including the militantly anti-Israel group Hezbollah. Still Arazi is weary of moving too fast and attracting too much notice. This is one of the first interviews he's given after years of silence and he says he doesn't want his picture taken. For now Arazi says the Jewish community council is trying to raise about a million dollars for the renovation. He hopes to build a small reception hall for Lebanon's Jews and ultimately be able to host prayers here once again. For The World I'm Ben Gilbert in Beirut.