Say a prayer for Alexandria synagogue
Uncertainty regarding this year's High Holiday services in Alexandria has raised fears that Judaism in Egypt is on its last legs.
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT – On September 10, the head of staff at the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt, taped an announcement to the synagogue’s door: Eliyahu Hanavi would indeed be open for the High Holidays. But whether there would be a rabbi and required prayer quorum was still up in the air.
The historic synagogue, located in downtown Alexandria on Al-Nabi Daniel Street, was once a center for 50,000 Jews. Now the community includes, at most, three men and 17 elderly women. The announcement appeared at the end of a week of controversy over whether Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services had been cancelled. In the background were fears of escalating tensions between Egypt and Israel and the dwindling of Egypt’s Jewish community.
The dispute began when Israeli Rabbi Abraham Dayan alleged that Egyptian Authorities had canceled services at Eliyahu Hanavi due to security concerns. Dayan had been preparing to lead a delegation of Israeli men to the synagogue to make a "minyan," or "prayer quorum," for High Holiday services, as he had annually for the last decade.
The next day, Youseff Gaon, President of the Alexandrian Jewish Community, refuted Dayan’s version of events. He said he was the one who told Dayan not to bring the delegation due out of concern for their safety. The Egyptian authorities also issued a statement saying they would not prevent anyone from entering the synagogue to pray. Both Dayan and Gaon are now refusing to comment on the matter.
“So we don’t know for sure whether it’s the national security in Egypt or the president of the community,” said Livana Zamir, President of the International Association of Egyptian Jews in Israel. “Or perhaps they [the Egyptians] told Gaon to say that it was him. We don’t know, and we will never know. But what’s important is that there will be no prayers in Alexandria this year after ten years of funding for a minyan for the tiny community there.”
Built in 1534, Eliyahu Hanavi is one of the largest synagogues in the Middle East. It is also Egypt’s last active synagogue. Its large gate, guarded at all times, stands out from the storefronts that line the rest of the commercial street. Inside, a green courtyard leads to the sanctuary, which seats 700 people – with a separate section for women. The synagogue is open to visitors Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Passports are required for entry.
The few Jewish women in Alexandria are now in their 80s and mainly homebound. Their husbands are dead and their children have grown up to be Muslims or Christians, like their fathers. The women rarely talk to the press and little is know about their lives. Their housing and basic expenses are paid for by the Alexandria Jewish community, which says it raises funds by renting apartments it owns in the city.
For holidays, the Joint Distribution Center sends the women bags of kosher food and wine. The JDC also pays for Dayan’s High Holiday delegations, providing including food, flights and services. After going through extensive security clearances and paperwork, the delegation stays in Alexandria for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and sometimes Sukkot.
Jews first moved to Alexandria in 332 BCE, soon after the city was founded. Their synagogue was destroyed by the French in 1798 and rebuilt in 1850. At its peak in 1922, the Jewish community in Alexandria is estimated to have numbered 80,000. Jews were generally part of the elite and well integrated into Egyptian socio-political life.
With the founding of Israel in 1948, previously friendly relations between Jews and Arabs soured, and Jews were increasingly subjected to discrimination and violence. After the 1956 Suez Crisis and 1967 War, most of them left the country, and by the time the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed in 1978, only a handful remained – most of who were married to non-Jews.
The people involved with the High Holiday services dispute the degree of danger facing the Jewish community. The synagogue’s Head of Staff Abdel Naby, a Muslim who has worked there for 26 years, insists that Jews – and non-Jews who, like him, work for the community – continue to coexist peacefully with their Egyptian neighbors.
"We are like one house," Naby said.
But Ramez, who moved from Cairo to Israel with her family in 1968, is skeptical about the safety of both Jewish citizens and visitors.
“If Gaon said that it’s not safe for a delegation of Jews to come to make a minyan, than it says that the Jews in Alexandria are living with certain fears,” she said. “Even now, if they tell the delegation to come, they will. But no one is telling them to come.”
Zamir attributed the sense of insecurity to anti-Israeli sentiments among some Egyptians. Since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 and 2012, Israeli and Egyptian relations have been on shaky ground. In 2011 protestors attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, in August Sinai militants attacked the Israeli border and recently Egyptian officials have called for reconsideration of the 1979 Peace Treaty. On September 11, protestors in Cairo stormed the American Embassy and clashed with security forces over an American made video insulting and the Prophet Mohammad.
Since the revolution, Egypt has experienced wave of protests related to religion, labor and politics. There is constant fear of confrontations with police disintegrating into violence.
Alexandria has been an epicenter of clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians – the most notorious being the 2011 New Year Day bombing of a Coptic Church that killed 23 people. And among Egyptians, the Alexandrian police have a reputation as particularly brutal.
The Jewish synagogues, cemeteries and community records that remain in Egypt are property of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, since they are more than 100 years old. The synagogues are in need of restoration, but several projects that were started under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have been halted since his ouster.
For Ramez, the delegation dispute is more than just about a minyan, but also a harbinger of how the history of Egypt’s once prosperous Jewish community—a heritage shared by Jews and Egyptians —might end.
“If nothing will change, then in ten years it will continue to be antiquities, like the pyramids, and that’s it,” she said.
Miriam Berger is a Cairo-based writer.