Cairo synagogue marks 100 years of grandeur and decline
CAIRO - Two historical moments were recorded Tuesday at the Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue in Cairo. The first was when Dr. Gaber Baltagi, an academic who writes poetry as a hobby, recited one of his works in Arabic and Hebrew, calling for peace among the nations. The second was when a loud shofar (ram's horn) blast, usually sounded at the closing of the Ne'ila service on Yom Kippur, echoed in the cavernous space of Cairo's great synagogue, bringing tears to the eyes of many of those present.
Members of Cairo's Jewish community - those who have remained here, as well as others who have moved away - plus many guests from Egypt and around the world, were there for a ceremony marking 100 years since the founding of the synagogue.
The building was recently renovated, with the approval and assistance of the Egyptian authorities. It was rededicated Tuesday.
"Jews lived here throughout the ages," said community president Carmen Weinstein. "I see no reason for Jews not to continue living here."
Weinstein is the second woman president in the history of this Jewish community. The first was her mother, Esther, who served in that capacity for many years.
"When my mother was president, she ran things and I did the dirty work. Nowadays I have to do both," she said with a smile, speaking from the synagogue's pulpit.
The ceremony she directed Tuesday was a historic event for the community, whose future is still in question. Weinstein declared that she is proud to be Egyptian. As befits her position as head of the community, she thanked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak several times.
The Egyptian Jewish community is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Rabbi Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) lived and taught here in the 13th century. For generations, hundreds of documents were collected in what became known as the Cairo Geniza, whose discovery in 1896 contributed much to Jewish historical research.
One hundred years ago, when the Sha'ar Hashamayim was founded on Adly Street, it was a hub of activity. The community absorbed many waves of immigration from both Europe and the Middle East. The name plates still affixed to some of the seat backs tell the immigration story. Philippe Bach, Yosef Salameh, Felix Schwartz and Herman Horenstein are just a few of the names that can be found there.
Today the Cairo Jewish community has 30-40 members, most of them older women. One of them, Magda Haron (nee Shahatah), stepped up to the pulpit Tuesday to share her feelings. She said that the last time she remembers the synagogue being full was in the 1960s.
"We may be only 40 members now," she added, "but we have a glorious history behind us. Please don't let that die."
Haron has never visited Israel, for ideological reasons. Her parents were Communists, and she hopes to come only when a Palestinian state is established. Her father did not attend synagogue services, but Haron came with her grandfather.
"The future is frightening," she said, in an interview with Haaretz, "and I do not know if anyone can replace Carmen. I think that the Egyptian government should help preserve the Jewish heritage. Jews have been here since the time of the Pharaohs."
Among the participants at the event was Meir Cohen, a native of Cairo. He brought with him photographs from his father's wedding at the synagogue in 1947, and from his bar mitzvah in 1963. Like many Israelis born in Egypt, Cohen left along with his family after the deterioration of the Jewish community's situation in the late 1960s. He worked for Israel Television's Arabic department and was the spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Cairo in the late 1980s.
"With this event," said Cohen, "Carmen has resuscitated hundreds of years of Jewish life. Every detail here brings back memories of my father, members of my family and the prayer services here. This is the closing of a circle for me."