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Beirut’s synagogue reconstruction kicks off

Construction could spell a new beginning for Lebanon’s underground Jewish community.

BEIRUT — A long-delayed plan to renovate Beirut’s only synagogue is finally coming to fruition.

The Lebanese architect working with Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community to rehabilitate Beirut’s Maghan Avraham Synagogue told GlobalPost that the Jewish Community Council was reviewing three contractors’ bids for the reconstruction. Once the council decides on a contractor — likely this weekend — work could begin within a week, said the architect, who is also one of the bidders.

“The rehabilitation is moving ahead,” said the architect, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about personal security. “It will start before winter.”

The synagogue was partially destroyed in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. The roof has since collapsed and graffiti covers the walls. Trees, shrubs and trash litter what was once the Lebanese Jewish community’s biggest and most sacred house of worship. Lebanon has several other synagogues that have sat dormant for decades.

But at Maghan Avraham Synagogue, the first signs of renovation are finally evident. The synagogue’s rusty and padlocked gate has been removed. Scaffolding has been erected inside the main building, and a small new concrete driveway leads from the synagogue’s small garden to the street.

“They’re taking out the rubbish,” said a security guard standing nearby.

Renovation will cost between $1 million and $2 million, and all of Lebanon’s political parties have so far blessed the work, including the militantly anti-Israel group Hezbollah, according to the architect. But part of the reason for speaking with the media now, the architect said, was to conduct a “test” to see if any Lebanese had concerns about the project.

“It would be a shame to start and then have to stop,” he said. “We would rather not start at all.”

Yet the architect said the biggest obstacle to the synagogue’s rehabilitation was the location of the structure. The synagogue is in a sensitive security area, near the home of Lebanon’s incoming prime minister and U.S. ally, Saad Hariri, in downtown Beirut. A police station and dozens of private security guards are posted nearby. The architect said the security measures imposed by the government may drive up construction costs and prolong the project.

“There’s a big list of things we cannot do,” he said. “We are not allowed to work after a certain hour. We are not allowed to put scaffolding on the outside of the synagogue.”

But the precautions also mean the location is secure. The architect, who is not Jewish, said one of the reasons he took the rehabilitation project was that it was in such a heavily guarded location. The danger he feels is not from any Lebanese political parties, he said, but from “some crazy guy who wants to be a hero.”