Beirut’s synagogue reconstruction kicks off

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.”

Due to similar security concerns, Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community maintains a low profile. There are an estimated 100 to 150 Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon, but thousands more live outside the country, scattered from Canada to Europe to Israel. The Lebanese Jewish community once numbered around 20,000, according to historians; most of them left after creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Arab Israeli war of 1967 saw more Lebanese Jews emigrate, but a small community remained. The neighborhood most densely populated by Jews and home to the synagogue, called Wadi Abu Jamil, was protected by the Palestine Liberation Organization during Lebanon’s civil war. The synagogue continued functioning until 1982, when Israel’s devastating invasion of Lebanon increased animosity against Lebanese Jews. But according to The Associated Press, the synagogue’s demise didn’t come at the hands of anti-Jewish feelings. Rather it was caused by an Israeli artillery barrage: An Israeli shell blew scored a direct hit on the synagogue in early August 1982, and brought down the structure’s roof, according to the A.P.

Still, it was only in 1985 that the Jewish community went completely underground, when alleged Islamic militants kidnapped a dozen prominent Jewish community leaders. Several were murdered, including the president and vice president of the Jewish Community Council, Isaac Sasson and Eli Hallak.

Indicative of the fear Lebanese Jews still feel in Lebanon, the head of the community does not give interviews to the media. However, a website, Jews of Lebanon, and a Facebook group have served as bulletin boards for the synagogue’s rehabilitation effort, and for the Lebanese Jewish community still in the country and scattered around the world (click here to see a video announcing the synagogue’s reconstruction).

The project to rehabilitate the synagogue was originally slated to begin in September 2006. But the summer war between Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah, delayed the plan. The following three years left Lebanon in political chaos.

“Now after the [Lebanese] election, and positive signs of political life, we think it’s time to begin this work,” the architect said.

The architect said the renovation would begin with replacement of the collapsed red tile roof.

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