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Beirut’s synagogue reconstruction kicks off

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

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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