Thursday, March 4, 2010

Egypt -- Restored Synagogue to be Dedicated


 Video of work on the synagogue

 By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This is a bit off geographic topic, but (as Rabbi Andrew Baker notes in an op-ed today) after an 18-month restoration project by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, this historic Maimonides (or Rambam, or "Rav Moshe") synagogue and yeshiva in Cairo is to be reopened and rededicated next week.

Sam Gruber has reported that
This is the first major restoration of Jewish site in Egypt since the much-heralded restoration Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue in the 1980s and early 1990s, a project put in motion during the euphoria following the Camp David Accords. [...] The Synagogue is actually a 19th century construction that replaces older buildings, but is adjacent to  an historic and venerated yeshiva associated with Maimonides. - which itself has had a recent history of disasters - recurring flooding from underground water and 1992 earthquake damage. The Yeshiva rooms have niches where, until recently, sick Jews, Muslim and Christians would spend the night praying for their recovery, or for women especially, fertility.

Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, has an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune/NYTimes web site about the synagogues, the restoration and the politics around the project.  For the past five years Bakes has met regularly on behalf of the American Jewish Committee with Egyptian officials to press for the preservation of Jewish heritage, which, in addition to Rav Moshe, includes a dozen synagogues and several cemeteries in Cairo and Alexandria, most of them in poor repair.

The nearly $2 million restoration involved a team of Egyptian experts. Few people were aware of it until last September when Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities czar, brought reporters to the site and declared: “It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage,” Dr. Hawas proudly declared. Some cynics suggested that the project was initiated to shore up the candidacy of Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosny, in his unsuccessful bid to head Unesco.

But, write Baker: this was not just any synagogue. Rav Moshe was considered to have special healing powers. One elderly Egyptian Jew now living in Europe told me how his childhood stuttering disappeared after his mother made him spend the night there. His miracle cure was a commonplace experience for many of Cairo’s Jews who sometimes called it the “Jewish Lourdes.”  [...]
In Maimonides’ day, Cairo’s Jewish community was a center of scholarship and commerce, a hub of Jewish life for the entire Middle East. When[ King] Fuad ruled Egypt, more than 80,000 Jews were among his subjects. They were an active, integral presence in the business and cultural life of the country. But that all changed after Israel’s creation in 1948, and especially after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1953, prompting a mass exodus of Jews. Today’s Jewish population in Egypt is a mere few dozen. [...]
Both Farouk Hosny and Zahi Hawass came to accept the argument that the preservation of Egypt’s rich Jewish heritage was also their obligation. Slowly but quietly — always quietly — they drew up plans for restoring most Jewish religious sites. They even endorsed our proposal that one of the restored synagogues should serve as a Museum of Egyptian Jewish Heritage, a place that would tell of the long, rich history of Jewish life in Egypt. Only a few knew. Every meeting I had with these Egyptian officials ended with the same admonition — “Please, do not tell anyone.”
Why the secrecy when most governments would want the world to know of such commendable preservation work? In Egypt, the history of living alongside Jewish neighbors has been replaced with the demonizing of Israel, and often of Jews as well. The historic 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has for too long been ignored by Egypt’s cultural elites who have steadfastly rejected any normalization in relations. Minister Hosny and his colleagues have had reason to fear that Egyptians would react with anger when told of the restoration work.
But the word is out now. And Zahi Hawass, an archeological legend known around the world for touting pyramids and the treasures of King Tut, is now reading up on the deeds of a medieval rabbi. Dr. Hawass promises that six more synagogue buildings in Cairo will be restored within two years. Egypt’s Jewish artifacts will never rival those of the Pharaohs. But reminding today’s Egyptians and others in this troubled region of a time when Jews were a natural part of Egyptian society is important. It may even be a ray of hope when hope is so hard to find in this region. Maybe there will emerge one more miracle to credit to Rav Moshe.
Read full article at the web site

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