|BASSATINE NEWS the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt|
|A Community Chronicle put out by the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo since 1995|
“In the existing circumstances,” said Dr. Yoram Meital, who teaches modern Egyptian history at Ben-Gurion University, “there is no alternative but to ask the Egyptian authorities to take the synagogues under their care”.
The circumstances he was referring to was the danger that the present leadership of the quickly dwindling Jewish community will sell off abandoned synagogues as real estate. In addition, rare prayer books and Jewish artifacts antiquities under Egyptian law have been illegally sold to Judaica collectors abroad. Reportedly the buyers include haredim and other religious Jews.
The one synagogue remaining in Port Said was sold last year to an Egyptian property developer who is building a shopping center on the site. Carmen Weinstein, a dissident member of Cairo’s Jewish community leadership, told the symposium that the sale had been made by the president of the Cairo community, Emil Russo, for 450,000 Egyptian pounds ($132,000).
She charged that he had kept 50,000 pounds for himself as a commission. Russo could not be reached for comment. The bulk of the money from the sale is intended for the upkeep of old-age facilities and other institutions maintained by the community for its few surviving members, all elderly.
Weinstein said that Russo had also discussed the possibility of renting out two of Cairo’s remaining 10 synagogues, presently empty.
“If you rent something in Cairo you can never get people out afterwards,” she warned.
EGYPTIAN JEWRY numbered some 80,000 on the eve of World War II, its peak in modern times. Although the Jewish presence in Egypt is as old as the pyramids, the Jewish community in the modern period was made up mostly of relatively recent immigrants from other parts of the Moslem world and from Europe.
Some 20,000 left Egypt after Israel’s War of Independence and close to 50,000 were either expelled or left of their own accord after the Sinai Campaign of 1956.
The subsequent nationalization of private businesses as well as the Six Day War caused most of those remaining in Egypt to depart, leaving behind tiny communities in Cairo and Alexandria.
All of the symposium’s participants, including Professor Shimon Shamir, former ambassador to Cairo and present ambassador to Amman, praised the Egyptian authorities for the protection they afford to Jewish sites. There is a strong 24- hour security watch on all synagogues, even those no longer in use.
Weinstein said that five of the 10 synagogues in Cairo have already been declared antiquities by the Egyptian authorities by virtue of their being more than 100 years old or having some special historic feature. She called on organizations of Egyptian Jews now living abroad to petition the Egyptian authorities to take similar action regarding the remaining synagogues so as to ensure their survival.
If they are declared antiquities, the synagogues cannot be sold. Likewise, the remaining Torah scrolls, prayerbooks, and religious artifacts would be catalogued and placed under government protection, making it difficult for them to simply disappear into the antiquities market.
“It is my belief that synagogues should not be destroyed,” Weinstein said. “They are an emblem of the community that has been there. To those who say ‘Why keep the synagogues when there are no more Jews?’ I say, ‘Why keep the pyramids when there are no more pharaohs?’“ When synagogues are declared Egyptian antiquities, she noted, it does not mean that the Jewish community is deprived of a say about them. One such synagogue, the Ben-Ezra, where the famous Cairo geniza was found a century ago, recently underwent far-reaching renovations under the auspices of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority in a project initiated and financed by Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress.
NOT EVERYONE agrees that all the old synagogues need be preserved.
“I think money received from the sale of unused synagogues should be invested in a Jewish museum that would reflect the legacy of this illustrious community,” former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Moshe Sasson said in a recent interview.
Sasson noted that there were 32 synagogues when he took up his post in Cairo in 1981, but only 12 when he left six years later. In the absence of any rabbinical authority in Egypt, the then head of the Jewish community said he had received permission from the chief rabbis of Israel and France to sell off the synagogues, with the condition that the money be used to shore up remaining communal institutions.
Sasson suggested that a museum be created in the courtyard of the Adli Synagogue in the center of Cairo, which was lavishly restored after the Camp David agreements by philanthropist Nissim Gaon.
A former ambassador to Rome as well, Sasson noted that a gem of a Jewish museum is attached to the main synagogue of that city. An even larger one should be built in Cairo, he said.
“If I were head of the community,” said the former ambassador, “I would appoint an international Jewish advisory board, including at least one Israeli, to guide me”. Weinstein, who is in charge of restoration work at the Jewish cemetery in Cairo, said that the Egyptian authorities had proven cooperative when a new road threatened to destroy 300 graves. Reacting to protests from Jews in Egypt and abroad, the government built a bridge over the endangered part of the cemetery instead.
With money donated by Sephardi philanthropists abroad, Weinstein said she has had a wall built around most of the cemetery. She is currently trying to raise funds to compensate squatters who would be moved from their present locations in and around the cemetery.
Meital, who has recently published a book, Jewish Sites and Life in Egypt, said that preservation of synagogues had tourism value that could not be dismissed. Beyond that, he said, the Egyptian authorities dealt respectfully with all holy places, relating to Jewish sites as part of the Egyptian national heritage.
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