Swan song, or a new beginning for the Jews of Egypt?
The celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the newly renovated Shaar Hashamayim synagogue on Adly St in Cairo brought forth mixed feelings. Here is an edited account of the celebrations by Yves Fedida, co-founder of the Association Internationale Nebi Daniel, set up in 2002 to preserve Egypt's Jewish heritage, on whose restoration more money is to be spent (with thanks Alec, Roger):
"October 30th and 31st marked the Centennial Celebration of the Adly Synagogue (in fact 102 years old) and the inauguration of an annex to the restored Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat. This was organised by the Jewish Community of Cairo. It was also the occasion to celebrate the work carried out by the Supreme Council of Antiquities on the Facade and the Tebah of the Adly Synagogue. The annex of Ben Ezra now contains a number of exhibits donated by the Genizah Team at Cambridge University. USAID and the Egyptian Water Works financed the building. All along Mrs (Carmen) Weinstein (president of the Jewish community) supervised relentlessly the work to meet the deadline she had set.
"You can watch about 20 short videos of this occasion to give you a feel of the events. You can also watch Egyptian Jewish Heritage videos.
"Our Nebi Daniel Association was a sponsor of the events, alongside the Joint JDC (USA) and Casa Sefarad Israel (Spain) who, remarkably, sponsored the 25 people making up the Jewish choir from Salonika. Three Nebi Daniel Council Members attended at their own cost. M. Roger Bilboul, co- founder and President of our Association, delivered a stirring speech.
"Many dignitaries ranging from the current and previous Israeli ambassadors, the USA ambassador, the British Ambassador, the French Consul and a minister counsellor to the Spanish Embassy, stood alongside Assistant Ministers of the Foreign ministry and Directors of Jewish Antiquities of the Supreme Council.
"There was press coverage, through the Haaretz correspondent. Various Arab medias relayed the event. Le Figaro, Arouts Sheva and other media such as AOL, also reported the event which brought together about 150 people.
"M. Marc Elfassi sent shivers through my spine when, ending the ceremony, he blew the shofar, in what sounded like a wake-up call to Jews from Egypt and their heritage. That is why three aspects personally saddened me, casting a shadow on this otherwise truly exceptional event:
- The absence of ex-Jews from Egypt (less than 15 were in attendance), many of them would have attended if informed. The organisers took a view not to inform. This would have been a true mark of celebrating the Heritage of Jews from Egypt.
- The lack of any Jewish prayer, in spite of the rather exceptional presence of a Minyan, in what is after all a place dedicated to that purpose. This would have been a true mark of a Jewish celebration in Egypt.
- The evident small number of the present community and the need to think of the future. A participant described the event as 'a swan song', a rather bleak perspective, unless we reach out to, rally and reconcile ex-Jews from Egypt with their past.
"Bravo to Mrs Weinstein for her efforts in organising and leading the ceremonies as well as for the social invitations that accompanied them. All - I was told - were up to true Egyptian Jewish hospitality standards.
"For the past few years Mrs. Carmen Weinstein, President of the Jewish Community of Cairo, has been (pushing for the restoration of the synagogues of Cairo and) steadily overseeing and working on the preservation of Jewish heritage there.
"It was an even a greater joy when an on-going comprehensive restoration programme including the extensive work to be done on the Rambam synagogue* was confirmed to the American Jewish Committee and to the Nebi Daniel Association by M. Zahi Hawass, Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and M. Farouk Hosny, Minister of Culture. The time-frame set is a relatively short-term one.
"Make no mistake, do not berate or underestimate. This is a MAJOR development.
"Our gratitude extends to the current Egyptian government. We should ask ourselves how many Arab countries have actually done the same, or for that matter how many examples exist across the world, of non- Arab countries, doing the same. This is a win-win. It is good for Egypt and it is good for the Jews.
"It heralds the basis on which the Memory of the Jews from Egypt can be built. The development of a Museum of Jewish Heritage in Egypt is a confirmed and accepted proposal. Contents, location and form have to be suggested and of course implemented.
"We are also hopeful that our fundamental, essential goal, namely the copying and free access to the community registers and archives will be met in this process of Modern Egypt revisiting its past. Already there are encouraging signs of a more attentive and open and friendly understanding of this issue by the Foreign and Culture Ministries.
*The 19th century Maimonides synagogue stands adjacent to a 12th c. Yeshiva