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LEBANON: Quietly, Jewish community begins synagogue renovation

August 4, 2009 |  8:22 am

Maghen-Abraham this February, before renovations began

Since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, Beirut’s Maghen-Abraham synagogue sat empty as other buildings in the Wadi Abou-Jamil neighborhood were renovated into multimillion-dollar condos, offices or hotels. 

Last week, restoration began on the 84-year-old synagogue, Beirut's oldest remaining Jewish house of worship, launching what will be a yearlong, million-dollar undertaking. 

Private Jewish donors abroad, many of Lebanese descent, funded the project, along with a $150,000 donation from Solidere, Prime Minister-elect Saad Hariri’s company, according to the Lebanese Jewish Community Council

Lebanon's Jewish community once numbered 22,000, and Judaism is still recognized as an official religion in the country. But many Jews fled during the civil war, and now Lebanon is home to less than 200. A diaspora of 2,000 lives between Lebanon and other countries. Some of them are members of Maghen-Abraham's Facebook fan page.

Renovations Underway 
Maghen-Abraham’s renovation received the blessing of Lebanon’s religious communities, even the militant anti-Israel group Hezbollah. Last year a spokesman for the group said, “We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity. The Jews have always lived among us. We have an issue with Israel's occupation of land.” 

The project has provided Hezbollah an opportunity to assert that it is anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. Similarly, the PLO protected the area during Lebanon’s long civil war under the same stated purpose. While attempting to root out the PLO, Israeli artillery hit the synagogue’s roof, contributing to the damage already done by the civil war, some historians claim.

Despite the endorsement of Lebanon’s religious communities, the renovation project remains secretive. Since breaking ground at the site, the story has received little or no attention in Lebanese newspapers. The architect told the Global Post that he was advised to raise scaffolding only inside the building . 

At the site, a worker leads a visitor through the synagogue grounds to a group of men clearing shrubs. “No pictures, no journalists," he orders. "A woman came last week and took pictures, and the police came and arrested her.” 

So far, little renovation work has been done. The red tile roofing has been removed. Workers are scraping off paint from small buildings surrounding the synagogue. On a recent visit another group was seen removing a large palm tree with a small bulldozer.

“We’re removing the plants,” the impromptu guide says, gesturing to the massive overgrowth of the grounds and interior of the building, a symptom of decades-long abandonment.

"You need to go now," he adds, declining to give his name 

-- Jahd Khalil in Beirut

Photos, from top: The Maghen-Abraham synagogue in February; the synagogue on Tuesday, with renovations underway. Credit: Jahd Khalil
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