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The Synagogue of Wadi Bujmil in Beirut [1]

Like almost all other religeous buildings and monuments in the rehabilitaion area of down-town Beirut, the synagogue of Wadi Bujmil has been left standing for future restoration. (See also the jewish cemetery on the Damascus Road.)

"Magen-Abraham" synagogue in Beirut, Lebanon

- Tomer Levi
  Brandeis University, 2 Mar 2008

Magen-Abraham was the main and largest synagogue of the Jewish community of Beirut. The synagogue was inaugurated in 1926 after years of delay caused by the First World War. The communal council managed to collect locally some 420 pounds before and after World War One, and under the influence of Ezra ‛Anzarut - a prominent leader of the community and one of its greatest benefactors - Moise Abraham Sassoon from Calcutta donated 3000 pounds towards the completion of the synagogue. Thus, the synagogue was named after the deceased father of Moise Sassoon. The synagogue's architectural style (Renaissance and Romanesque) reflected the cultural horizons of the leadership and was in fact, a declaration of faith in the colonial order. In addition to its primary role as a house of prayer, the synagogue also played important social and economic roles. First, it unified various social elements that used to worship in various small praying houses. It was viewed as an institution that belonged to the entire community and was a source of pride. Along with the Talmud-Torah (Selim Tarrab) School, the leadership portrayed the new synagogue as an important landmark of communal progress. Second, the wide participation of community members in religious services and other events amplified revenues by way of donations of the individuals. In 1929 for instance, the synagogue's revenues amounted to 66 percent the amount collected from the communal tax (‛Arikha). Thus, the synagogue became an important philanthropic agent in the community, supplementing already existing agents such as the synagogue in ‛Aley, drives, lotteries, subscription of individuals for specific purposes, and the communal newspaper Al-‛Ālam al-Isra'ili, which was employed to encourage and even pressure the wealthy to donate.

The Magen-Abraham synagogue was considered as one of the fanciest in the whole East. Its activity attracted many people for praying. A youth choir was founded, and on Saturdays, hundreds of people came to hear the choir singing. In addition to religious services, the synagogue was used for cultural and intellectual activities, weddings, and other festive events. Twice a year, in Passover and Sukkot, the heads of the religious communities in Lebanon were invited to join the ceremony. During the 1940s, the synagogue was used as a center for underground Zionist activities. Many of the illegal migrants who arrived in Beirut on their way to Israel were put temporarily in the building. Youth and little children were housed in the synagogue's compound before taken to Israel. The vitality of the synagogue waned with the decline of the entire community. As Jews left Lebanon (particularly after the Civil War in 1975) in increasing numbers, it became harder to gather a minyan for prayer. In 1982, the synagogue was plundered and later efforts of Lebanese Jews to renovate and preserve the building were unsuccessful.

The building behind the synagogue was the Talmud-Torah Selim Tarrab School. It was a major communal institution, and the leadership took great pains to finance and improve the school throughout the French mandate period. The school emphasized Hebrew and Jewish subjects and in fact, was the ideological rival of the Alliance school. Unlike the Alliance school, which was financed mainly from abroad (Paris), the Selim Tarrab school was financed locally. Until the late 1920s the mandate authorities allocated funds for the school, but they later reduced their allocation and increased that of the Alliance school. The School's corner stone was laid in 1926, the same day when the synagogue was inaugurated. After a year or two the building was completed. The area you could see under the building served some ladies in the community, who worked to provide one meal a day for the school students, most of which came from poor families.

[While the community center bhind the synagogue was demolished around 2003, the synagogue is still standing "protected" as an historic building. Future plans for preservation are, however, uncertain given the present political situation in Lebanon. (BL 2008)]

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al@mashriq

981113/bl/ Last modified: Wed Mar 19 23:25:38 2008