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Lebanon's synagogue reconstruction kicks off

Hezbollah to be invited to rededication ceremony


BEIRUT — A long-delayed plan to renovate Beirut's only synagogue is finally coming to fruition.

The Lebanese architect working with Lebanon's tiny Jewish community to rehabilitate Beirut's Maghan Avraham Synagogue told GlobalPost that the Jewish Community Council was reviewing three contractors' bids for the reconstruction. Once the council decides on a contractor — likely this weekend — work could begin within a week, said the architect, who is also one of the bidders.

"The rehabilitation is moving ahead," said the architect, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about personal security. "It will start before winter."

The synagogue was partially destroyed in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. The roof has since collapsed and graffiti covers the walls. Trees, shrubs and trash litter what was once the Lebanese Jewish community's biggest and most sacred house of worship. Lebanon has several other synagogues that have sat dormant for decades.

But at Maghan Avraham Synagogue, the first signs of renovation are finally evident. The synagogue's rusty and padlocked gate has been removed. Scaffolding has been erected inside the main building, and a small new concrete driveway leads from the synagogue's small garden to the street.

"They're taking out the rubbish," said a security guard standing nearby.

Renovation will cost between $1 million and $2 million, and although fundraising hasn't reached that level yet, the architect said four rich Lebanese Jews would make up the difference once construction began.

"Once we begin the money will come," he said.

All of Lebanon's political parties have so far blessed the renovationthe work, including the staunchly militantly anti-Israel group Hezbollah, according to the architect. GlobalPost has not received confirmation from Hezbollah's spokesman that the group approved of the reconstruction, but the architect said he understands that the group does not oppose the project. Part of the reason for speaking with the media now, the architect said, was to conduct a "test" to see if any Lebanese had concerns about the project.

"It would be a shame to start and then have to stop," he said. "We would rather not start at all." It's not an unfounded fear. In July, Hezbollah's Al Manar satellite channel accused French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh, a Jew, of having served in the Israeli Army. The comedian denied he was ever in the Israeli Army or even an Israeli citizen, but he subsequently canceled a series of shows scheduled in Lebanon this summer for fear the accusations would jeopardize his safety.

The yet the architect said the biggest obstacle to the synagogue's rehabilitation was the location of the structure. The synagogue is in a sensitive security area, near the home of Lebanon's incoming prime minister and U.S. ally, Saad Hariri, and also to the prime minister's office, known as the Grand Serail, in downtown Beirut. A police station and dozens of private security guards are posted to the area around the clock. The architect said the security measures imposed by the government may drive up construction costs and prolong the project.

"There's a big list of things we cannot do, like leave someone in the synagogue to guard construction materials at night," he said. "We are not allowed to work after a certain hour. We are not allowed to put scaffolding on the outside of the synagogue."

But the precautions also mean the location is also secure. The architect, who is not Jewish, said one of the reasons he took the rehabilitation project was that it was in such a heavily guarded location. The danger he feels is not from any Lebanese political parties, he said, but from "some crazy guy who wants to be a hero."

Due to similar security concerns, Lebanon's tiny Jewish community maintains a low profile.

There are an estimated 100 to 150 Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon, but thousands more live outside the country, scattered from Canada to Europe to Israel. The Lebanese Jewish community once numbered about 20,000, according to historians; most of them left after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Arab Israeli war of 1967 saw more Lebanese Jews emigrate, but a small community remained. The neighborhood most densely populated by Jews and home to the synagogue, called Wadi Abu Jamil, was protected by the Palestine Liberation Organization during Lebanon's civil war.

The synagogue continued functioning until 1982, when Israel's devastating invasion of Lebanon increased animosity against Lebanese Jews. But according to The Associated Press and journalist Robert Fisk, the synagogue's demise didn't come at the hands of anti-Jewish feelings. Rather, it was caused by an Israeli artillery barrage: An Israeli shell blew scored a direct hit on the synagogue in early August 1982, and brought down the structure's roof, according to the A.P.

Still, it was only in 1985 that the Jewish community went completely underground, when alleged Islamic militants kidnapped a dozen prominent Jewish community leaders. Several were murdered, including the president and vice president of the Jewish Community Council, Isaac Sasson and Eli Hallak.

Indicative of the fear Lebanese Jews still feel in Lebanon, the head of the community does not give interviews to the media. However, a website, Jews of Lebanon, and a Facebook group have served as bulletin boards for the synagogue's rehabilitation effort, and for the Lebanese Jewish community still in the country and scattered around the world (click here to see a video announcing the synagogue's reconstruction).

Lebanese Jews outside the country come back regularly, and they own land and businesses, the architect said.

"It's a sad story for me, I don't understand why these people have to be outside Lebanon, just because they are Jewish," he said. "If Lebanon wants to be free, then the Jews should have the freedom to pray like everybody else."

The architect said he had worked on the project with the Lebanese Jewish community since 2003, having been introduced to it in dealings with Jewish Lebanese expatriates. The project to rehabilitate the project was was originally slated to begin in September 2006. But the summer war between Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah, delayed the plan. The following three years left Lebanon in political chaos.

"Now after the [Lebanese] election, and positive signs of political life, we think it's time to begin this work," the architect said.

The renovation will be partially funded by Beirut's construction firm Solidere (a French acronym for the "Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District"), which will contribute $150,000 to the project, as the company has done with other religious monuments damaged in Beirut's downtown area during the civil war.

The architect said the Jewish Community Council plans to hold a ceremony when the synagogue is renovated, and hopes to invite Lebanon's president, prime minster and representatives of all Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah and other parties with a staunchly anti-Israel policies and ideologies.

Still, due to security concerns, he doesn't know if the building will be used as a religious center in the near future.

"I think it will be very difficult to use it. They are only 100, and they need a rabbi," he said. "It will still be something very beautiful even if it will not work as a synagogue."

The architect said the renovation would begin with replacement of the collapsed red tile roof.