The last remaining synagogue in Beirut is undergoing restoration, and will soon host its first rabbi in nearly 40 years. Only 150 members of the Jewish community remain in Lebanon.
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Amid the new tower blocks that are changing this city’s skyline rises a newly restored symbol of Beirut’s multireligious society.
The Magen Abraham synagogue is the last Jewish place of worship to survive in Beirut, a lone reminder that a few decades ago a thriving Jewish community lived in the city center.
The Jewish faith is one of the 18 officially recognized sects that exist in Lebanon. When the synagogue was built in 1920 there were some 12,000 Jews in Lebanon. But the Arab-Israeli conflict and Lebanon’s devastating 1975-90 civil war spurred Jews to emigrate, and today there are only around 150 left here.
The last rabbi departed in 1975, and the synagogue fell into disrepair. Much of the structural damage was inflicted, ironically, by shelling from Israeli gunboats in 1982.
Restoration began two years ago and was funded by donations from Lebanese Jews both in Lebanon and overseas. The interior has been restored to its original décor with sky-blue walls, arched windows, and whitewashed columns with small brown painted streaks that mimic the fossilized shells in the original limestone columns. Work is expected to be completed by summer, and the first rabbi in nearly four decades is expected to arrive soon.
“Once the rabbi is here, we will be able to hold weddings again,” says a Jewish Council member in Lebanon who oversaw the restoration. He declines to allow his name to be quoted, illustrating that Lebanese Jews still prefer to maintain a low profile.