Leader of Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community dies at 80

Isaac Arazi oversaw restoration of Beirut synagogue in 2010, but never realized hoped-for revival of community, with just some 30 Jews remaining from pre-civil war size of 22,000

A general view shows the Jewish cemetery in the Sodeco district of the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 24, 2010. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)
A general view shows the Jewish cemetery in the Sodeco district of the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 24, 2010. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The former president of Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community, who had pushed for the rehabilitation of Beirut’s abandoned synagogue, has died, his family and the community’s lawyer told AFP on Wednesday.

Isaac Arazi, 80, who headed the Lebanese Jewish Community Council, “died on Tuesday and was buried the same day,” lawyer Bassem el-Hout said.

Jews have been living in Lebanon for 2,000 years but their numbers shrank from some 22,000 before the 1975-1990 civil war to around 30 today, according to Hout.

They left steadily for the United States, Brazil and Europe after the State of Israel was established in 1948, “but they are still attached to Lebanon and many come back regularly,” Hout added.

Arazi’s family published an obituary in a Lebanese newspaper describing him as the driving force behind the reconstruction of the Maghen Abraham synagogue in central Beirut, one of the largest and most ornate in the Arab world.

The Jewish council that Arazi headed had helped fund the project through donations.

In 2009, Arazi told AFP he was “ecstatic” about renovating the synagogue, which opened to worshipers in 1926, and expressed hope that the endeavor would “ensure that the community grows once again.”

However, communal life didn’t return after the 2010 renovation and prayers aren’t held at the synagogue on Shabbat.

A worker is seen in front of Beirut's Magen Abraham synagogue (photo credit: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A worker is seen in front of Beirut’s Maghen Abraham synagogue. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The synagogue sustained minor damage in August 2020, when a catastrophic explosion at the Beirut port killed over 200 and wounded thousands, while leaving large parts of the Lebanese capital devastated. It was later renovated to repair the damage.

The synagogue’s last rabbi fled the country in 1977 as Lebanese Jews left in droves.

Renovations continue of our blessed and sea Synagogue in Beirut –

Posted by Lebanese Jewish Community Council on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Nagi Georges Zeidan, an expert on Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community, told Lebanese TV in 2020 that “since they kidnapped nine Jews in 1985, executed them and their burial place isn’t known, every Jew in Lebanon began to fear for their fate. That’s the truth.”

A handful of buildings that were once synagogues still stand in Lebanon, including one in the northern city of Tripoli and another in the southern city of Sidon.

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