Over 180 Jews from across the Egyptian diaspora gathered in Alexandria this weekend in the largest Jewish prayer service in decades to rededicate their newly renovated forefathers’ synagogue in the Mediterranean port city. The event was described by participants as a “very, very emotional” and festive Sabbath of prayer, singing, and dancing.
For the first time in decades, “We were actually sitting in our fathers’ seats saying a full-blown prayer service,” said Alec Nacamuli, a former resident of Alexandria and a board member of the Nebi Daniel Association, an organization that works to preserve Jewish sites in Egypt, which organized the weekend. The Friday evening song, “Lecha Dodi,” “hasn’t resonated in those columns with such a large congregation in about 40-50 years,” he said.
Nacamuli said the idea of the weekend germinated from the moment that the association heard that the Egyptian government would be restoring the famed synagogue, which has a history stemming back to circa 13th century.
The house of worship is one of several Jewish sites in Alexandria, which was once home to an estimated 30,000-40,000 Jews. Today the community is made up of a handful of widows in their 70s, only one of whom was hale enough to attend the prayer service.
Although the original building dates back to the 13th century, the synagogue’s current structure was erected in the 1850s, after the original building was badly damaged in the late 18th century during a French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon.
The synagogue’s massive hall, decorated with stunning rose marble columns and lit with glinting chandeliers, can hold approximately 700 worshipers. While women traditionally sat upstairs in a women’s balcony, due to the age of the participants, that custom was waived and the women sat behind the men on the main floor, said Nacamuli.
Most of the delegation, made up of Jews now living in France, England, Israel, the United States, and elsewhere, arrived on Thursday. On Friday, there were excursions to the three Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria, one in a neighborhood called Mazarita and two in Chatby, which had been cleaned up for the first time in 40 years by the Nebi Daniel Association, prior to the visitors’ arrival.
Under heavy security — one participant quipped that there were more police than participants — the delegation entered the large synagogue compound on Friday afternoon, where, with prayer and song, they rededicated the prayer hall through affixing a new mezuza to the main door. Inside the synagogue, individuals lit memorial candles for deceased family members, which was followed by the traditional Sephardic custom of Friday evening Sabbath services. (The Jewish Sabbath runs from sundown Friday until an hour after sundown on Saturday.)
There were two rabbis at the service, Rabbi Andrew Baker and the son of the final Alexandrian rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Nefussi. Additionally, the service was joined by the US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen and the former Israeli ambassador David Govrin, as well as other local cultural attaches.
On Friday night, with wine and braided Shabbat challah brought from Israel, the Eliyahu Hanavi congregation recited the traditional blessings as a community, and broke bread before heading to a festive meal.
They regathered the next morning for more prayer and Torah reading. The highlight of the day was when 12 of the synagogue’s circa 60-70 Torah scrolls were taken out and festively paraded throughout the hall.
“It was certainly a very emotional and poignant moment,” said Nacamuli.
“The 12 Torah scrolls were in honor of the 12 tribes of Israel,” said Levana Zamir, the head of the International Association of Jews from Egypt. Cairo-born Zamir arrived with a contingent of some 20 Jews from Israel, along with her daughter and two grandchildren.
The scrolls, she said, had been stored for decades, unused for ritual purposes by the ever-dwindling community. Their use, along with the rededication of the synagogue, made her “very, very glad,” she said.
“I never imagined I would see my grandson here, holding a Sefer Torah, with the tallit [prayer shawl] on his shoulder. I cried, of course, there is so much emotion. It was just like seeing my father there,” said Zamir.
A heritage held hostage
But even amid the afterglow of the celebratory weekend, the expat Egyptians told The Times of Israel that their community registers — generations of annals of births, deaths, and marriages — are essentially being held hostage by the same government that sponsored the synagogue’s restoration.
Under the Ottoman Empire’s Millet system, all lifecycle events were recorded through the local community’s central rabbinate. (Israel’s chief rabbinate is a direct descendent of this system.) In major hubs Alexandria and Cairo, the registers date back to the 1830s. Three years ago, they were all taken to the Egyptian National Archives where, according to Nacamuli, nobody can gain access to them.
According to the Nebi Daniel Association, none of the communal documents pertain to personal property, but they are nonetheless invaluable for the continuation of Jewish life.
“In religious matters they are often the only proof of Jewish identity to enter into a Jewish marriage, determine Jewish lineage or be granted a Jewish burial, especially in the Diaspora,” reads the Nebi Daniel website.
“In civil matters, they are used to establish civil identity related to nationality, marriage, divorce, etc,” it continues. And, “for historical and genealogical research, the Registers constitute a rare collection covering 150 years of the history of a thriving Jewish community.”
The Nebi Daniel Association is working to obtain digital copies of these documents, said Nacamuli, and is now considering its next steps. “We’ve been working on it for 15 years, and I can honestly say we’ve been treading sand,” he said.
Zamir is hopeful for incremental slow change under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and compared him to assassinated peacemaker president Anwar Sadat.
Under president Hosni Mubarak, she said, almost all memory of the Jewish community was wiped out and a generation of Egyptians in their 20s and 30s now have no idea of the flourishing Jewish community that helped build their country.
“A-Sissi is like Sadat, he will succeed [in normalizing relations],” said Zamir. “He is doing it slowly and has very good relations with the Israeli government,” she said, adding that the Egyptian people are not yet ready to embrace Israel.
Relations between Israel and Egypt are still far from normal, as illustrated by the fact that out of the 40 Israelis who applied for visas, only 15 were granted. Most other western nations can purchase visas at the border.
But although Zamir left dozens of disappointed Israeli expat Egyptians back home, she is optimistic that in recognizing its Jewish past, the country will eventually accept its Zionist neighbors.
“There is no Jewish life in Egypt, but I am really happy that Egypt is preserving these monuments because it says we [the Jews] were here, we left traces. These monuments is us, our history, our life,” said Zamir. “In 200, 500 years from now, Egypt will continue to preserve all these monuments. It’s important because they [future Egyptians] will know Jews were here,” said Zamir.
Adam Rasgon and agencies contributed to this report.