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Who will pray at Lebanon's rebuilt synagogue?

The front of Beirut's synagogue
Work has begun in Beirut on rebuilding its long-abandoned synagogue

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

Rumours of the reconstruction of the city's historic Magen-Abraham Synagogue have been around for years but no one, it seems, could quite believe their eyes when the work actually began.

Regular outbreaks of fighting, most recently in 2006, and decades of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel have virtually obliterated Lebanon's once-thriving Jewish community.

We are not afraid, we are just wary of the circumstances
Jewish community leader

Officially, the two countries have been in a state of war since the Lebanon declared war on Israel at its creation in 1948.

Jews began leaving Lebanon en masse in the late 1960s.

Those who stayed still keep an extremely low profile.

And so it came as a great surprise when a tiny Jewish community, believed to be fewer than 100 people, announced that they had managed to secure funds and permission to reconstruct their temple.

Work is now in full swing.

Fresh cement

Only a few months ago, the old synagogue was in ruins.

It reeked of urine and decay. Trees and bushes grew under its collapsed roof and anti-Semitic graffiti covered the walls.

Dr Abraham Albert Elia (r) and his wife Lucy Elia (l)
Mr Elia met his future wife Lucy and fell in love at the synagogue

Today the tall roof is back, walls have been freshly cemented and workers are about to begin painting.

But the project is surrounded by secrecy.

"We are not afraid. We are just wary of the circumstances," said a representative of the Jewish community, who did not want to be identified.

Lebanon is home to armed Palestinian groups and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Hezbollah, a militant group which wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, is part of the Lebanese government.

But the representative of the Jewish community is confident that the reconstruction will be completed.

He says that so far the community, with the help of overseas donations, has managed to raise $2.5 million (£1.6 million) - half of the amount needed.

He also confirmed that Solidere, a development company which is part of the business empire that belongs to the family of the country's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has promised a $150,000 (£94,000) donation.

"Overall, reaction to the renovation has been positive," says Nada Abdelsamad of BBC Arabic, who recently wrote a book about the Jews of Beirut.

"All political parties, including Hezbollah, said they welcomed the reconstruction."

"The question is, what will happen after. Will it be an active synagogue?" she asks.

Rare funerals

Neither Solidere nor Beirut municipality agreed to BBC requests for interviews.

Lisa Nahmoud
But renovation is a good thing. Maybe the synagogue will attract tourists
Lisa Nahmoud

One Jewish man explained why everyone involved in the project seems to be shying away from it.

We spoke at an old Jewish cemetery in Beirut.

It's a resting place for more than 4,000 Jews and funerals, although rare, still take place here.

Over the years, the cemetery has been often looted, dozens of graves are missing their marble plates and many are covered in rubbish.

"We suffer the most from the lack of education, from the fact that people don't realise that being Jewish and being Israeli are two different things," he said. He would not give his name.

Officially, Jews are still one of 18 sects that make up Lebanon's multi-confessional society.

But Beirut today is very different from the place that still lives in the memories of Dr Abraham Albert Elia and his wife Lucy.

Magen-Abraham Synagogue is where they first met and fell in love 50 years ago.

Today both of them live in Israel.

"We had a very happy life in Lebanon. We never felt it was dangerous or that we faced any sort of risk. We had parties, picnics, we went out," remembers Lucy Elia.

She says the decision to leave was driven not by threats to themselves, but the realisation that their children had no future in Lebanon.

Tourist attraction?

Back in Beirut, Lisa Nahmoud, a Jew who chose to stay in Lebanon, believes her community still has no future here.

map

Long ago she destroyed every single piece of paper identifying her as Jewish.

"I am Lebanese," she says, "all my friends are Muslims and Christians"

We spoke just around the corner from the synagogue, where Lisa feeds her favourite street cats.

"There are hardly any of us left here. Who will go to this synagogue?" she asked.

"But renovation is a good thing. Maybe the synagogue will attract tourists."

Against the odds, the Jews of Lebanon have managed to save their temple.

But their ageing community is disappearing and, until there is peace with Israel, their renovated synagogue is likely to remain a monument to the past rather than a promise of a future.



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