Nestled in what is often referred to as the “Jewish district” of Wadi Abu Jamil in Downtown Beirut, is one of the biggest synagogues of Lebanon: the Maghen Abraham Synagogue. It was originally destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War, and restoration of the synagogue commenced in May 2009.
Renovations were quite complete in 2010, with reports around 2014 that the synagogue would be up and running again and that the finishing touches being made to the interior of the building would persist as funding arrived.
Beirut’s synagogue Maghen Abraham was constructed in the year 1925 and was named after the son of Abraham Sassoon, Moise Abraham Sassoon of Calcutta, on land donated by Isaac Mann. It is said to have been designed by the architect Bindo Manham who worked closely with Ezra Benjamin and Joseph Balayla in the construction phase.
Due to lack of funding, the interior was gradually completed through the support of local members and leaders within the Jewish community. The synagogue was used for Torah and other lectures, religious ceremonies, weddings, and other festivities.
By the early 1960s, there were sixteen synagogues in Beirut and they were all reportedly “full”, according to the testimony of a Lebanese immigrant in France from a 2003 research. It is estimated that by 1948 there were around 14,000 Jews both inside and outside Beirut, in various regions of Lebanon.
Despite the fact that the majority of the community had emigrated by 1958 and the rest indeed followed throughout the period of the Civil War, there were approximately 100 Jewish families still living in the quarters of this synagogue prior to 1982.
With the synagogue being almost completely destroyed throughout the Lebanese War, as well as the demographic sensitivity that followed, the final wave of renovations of the synagogue began in the year 2009, with the project gaining approval of all factions of the Lebanese government and community leaders.
The initial renovation project received $200,000 worth of private donations, and also went on to receive a $150,000 grant from Solidere, the Lebanese construction company privately owned by the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his family. The same amount was given to each of the fourteen religious factions who were restoring places of worship in Lebanon.
The terms of renovation stated that the synagogue, along with the Jewish cemetery in Sodeco, would both be renovated, with construction on both beginning in 2009. It was also reported that two Swiss banks with Lebanese-Jewish owners had also donated approximately $100,000 between the two of them.
The restoration took approximately two years to complete, with financial issues as well as permits and other obstacles getting in the way. The synagogue, as it stands today in Downtown Beirut, has not been renovated in any way since 2010.
According to their Facebook page, the Lebanese Jewish Community Council, new chairs have now been installed at the Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut, and it has received a few touch-ups to its structure, according to other reports.
This facelift is reportedly coming from fundraising among the modest Jewish-Lebanese community, as well as from other private donors, and the Synagogue will now be able to host more public and personal ceremonies and events.
You can see the Synagogue as part of your walking tours in the beautiful center of Beirut, a clear depiction of the co-existence between each of Lebanon’s religious denominations and minorities regardless of the controversy which surrounds them. Unfortunately, public visitations to the Synagogue are currently unauthorized by the Lebanese law-enforcement until further notice.
The Jewish community in Lebanon currently resides in small numbers in Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli, and Aley.
However, the discrepancy between the number of registered Lebanese Jews and the number often cited by locals and the Lebanese Jewish Community Council differ, and tracking these numbers has proven to be difficult.
Isaac Arazi has been the Jewish Community President since 2005, with Semo Bechar acting as his Vice-President since his appointment.