Ibrahim Abed Raouf realized he had nobody to speak with in that place. He
studied Hebrew and Jewish religious books. He prepared a comprehensive catalog
of the Religious works in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. But when he
proposed to undertake a project together with the Jewish Community, perhaps a
project to learn Hebrew, he found nobody to answer him.
Ibrahim is the librarian and translator of the old books in this synagogue
... he learned Hebrew at El Azhar. "I wish to work more with the Jews, but I
can't get a response... They are "closed" -- I don't know why. If someone
wants to speak with them, they object . It is difficult to find a listening
Ibrahim estimates the number of Jews in Cairo at 200. This is optimistic --
he exaggerated. Others believe this number is much lower: 50, perhaps 60.
Esther Weinstein, a strong woman near 90 years of age, avoided answering this
question. She holds the title of President of the community. Her daughter
Carmen, a single woman fulfilling her mother's task, is not interested in
answering even the simplest questions.
In 1996, Carmen had been nominated as the first woman in 1000 years to carry
out the function of President of the community. The Egyptian Gazette reported
that the members of the community were not more than 100. This was 5 years
In Alexandria, we didn't get clear answers . Lina Matatiah says there are 50
Jews. Max Salame says there are no more than 15 . Both of them are 84. Albert
Chirazi, the Joint representative for Pessah, estimates there are 100.
The lack of a clear answer reflects the lack of organization in those two
communities, and also the lack of social contact between the members. Most of
them are living their declining years in solitude.
The Seder is one of the two annual events when they meet. The second is Rosh
Hashanah . During the other holidays, only a few are present . Every year the
number decreases, while the number of tombstones in the cemetery increases.
There is no new generation. The Jewish community in Egypt is vanishing. They
are counting the remaining days . The members are living alone. Very few have
families . They do not try to develop their Jewish identity. Their friends are
Muslim or Christian. Haret El Yahud exists only in the history books. There
will not be an exodus in the next few years, but a natural process of
extinction. Nowadays, an old man of 80 will not emigrate, even if the gates of
Eretz Yisrael are open.
Most Egyptian Jews are women. Only a minority are men. It is hard to find in
Cairo and Alexandria a minyan of ten men. According to informal reports there
are 4 men in Alexandria and 3 men in Cairo. The situation is gloomy when
someone dies . There is no Bet Din or Religious Council. The community is the
last Jewish institution, and it appears to have reached its end. When a Jew
dies , the preparations for burial are made by Muslims. They use burial shrouds
(TAKHRIKHIM) sent by Israel. Oftentimes there is no one to say Kaddish . The
funeral procession includes no more than 4-5 mourners (including Israeli
Dr. Salame (born in 1916) says he is working. Another Jew, 90 years old, is in
an Italian institution for retired people. A third, Joe Harari, is the
President of the community. He is 85 and cannot walk . The youngest is a
When the Israeli consul in Alexandria came 3-4 years ago, he found ten men for
a minyan. Now he is the main reader in the Seder and Rosh Hashanah . He brings
staff from the consulate to get a minyan. The Jewish Joint contributes 3-4
people from Israel. Without them, it would be impossible to conduct a seder.
No one knows what will happen next year. The Joint contributes money to the
members of the community. Most of them live in rented apartments.
Lina and Joe Harari represent the Jewish community in Alexandria . Every day
(except Shabbat and holidays) they meet in the community office at the Eliahu
Hanavi Synagogue on Nebi Daniel Street. These daily meeting will end when one
of them dies. There is not too much work, other than collecting rent from the
community's rental properties. This income helps them provide for poor
There isn't much work in the community. One or two phone calls a day . From
time to time there are funerals. Last month three members died. They are not
healthy. Harari is not completely lucid . He says that the day is close when
he will go to sleep and not awaken. He is lucky that Lina is beside him. Lina
took us on a tour of the synagogue. The Jews of Egypt speak Arabic with the
locals, French among them, and English with guests. They do not know Hebrew,
except some words in the Holy Books.
They don't have connections with Israel. None of them has relatives there .Two
of them visited Israel as tourists for a short time after the peace agreement .
In Joe Harari's office, you will find a picture of President Mubarak, the
Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Abu Hatzera (buried in Damanhour). The Jews of
Egypt were cosmopolitan, and came from different countries.
Joe says : "I am an Egyptian Jew. 100% as you see. Jews left in 1936, 1948,
1956 -- all the wars. I was here for four wars . The Egyptians are my friends.
We do not intend to emigrate to Israel . We keep the synagogue, the community,
and care for the old. We must stay here, or the community will end.
The community is in the Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue . The synagogue is protected by
two Egyptian soldiers -- 20-year-olds with guns who spoke to me about their
chances of finding a job in Israel. The Egyptian government declared 34
synagogues to be national sites. In spite of the fact that most of them are
empty, there are guards all the time. Today, all the history of the Jews is
behind closed doors. In the old days, the Alexandria community was 90,000 to
100,000 members strong. It was better organized than the Cairo community. They
provided services from birth to burial. The Cairo community had 80,000 members.
Both communities grew between the two world wars.
Since the forties, Egyptian Jews have had to pay the price for Israel. There
were riots in 1945 and 1952, when Jewish institutions were burned.
Dr. Yoram Meital, head of the Middle Eastern Studies department of Ben Gurion
University, estimates that the decline of the Jewish community began in 1948.
He believes the final stroke was the "socialist society" of Nasser in the
fifties. Nationalization hit the community hard. Ten of thousands of Jews left
Egypt in the end of the fifities and the beginning of the sixties. Some
emigrated to Israel, but the majority went to Europe and North America. Dr.
Meital explained that the policy of anti-imperialism did not leave room for
Now, years after this policy ended and a more liberal atmosphere was allowed to
flourish, the Jews are still reluctant to have any connection with foreigners.
In a rare departure from that attitude, they opened the synagogue two weeks ago
to Israeli minister Suissa.
Income for some members of the community derives from a printing house. Two
years ago, Esther Weinstein visited Israel. But she says she will not leave
Cairo because the familiar ways are stronger than the desire to make aliya,
especially at her age. Sometimes, when an Israeli visits the Shaar Hashamayim
Synagogue, she pays them to pray in memory of her father and grandfather in a
synagogue in Jerusalem.
Many Israeli tourists ask to visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo and don't
ask to visit the Eliahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria. This is a very
beautiful synagogue, perhaps the most beautiful in the Middle East. When
entering it, one is very impressed. It is a magnificent shrine, clean and
well-preserved. It seems that only yesterday people were praying there.
The Egyptian government holds a Torah scroll seized in 1973 during the Yom
Kippur war. The government is not ready to discuss with any Jewish entity the
possibility of exporting the holy books out of Egypt . The synagogues, the
community offices, the buildings, and the Jewish Holy books will become
government property after the Jewish Community of Egypt becomes extinct. There
are more than 100 Torah scrolls, most of them from the 19th century and the
beginning of the 20th -- not to mention the synagogues, such as Ben Ezra,
Harambam , Eliahu Hanavi.
The Israeli Minister of Infrastructure Eliahu Suissa was in Egypt two weeks ago
to discuss the exportation of natural gas and electricity to Israel. Minister
Suissa raised the issue of the Torah Scroll from the Yom Kippur war before
President Mubarak . The only thing that Mubarak agreed to do was "to promise to