Andrew Baker: A Synagogue in Cairo

Roundup: Media's Take




[Rabbi Andrew Baker is director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC).]

One of Cairo’s most historic synagogues and a yeshiva, restored by the Egyptian government, is to be rededicated next week. Known colloquially as “Rav Moshe,” the yeshiva was the original study of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, the renowned physician, rabbinic scholar and leader of the Egyptian Jewish community in the 12th century. Accessible only by foot along narrow commercial streets, visitors today enter his yeshiva through the foyer of a 19th century synagogue built in his honor.

The 18-month project of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities involved a team of Egyptian experts ranging from art restorers to mechanical engineers at a cost of nearly $2 million. Few people were aware of it until last September when Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities czar, brought reporters to the site. “It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage,” Dr. Hawas proudly declared....

In Maimonides’ day, Cairo’s Jewish community was a center of scholarship and commerce, a hub of Jewish life for the entire Middle East.

When Fuad ruled Egypt, more than 80,000 Jews were among his subjects. They were an active, integral presence in the business and cultural life of the country.

But that all changed after Israel’s creation in 1948, and especially after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1953, prompting a mass exodus of Jews. Today’s Jewish population in Egypt is a mere few dozen....

In Egypt, the history of living alongside Jewish neighbors has been replaced with the demonizing of Israel, and often of Jews as well. The historic 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has for too long been ignored by Egypt’s cultural elites who have steadfastly rejected any normalization in relations. Minister Hosny and his colleagues have had reason to fear that Egyptians would react with anger when told of the restoration work.

But the word is out now. And Zahi Hawass, an archeological legend known around the world for touting pyramids and the treasures of King Tut, is now reading up on the deeds of a medieval rabbi. Dr. Hawass promises that six more synagogue buildings in Cairo will be restored within two years. Egypt’s Jewish artifacts will never rival those of the Pharaohs. But reminding today’s Egyptians and others in this troubled region of a time when Jews were a natural part of Egyptian society is important.

It may even be a ray of hope when hope is so hard to find in this region. Maybe there will emerge one more miracle to credit to Rav Moshe.



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