BHAMDOUN, Leb (Nov. 11)
The Israeli Colonel mounted the steps, slowly examining the building as if he was afraid of the reunion. Never in his wildest dreams did he believe that someday he would return to the synagogue in which he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah — as an officer of a victorious army.
It has been 37 years since the Bar Mitzvah of Raphael (Rafi) Sutton, 34 years since he last visited the building. As he admired every stone, every curve of the house of worship which once served a thriving Lebanese Jewish community, he was convinced that it had acquired beauty with age.
Bhamdoun — a Phoenician name — is a summer resort on the Beirut-Damascus highway, close to the point where the Israel Defense Force and the Syrian army face each other. The town was captured last July in the Israeli drive toward Beirut.
During the peak of the summer season Bhandoun is overflowing with people. There are about 100,000, most of them wealthy Lebanese from Beirut, only 20 miles to the west. When Sutton first visited the synagogue as an advisor to the IDF civil administration in the area, the town was humming with vacationers. When he revisited the place with this writer, earlier this month, the town looked deserted. Only some 4,000 local residents remain as winter approaches. These include three Jewish families, who usually spend most of their time in Beirut.
As he entered the synagogue vestibule, Col. Sutton immediately spotted the three plaques, which he remembered from the old days, paying tribute to those who had contributed to the building of the synagogue in 1945.
Three beautiful chandeliers were still hanging down from the vestibule ceiling. But as he entered the sanctuary itself, he noticed that the 12 crystal chandeliers which were once there, were no more. The Holy Ark was wide open, with no scrolls in it. For a moment Sutton feared that the synagogue had been vandalized by Syrians or terrorists who had occupied the town before the Israeli army ousted them.
He did notice, however, that the furniture was in perfect condition, the mikve (ritual bath) was in good order, prayer books were intact in their racks. The soldier even found the list alotting seats by names. Later he discovered that the Holy Ark was opened by community leaders to save the scrolls. The reader’s desk was still in good shape. Sutton even found a few tefilin strips.
“I can state categorically,” said Sutton, “that there was no malicious vandalism against the synagogue, despite reports to the contrary.” Local Moslem families kept a close watch over the building in recent years when a Fatah unit was stationed in one of the flats opposite the synagogue.
It was in a nearby building that young Rafi would spend summers with his uncle. One of the neighbors then was Abdallah Al-Yaffi, Lebanon’ Premier, who would make a point of visiting the synagogue on every festive occasion. That cordial atmosphere characterized relations with the local population which was mostly Christian.
When Sutton met recently in his capacity as advisor to the Mayor of Bhamdoun, the Mayor, Dr. Louis Ghussun recalled that although the Jews were always a minority, they were always the driving force behind the town.
Although neither efforts, nor money, were spared building the synagogue, there was no permanent Jewish community as such in the town. The 4,000 Jews who resided there during the summers did not own any real estate. They would rent their summer lodgings from local owners. The synagogue in fact served only the summer vacationers.
This was the case until the early ’70s, when the Palestinian presence increased and the Jews preferred to spend their summers in the nearby Druze town of Alei. closer to Beirut.
The vast majority of the Jewish summer residents were, of course, among the wealthy in Beirut’s Jewish community, which until 1947 numbered about 10,000. In that year the Jews of the Syrian town of Halab suffered a pogram, and most of them fled to Beirut, more than doubling the size of the community. They engaged in business, specializing in stocks, gold and diamonds.
A large part of Rafl’s family, the Djamouss family, on his mother’s side, emigrated from Halab to Lebanon in the 1930s. The Djamouss, who were goldsmiths and diamond dealers, settled in Beirut.
When he reached Bar Mitzvah age, Halab was in the midst of bloody events as the Syrians fought to get rid of the French Mandate. The Bar Mitzvah was celebrated at the local synagogue hastily, with no ceremony; and on the same day, Rafi was sent by bus to Beirut. His relatives insisted that the Bar Mitzvah be celebrated properly and it was, in the Bhamdoun synagogue on the next Saturday, attended by the Chief Rabbi of Lebanon.
In March 1948, when the Syrians were about to draft Rafi into their army, he fled from Halab and went to Lebanon again. He spent six months there before immigrating to Israel illegally, in a boat with 170 other immigrants. His family followed the next year.
Sutton had no contact with his Lebanese past until the Lebanon War. Only when he returned to Bhamdoun did he learn that the synagogue was inactive ever since 1975. With the growing presence of the Palestinians and Syrians, the few remaining Jews of Beirut preferred to stay home during the summer. A number of families immigrated to Israel recently.