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Op-Ed: For Carmen, preserve Jewish heritage in Egypt

CAIRO (JTA) — My first visit to Egypt was eight years ago. My guide was Carmen Weinstein, the head of Egypt’s Jewish community, and on a hot September day we drove through the usual chaotic traffic with our driver to visit 10 synagogues.

I am the son of American Jews, the grandchild of Jews from Poland, Lithuania and White Russia, and knew little about the history of Jewish life in Egypt. But the synagogues tell that story.

Together, the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat; the stately Shaar Hashamaim on Adly Street; the soaring interior of the Karaite synagogue; the Italianate Vitali Madjar synagogue in Heliopolis, the modest synagogue in upscale Maadi built to lure prosperous Jewish residents to the new suburb; and the Maimonides yeshiva and synagogue, a rubble-strewn, roofless building at the time, reflect the rich and diverse religious life that once was  Egyptian Jewry.

Nearly all the buildings were empty and unused. In some places a caretaker living in or near the synagogue let us in and escorted us through. Carmen gave each a few pounds and some disapproving words about the conditions, although it was obvious that they had done their best to clean in advance of our visit.

It was evident then, and would become clearer on my many subsequent visits, that Carmen’s mission was to preserve this Jewish heritage of Egypt.

To an outsider like me, this seemed like an impossible task. What could one expect with a Jewish community that had dwindled to a few dozen, a government that was at best indifferent and an Egyptian Jewish Diaspora that had grown increasingly distant?

We have the experience in Eastern Europe to compare — synagogues abandoned and in disrepair, or after Nazi occupation and communist nationalization, turned into factories or theaters or meeting halls. This is the “normal” fate of synagogues when Jews disappear. Everybody knows that.

But not Carmen. And that was the reason for her success. She didn’t know this couldn’t be done.

She brought as many of these synagogues as she could under the protection of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and pressed it to make repairs. She simply assumed that each building deserved to be protected, preserved and ultimately restored. She had little patience for those who disagreed.

On each of my visits, we would go together to the Cultural Ministry or the Antiquities Council. Carmen focused on the repairs that were needed and the work to be done. Usually we left with promises.

Those promises were not empty. Shaar Hashamaim synagogue, where Carmen’s funeral took place on April 18, was repaired and restored in time for the 100th anniversary of its dedication. A small exhibition space was built opposite Ben Ezra to tell the story of the Genizah documents that were discovered here. And in the most elaborate project to date, the Maimonides yeshiva was fully restored and the adjacent synagogue completely rebuilt.

As I learned from Carmen and other Egyptian Jews, the 12th century Maimonides building was considered a place of miracles — the sick and infirm would spend the night there and be healed. But the biggest miracle in our lifetime was its restoration and dedication two years ago.

One of the greatest challenges she faced was the Bassatine Cemetery, where more than 20,000 squatters were living on the historic Jewish site. Carmen valiantly fought off further encroachment, building walls and imploring authorities to prevent the looting of memorial stones and the dumping of trash that had become commonplace. In her more optimistic moments she planted trees and flowering shrubs. Carmen took special care of and frequently visited her mother’s grave there.

Last month we went, at my request, to Bassatine. Conditions had clearly deteriorated. Walls had been removed, originally to facilitate construction of sewage drains from the squatters’ dwellings. But that work was never completed. Sewage water now flows freely, submerging several acres. The place is open to trash, looters and grazing animals.

I walked through the cemetery until I came to the gravesite of Carmen’s mother. The shrubs that had been planted were uprooted and gone. The facing stones were stolen. Saddest of all, the enclosure to the grave itself had been cemented shut. She would no longer be able to visit, but at least no one would be able to do more damage.

“I never come here anymore,” she told me, and I understood why. She now has made one final trip.

We say, in the spirit of Jewish tradition, Yehi zichronah l’vrachah, “May her memory be a blessing.”

If we redouble our efforts to preserve and protect the Jewish heritage of Egypt, if we prevent the further desecration of Bassatine, if we secure the support of friends and allies in this work even in these difficult economic and political times in Egypt, Carmen’s memory will indeed be a blessing.

(Rabbi Andrew Baker is the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs.)

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