Special to the JTA Beginand the Jews of Alexandria
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Special to the JTA Beginand the Jews of Alexandria

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“You will have to ask the permission of President Sadat to take this book with you,” Clement R. Setton, president of the Jewish community of Alexandria said to Premier Menachem Begin as he handed him an old Torah, property of the Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue here.

Setton was serious. The Torah, which he gave as a gift of the community to the Premier of Israel is one of some 20 still kept by the Jewish community here, the symbolic remains of a once great community of 100,000 Jews. Those books are considered antiquities, and by law they cannot be given away without the specific permission of the government.

Begin arrived at the synagogue which is some 200 yards away from the picturesque Mediterranean coast, shortly before his first meeting with President Anwar Sadat last night. He looked relaxed after a lunch break and visibly pleased at yet another occasion to link the State of Israel with the tiny Jewish community of Egypt.

The small Begin entourage arrived at the synagogue, escorted by screaming sirens of the Alexandria police and cheered by the crowds that gathered along the entrance to the synagogue and crowded the balconies overlooking the synagogue and crowded the balconies overlooking the building.


The hall of the beautiful 100-year-old synagogue was packed mainly with reporters, but also the majority of the estimated 250 members of the community. “This is the largest gathering we have ever had,” said Ellie Danon, one of the community’s veterans. “It is even larger than on Yom Kippur.”

The Alexandria community was once one of the better-off and best organized communities in the Mideast, but after three wars between Israel and Egypt it gradually deteriorated to a small number of families, most of them aged. Thus it was not the 90-year-old rabbi who held the services but one of the community’s dignitaries.

There were tears in the eyes of many of the women and the elderly who attended the ceremony. They held hands with Begin, and some of them kissed his hands thanking the Israeli Premier for the moment. Begin, too, was visibly moved when the person saying the mincha prayer reached “Shema Yisrael.” He stood in the front row of the synagogue with Eliahu Ben-Elissar, director general of the Premier’s Office, and Yehiel Kadishai his bureau chief, standing besides him.


Begin thanked his hosts with a brief speech, beginning with “Shehecheyanu vekiymanu lazmanhazeh.” He recalled the role the community had played in ancient times and mentioned the absorption of many of Alexandria’s Jews in Israel “Today I bring with me the most important of the messages — the message of peace. Peace on Israel and peace on out holy country.” He expressed the hope that Alexandria Jews could soon join their families in Israel.

Following his brief speech, Begin went to the platform, kissed the Torah scrolls and once again said “shehecheyanu.” As he came out of the building a pleasant surprise waited for him. As his bodyguards gave the sign for the cars to proceed and the police sirens began to wail the crowd on the street greeted him with chants of approval “Begin, Begin.” Obviously pleased at this first warm welcome by the local people, Begin raised his arms and waved back. His security guards had to pull him back to the car.


Another “security problem” occurred when Leah Mandelbaum, on elderly Jewish resident of Alexandria, made a point of handing Begin two packages, each containing a home baked cake. Mandelbaum, who only recently returned from a brief visit to Israel, arranged with the personal intervention of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, insisted that she be allowed to hand the cakes to Begin personally–without having her packages checked by the police.

Mandelbaum would not accept the explanation that no packages could be handed to the Premier without prior checking. “You know who is Mandelbaum?” she asked the security guards, recounting the history of the Mandelbaum family in Jerusalem in fluent Hebrew. When the guards refused to be convinced, Mandelbaum warned them she would complain to “Ezer Weizman and Arik Sharon who received my gifts without any suspicion.”

The incident was resolved when one of the government Office of Information secretaries took the package and promised to hand it to Begin. Following the synagogue visit. Begin met Sadat at the Maamura Palace in eastern Alexandria.

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