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Jews Celebrate Sabbath in Reopened Synagogue in Egypt

Jews Celebrate Sabbath in Reopened Synagogue in Egypt

Over the centuries, the Jewish nation has had a tumultuous relationship with the land of Egypt. Prior to the Exodus, they were held as slaves by Pharaoh. Hundreds of years later, some returned during the Jewish Diaspora. In the 1956 Suez Crisis, nearly half of the Egyptian Jewish population—totaling about 25,000—was forcibly expelled to other countries. Since then, their numbers have decreased to about 100 in 2018.

Eight years after the Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) Synagogue closed its doors, more than 180 Jews attended Friday evening and Saturday services in a building restored by the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. One of only two synagogues left in Alexandria, Eliyahu Hanavi reopened in 2020 with a weekend-long celebration, coordinated by the Nebi Daniel Association, a group that seeks to uphold Jewish heritage in Egypt. Nearly half a century had passed since the massive synagogue, which seats up to 700, had held so many. In addition, the majority in attendance were not residents but foreign Jews from the United States, Europe, and Israel. Currently, Alexandria is home to only a few elderly Jewish widows, only one of whom was able to attend the weekend’s worship service.

Living History

For the attendees, the weekend was filled with nostalgia, a heightened culmination of tradition and lineage. “We were actually sitting in our fathers’ seats saying a full-blown prayer service,” Nebi Daniel Association board member Alec Nacamuli tells the Times of Israel.

During the Saturday worship service, twelve of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were paraded through the congregation. “The 12 Torah scrolls were in honor of the 12 tribes of Israel,” relates Levana Zamir. As president of the International Association of Jews from Egypt, Zamir traveled from Israel along with 20 other Jews as well as members of her family.

Flanked by her two grandchildren, she adds, “I never imagined I would see my grandson here, holding a Sefer Torah [a handwritten copy of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible], with the tallit [prayer shawl] on his shoulder. I cried, of course, there is so much emotion. It was just like seeing my father there.”

Through these reactions can be seen the priority that’s been placed on Jewish heritage, custom, and family. Certainly, Eliyahu Hanavi has a deep and rich history of its own. The current synagogue has stood since the 1850s, but the original structure actually dated back to the thirteenth century and was destroyed after a Napoleonic invasion.

Though the Jewish people have a hope for their future in Egypt, it seems that they are fighting an uphill battle: Only 15 visas for Israelis wishing to visit the Alexandria synagogue were approved, out of 40 requests. The Egyptian government has also sealed Jewish “community registers” that go back to the 1830s, making them unavailable to scholars and researchers.

“In religious matters they are often the only proof of Jewish identity to enter into a Jewish marriage, determine Jewish lineage or be granted a Jewish burial, especially in the Diaspora,” the Nebi Daniel Association website states. “For historical and genealogical research, the Registers constitute a rare collection covering 150 years of the history of a thriving Jewish community.” For a people whose past is so interwoven with their identity, these community registers are imperative.

Still, the reopening of Eliyahu Hanavi is a step in the right direction. “There is no Jewish life in Egypt,” concludes Zamir, “but I am really happy that Egypt is preserving these monuments because it says we [the Jews] were here, we left traces. These monuments [are] us, our history, our life.”

Sabbath’s Importance Shown

While it may seem odd that so much attention is paid to the renovation and reopening of a single synagogue in a community where there are so few practicing Jews—and little likelihood of a Jewish revival—there is something to be said for remembering one’s history, even if you are the minority.

Since the dawn of Earth, God’s laws have been passed down from generation to generation. Given in written form as the Ten Commandments, they are still to be practiced and upheld today. How ironic, then, that the one commandment that God explicitly told us to remember, the majority of the world has now forgotten.

In the second chapter of Genesis is the account of how God created the Sabbath: “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (vv. 2, 3). In the giving of the Ten Commandments, God instructs us, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. … For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8, 11).

So God designated the Sabbath day and made it holy—sanctified it—for all time. Whether or not we observe the seventh-day Sabbath, whether or not you are in the majority, it is still a day sanctified to God. And it’s one we avoid at our peril.

Then why did God tell us to remember the Sabbath day? Joe Crews explains this in a free, online book called Why God Said Remember. We believe that you’ll learn a lot!

There is merit in remembering our history, yes, but more specifically, let us remember God’s Word, which is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2).

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