The Prime Minister of Israel and a spokesman for the Israeli army received surprising messages asking for help to save the Jobar Synagogue in Syria.
“If we do not move fast to protect this historical heritage, it will be lost forever” one of the messages read. Surprisingly the sender wasn’t a Jew protecting his place of worship, but a Syrian Muslim – who by simply contacting Israel had placed his life in grave danger.
Although Damascus has 22 synagogues, the one in Jobar is its oldest and most prized – a plaque dates its construction to 720CE (although synagogue itself has been rebuilt several times). It is also of signifance to Judaism as contains a cave where Elijah the Prophet hid to avoid persecution.
Using the name Abbas Abu Suleiman, a Syrian Muslim created a Facebook page and began contacting Jews around the world in attempt to find someone that could intervene and persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt the bombardment of his town – saving both the synagogue and residents of Jobar.
In the early 20th century an estimated 25,000 Jews lived in Syria, but the community fled after being subjected to serious persecution following the birth of Israel. Today just 17 elderly Jews remain.
Early in the conflict Jobar fell under the control of the rebels, opportunist thieves looted the synagogue taking prayer books, scrolls, even the interior doors. In response, local Muslims set up a committee to protect the synagogue, which Mr. Suleiman volunteered to lead. They locked the doors of the synagogue and posted guards outside.
Mr. Suleiman spent the next few months using Facebook to contact Jews in the hope someone could help, including to the Prime Minister of Israel. Sadly most of his pleas went unnoticed.
Incredibly he was able to reach one of the few remaining Jews in Syria, Mr. Amine Helwani who put him in touch with a nephew of the Syrian chief rabbi, Henry Hamra who was now living in America.
Mr Hamra told him “you are doing the best thing anybody could do without getting a reward” and suggested he secure the religious items in a safe house away from the synagogue, which he did.
The ferocity of the civil war reached Jobar that month when the Assad regime launched an alleged large chemical-weapons attack, devastating Jobar and other nearby suburbs. Mr. Suleiman described how many of the locals were killed, including members of his family.
But he continued with his mission to save the synagogue and his neighbourhood.
After months of trying it looked like Mr. Suleiman’s hard work was going to pay off, a group of Jewish leaders were meeting in America to discuss the possibility of intervening. The verdict came as a bitter blow, it was decided the risk was too high as by intervening they could endanger other Jews and religious sites (that could effectively be held to a ransom). Rabbi Abbadie, one of the decision makers, went on to say “I am a Jew, but I realised that plenty of churches have been destroyed, plenty of mosques have been destroyed, so I felt, ‘With what right could I scream foul play while other houses of worship have been destroyed equally?’ “.
With no protection and no government interference, the synagogue was vulnerable. In the spring of this year, a rocket punched a hole in the wall. Mr. Suleiman posted a message on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Facebook page: “It seems like this issue means nothing to you all.”
Then in May the synagogue took a direct hit from a shell. The damage was catastrophic and the synagogue reduced to rubble.
Mr. Suleiman said local residents trawled through the devastation and salvaged what they could. Elijah’s cave was still intact, but not much else was. The safe house where the religious items were stored had also been hit by rockets and while one of the scrolls was burned, most of the prayer books and other religious items were saved (many of them centuries old).
Despite his efforts and the monumental risks taken the synagogue had become another casualty of Syria’s devastating war.
Mr. Suleiman posted pictures of the destroyed stone building on the Facebook page and sent a message to Mr. Netanyahu that linked to pictures of the rubble.
He wrote: “The end of the Jobar synagogue at the hands of Bashar al-Assad.”
The Jewish community has tremendous hakarat hatov (gratitude) for all that Mr Abbas Abu Suleiman risked and even though the synagogue fell, the preservation of its sacramental objects and the incredible bravery Mr. Suleiman displayed is something we are eternally grateful for.
Jazak Allahu Khayran.