Rambam Shul in Egypt to be Rededicated Next Week


rambam-shul-egyptAndrew Baker reports in today’s New York Times: One of Cairo’s most historic synagogues and a yeshiva, restored by the Egyptian government, is to be rededicated next week. Known colloquially as “Rav Moshe,” the yeshiva was the original study of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, the renowned physician, rabbinic scholar and leader of the Egyptian Jewish community in the 12th century. Accessible only by foot along narrow commercial streets, visitors today enter his yeshiva through the foyer of a 19th century synagogue built in his honor.The 18-month project of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities involved a team of Egyptian experts ranging from art restorers to mechanical engineers at a cost of nearly $2 million. Few people were aware of it until last September when Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities czar, brought reporters to the site. “It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage,” Dr. Hawas proudly declared.

Some of the reporters reacted cynically, suggesting the project was initiated to shore up the candidacy of Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosny, in his unsuccessful bid to head Unesco.

But this was not just any synagogue. Rav Moshe was considered to have special healing powers. One elderly Egyptian Jew now living in Europe told me how his childhood stuttering disappeared after his mother made him spend the night there. His miracle cure was a commonplace experience for many of Cairo’s Jews who sometimes called it the “Jewish Lourdes.”

Not only Jews came to Rav Moshe. King Fuad, who ruled Egypt from 1917-1936, found relief for his ailments after spending a night at the synagogue, although the plaque attesting to his visit has long since disappeared.

In Maimonides’ day, Cairo’s Jewish community was a center of scholarship and commerce, a hub of Jewish life for the entire Middle East.

When Fuad ruled Egypt, more than 80,000 Jews were among his subjects. They were an active, integral presence in the business and cultural life of the country.

But that all changed after Israel’s creation in 1948, and especially after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1953, prompting a mass exodus of Jews. Today’s Jewish population in Egypt is a mere few dozen.

For the past five years, I have met regularly on behalf of the American Jewish Committee with Egyptian officials to press for the preservation of Jewish heritage, which, in addition to Rav Moshe, includes a dozen synagogues and several cemeteries in Cairo and Alexandria. Most are in various states of disrepair. Rav Moshe was a dank and musty yeshiva ravaged by seeping ground water, and a synagogue filled with rubble, its roof open to the sky. The small Jewish community lacks the resources to care for them.

Both Farouk Hosny and Zahi Hawass came to accept the argument that the preservation of Egypt’s rich Jewish heritage was also their obligation. Slowly but quietly – always quietly – they drew up plans for restoring most Jewish religious sites. They even endorsed our proposal that one of the restored synagogues should serve as a Museum of Egyptian Jewish Heritage, a place that would tell of the long, rich history of Jewish life in Egypt.

Only a few knew. Every meeting I had with these Egyptian officials ended with the same admonition – “Please, do not tell anyone.”

Why the secrecy when most governments would want the world to know of such commendable preservation work?

In Egypt, the history of living alongside Jewish neighbors has been replaced with the demonizing of Israel, and often of Jews as well. The historic 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has for too long been ignored by Egypt’s cultural elites who have steadfastly rejected any normalization in relations. Minister Hosny and his colleagues have had reason to fear that Egyptians would react with anger when told of the restoration work.

But the word is out now. And Zahi Hawass, an archeological legend known around the world for touting pyramids and the treasures of King Tut, is now reading up on the deeds of a medieval rabbi. Dr. Hawass promises that six more synagogue buildings in Cairo will be restored within two years. Egypt’s Jewish artifacts will never rival those of the Pharaohs. But reminding today’s Egyptians and others in this troubled region of a time when Jews were a natural part of Egyptian society is important.

It may even be a ray of hope when hope is so hard to find in this region. Maybe there will emerge one more miracle to credit to Rav Moshe.

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Eighty-five comments (and counting) for the story on the gamach for an executed murderer in cold blood, but so far not a single “Torah Jew” has bothered to remark on the wonderful kiddush HaShem in this story.

    What has happened to our senses of middos and proportion?