There are conflicting reports over whether the handful of elderly Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt, will be able to attend High Holy Day services beginning Sunday evening. But one thing is clear: any service would be held without a rabbi and cantor and without a minyan of 10 men.
Published reports – subsequently denied – said Egyptian authorities had ordered the cancellation of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services at Alexandria's Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue due to security concerns.
Rabbi Avraham Dayan was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth as saying that he had organized a prayer group of 10 men to travel to Alexandria for the High Holy Days but were informed by Egyptian authorities that the synagogue would closed to groups this year.
Meanwhile, the synagogue’s caretaker, Youssef Gaon, was quoted by a Jewish official as saying prayers would indeed be held on the High Holy Days and that he and others in the community would lead them. But given the small size of the city’s permanent Jewish community – reportedly just four men and 18 women said to be in their 70s and 80s – they will be without a traditional minyan of 10 men.
However, a rabbi was reportedly granted a visa to lead services at a synagogue in Cairo.
The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue is considered one of the oldest active synagogues in the world and the largest in the Middle East. Outside of Israel, the Jewish community of Alexandria is perhaps the Mediterranean’s oldest, dating back to Alexander the Great’s founding of the city in 332 B.C.E. The synagogue was built in 1354 and re-built in 1850 after sustaining damage during the French invasion in 1798. Alexandria was once home to 40,000 Jews. In 1922, Alexandria and Cairo reportedly had a total of 80,000 Jews. However, most Jews left or were forced to leave in the decades after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, questioned why Rabbi Dayan and others had been denied visas.
“At a minimum, Egypt is barring a rabbi and a cantor from conducting services, which shows they are taking every step to reduce the likelihood of real services,” he said. “That indicates clear enmity towards Jews — not concern for Jewish safety, especially when one realizes that under [former President] Hosni Mubarak there were High Holy Day services every year.”
Klein said he would be sending an e-mail and a letter to the White House today [Friday] urging the president to “publicly condemn this and to demand that the extremist Egyptian government allow Jews freedom of worship during this holy season.”
Reflecting on the situation now unfolding in Alexandria, the blogger Elder of Ziyon wrote: “For the first time in some 2,000 years, Alexandria will not have a minyan.”
And Livana Ramez, identified as president of the International Association of Egyptian Jews in Israel, was quoted as saying: “This is the end of Jewish life in Egypt.”