Syrian Jews Assert Influence in NY and Beyond

The Edmond J. Safra Synagogue located at 11 East 63rd Street. (Photo via Feet in 2 Worlds)

The Edmond J. Safra Synagogue located at 11 East 63rd Street in Manhattan. (Photo via Feet in 2 Worlds)

New York’s growing Syrian Jewish community is making its mark not just on the demographics of the city, but also extending its influence to the Middle East, reports Yael Even Or in an article in Feet in 2 Worlds.

Over the past decade, the community has not just been making efforts to build its institutions in Manhattan but also preserve Jewish legacy in Syria and Lebanon. Most of the Syrian Jews trace their ancestry to the Syrian capital of Damascus or to Aleppo, the largest city in the country and considered the center of Jewish life in the Middle East.

The Syrian Jewish community has traditionally maintained relations with the government in Damascus, which invited 70 members of the community to visit Syria 2 1/2 years ago but it never materialized because of the outbreak of war.

“Yes, we had personal friendships with government officials from Syria,” said the Lebanon-born Rabbi Elie Abadie at his synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “As Jews from Syria we were invited by the Syrian government with open arms.”

A demographic study by the UJA-Federation of New York put the number of Syrian Jewish households in the city at 12,000. In Brooklyn, home to about half of the city’s Syrian Jews, the population is concentrated in Flatbush and Bensonhurst/Kings Bay. Smaller clusters of the community are in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the North Shore of Nassau County.

Manhattan’s Lower East Side was the first home of Jewish immigrants from Syria in the early 1900s. In those days, an area of Lower Manhattan around what would later be the World Trade Center was called “Little Syria.” Syrian Jewish immigrants started relocating to Bensonhurst in the early 1920s after their relations with the Lower East Side’s Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe strained. Some Syrian Jews also put down roots in Deal, N.J.

The community started re-establishing itself in Manhattan after the arrival of 3,700 Jews from Syria between 1992 and 1994.

Ten years ago, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, where Rabbi Abadie is based, was opened. A school for the community was started in 2011. The synagogue was named for a Sephardic Jewish businessman who built a banking fortune in Brazil. His brother Moise Safra is the benefactor of a new community center being built on the Upper East Side.

“As Moise Safra and his children saw that the Sephardic Jewish community is growing here in Manhattan, especially on the Upper East Side, they got together and decided to make a community center. It is something that is really needed,” said Rebecca Harary, executive director of the community center. Harary, who was hired for the project a year and a half ago, says that the property is worth is about $25 million and at least another $25 to $30 million is needed to build the community center that will include a wellness center, swimming pool, kosher café, synagogue and other facilities.

Rabbi Abadie says the community’s migration back to Manhattan started in the 1980s. The exponential growth wasn’t witnessed until 2003 when Abadie and his partners opened the synagogue for the first Shabbat service in which 36 people participated. Today, the number has increased to a few hundred.

“In a sense living in Manhattan gives the opportunity to the people here to hear and be heard, to see and be seen, to participate in the national dialogue and also to contribute to the general Jewish population and the general American society,” he said.

The growing visibility and influence of the community goes beyond the U.S., and into Middle East. The Jews of Lebanon, founded by Jews and non-Jewish Lebanese, has been working for revitalizing Jewish life in Lebanon. Rabbi Abadie, who believes there about 50 Jews in Lebanon today, says efforts are being made to renovate Beirut’s main synagogue.

In Syria, where President Bashar Al-Assad had reportedly agreed in 2011 to the renovation of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries especially in Damascus and Aleppo, war has stalled the restoration efforts. According to some media reports, several Jewish sites have also been destroyed in the ongoing conflict.

“In Syria it’s pretty complicated,” said Rabbi Abadie. “We have to make sure that cemeteries, the synagogues and all communal Jewish property will be preserved”.

Those efforts are not being undertaken with the intention of Jews returning to the Middle East, but to ensure the Jewish legacy in those countries is not forgotten. David Dweck is one of the trustees of the Magen David congregation in Lower Manhattan. The synagogue was founded in 2001 to serve students and young professionals, initially from the Union Square area. It is a young community and the majority, according to Dweck, are not immigrants. “I don’t think our community here in downtown has so many of those connections to the Middle East other than cultural things we’ve taken away. We are immigrants, we are Jewish, we left probably because they were problems over there,“ said Dweck, the grandson of immigrants from Syria.

At the same time Dweck speaks of efforts to bring artifacts from countries in the Middle East to the Unites States, and that many items have already been collected. The next step, Dweck said, is a museum that will open in the near future.

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