Chicago Jews return to Egypt, en route to Israel

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The JUF delegation visited Cairo’s historic Ben Ezra Synagogue during their mission.

In its first mission to Egypt in three decades, 25 JUF leaders traveled in November to Egypt and Israel.  Led by JUF board member Lisa Rosenkranz and her husband Jeff, the trip included popular tourist sites: the temples of Luxor, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Nile, the Egyptian Museum, the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, and the historic Mena House Hotel where direct Egyptian and Israeli negotiations in December 1977 helped lead to the Camp David Agreement. The visit happened to take place on the cusp of the 40th anniversary-November 19, 1977-of President Anwar Sadat's groundbreaking visit to Jerusalem, that the Israeli Embassy in Cairo marked with a major celebration.

The trip, of course, included substantive Jewish content, like visiting the Ben Ezra shul, one of Cairo's nine-or, depending on whom you ask, 13-synagogues. According to local folklore, it is the site where baby Moses was found floating in the reeds in his basket. Established in the 9th century, Ben Ezra moved to its current location in the 19th Century. Its Cairo Geniza (store room) contained a treasure of 300,000 Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic manuscripts. Among its collection were autobiographical and professional writings of the revered philosopher, physician, astronomer, and Egyptian Jewish community leader Maimonides who lived near Ben Ezra from 1168 until his death in 1204 C.E. 

Egypt's Jewish community has declined from 80,000 a century ago to about 20 mostly elderly today. Accordingly, Ben Ezra, like the country's other synagogues, is now a tourist attraction/museum, not a functioning congregation. But a move is afoot, among the remaining Jews, non-Jews, and the government to secure historic preservation status for those dormant synagogues. The group works out of the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue (Gate of Heaven) where twice a week they gather to learn Hebrew so that they can catalogue the 20,000 books in its basement. They also seek to preserve other sites, including Cairo's Jewish cemetery. For the government's part, earlier this year it announced a $2 million restoration of Egypt's largest synagogue-Alexandria's Prophet Elijah Synagogue (a.k.a. Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue).

The story of Egyptian Jewry is a tragic one. Egypt fought four wars against Israel and even patriotic Egyptian Jews were branded enemies of the state and expelled post 1948. Many who remained chose a low profile. Due to the enduring strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS' on-going attacks in Sinai, many believe Egypt's Jewish heritage would be better protected beyond the country's borders.

There are 17 Jews in Alexandria and six in Cairo. JUF's overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), provides monthly distributions of kosher food and cash assistance for medicines and other basic necessities as Egypt has no state pension system.

The JUF delegation met with Israel's Ambassador to Egypt David Guvrin who had recently returned to his post after eight months away due to security concerns. Highlighting unprecedented security cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo-from Gaza crossings to countering Iran, Hezbollah, and ISIS-Ambassador Guvrin also expressed the frustration many of his predecessors encountered: peace with Egypt is stable and a pillar of Israel's security, but the people-to-people, cultural, and commercial exchanges that elevate a peace from cold to warm still hasn't taken hold.

Our group was hosted for dinner at the residence of the acting U.S. Ambassador Thomas Goldberger. Topics discussed ranged from the importance of Egypt to U.S. interests throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds to the recent U.S. cut in aid to Egypt, and from the embassy's support for Egyptian Jewry to the persistent anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that circulate throughout Egypt. 

Those and other topics-especially Iran-were covered in a meeting at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry with Deputy Foreign Minister and head of its U.S. Bureau, Ambassador Reda Habib Zaki.

It was a jam-packed, enjoyable, and educational 80 hours in Egypt and the group continued onto Israel for an additional wonderful 3-day excursion.

Mission chairs Lisa and Jeff Rosenkranz commented that "Egypt is the latest in a series of JUF trips to Arab countries, including Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. These and other fascinating destinations provide donors with a chance to see first-hand JUF's international reach and to gain an even greater appreciation for the Middle East's complexities and their impact on Israel and the U.S."

Jay Tcath is the executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

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