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Muslim locals seek Tunis synagogue revival to honor once vibrant Jewish quarter

The El-Hafsia mosque stands right next door to the old Medina synagogue from the El Hara neighborhood that became part of the El Hafsia neighborhood in Tunis.
Polina Garaev (i24NEWS)
Ben-Gacem estimates the cost of preserving the synagogue at about $60,000, including a library.

An unusual structure stands in the middle of the old town of Tunis: the Medina.

The rounded top floor distinguishes it from the surrounding buildings. It is freshly painted, and a bright blue awning casts shade on a row of cafe tables outside.

Only the side entrance to the building – an old, faded teal-colored door with carvings of a Menorah (the golden six-branched ancient Hebrew lampstand) – hints to the structure’s original purpose: a synagogue belonging to a long-forgotten Jewish neighborhood.

28 synagogues once operated in the Medina of Tunis. Today, with no Jews longer living in the quarter, only two are left standing.

The building housing the cafe in its basement has been vacant for 35 years, while the other was converted to a multipurpose training center operated by the Tunisian Women’s Association.

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But now locals are taking the initiative to restore the buildings to their former glory, turning them into a museum honoring the once-flourishing Jewish community.

110,000 Jews lived in Tunisia prior to the country’s independence from France in 1956. In the capital, one of five residents was Jewish. But hostile policies of the new government and later, backlash over Israel’s military conflicts sparked waves of migration to Israel and France.

Today some 1,500 Jews still live in Tunisia, roughly 300 of them in the capital city. The majority reside in Djerba, an island off the southern cost of Tunisia that is home to the oldest synagogue in Africa.

The Jewish neighborhood in Tunis’s Medina, El-Hara -- founded in the 13th century as a home for Jews from other Tunisian cities, Spain, Italy and the entire Mediterranean -- has become a faded memory.

It was partially destroyed by the French colonial rule that said it required renovation, but push-back from the community and a lack of funds stalled the process before World War II left the neighborhood in shambles. With additional renovations post-independence and again in the 70’s and 80’s, El-Hara got swept up by a larger neighborhood, El-Hafsia.

Polina Garaev (i24NEWS)

The El-Hafsia mosque stands right next door to the old synagogue. Currently, the synagogue looks in
better shape than the mosque, at least from the outside.

Chedly Agrebi converted the Hamam (Turkish bath) in the synagogue’s basement into the cafe he owns today.

“I had to clean, repair and repaint it. I knew it would be a shame to let such a monument waste away and remain in poor condition,” he told i24NEWS. “For 35 years, it was neglected, closed, and ugly inside and out. Now people see that it can be useful for the neighborhood.”

Agrebi imagines the rounded hall above this cafe as a possible event space, a place for weddings and exhibitions.

“Everyone could enjoy this, and obviously most of all, the Jews. They are always welcome. After all, Jews used to outnumber the Muslims in this neighborhood.”

The mastermind behind the plan to establish a Jewish museum in the old synagogue is Leila Ben-Gacem, an entrepreneur promoting various cultural projects in the Medina. She was inspired by a photo exhibit that took place in the Medina in 2016, which documented life in El-Hara.

Polina Garaev (i24NEWS)

“It was the first time I realized the richness of the Jewish community here and of course I was very sad that it’s not there anymore,” she recalled.

A guesthouse owner in her daily vocation, Ben-Gacem decided to commemorate that heritage as an integral part of the Medina history. She aims to create within the synagogue a permanent exhibition of Jewish life in the old city and turn it into a cultural space to debate gentrification trends there.

“In my guesthouse I often got visitors who are Tunisian Jews from El-Hara -- they just come to visit the place where they grew up or to check on a relative still in Tunisia. So I tell them about the project and their reactions are always positive. I put myself in their place: it would be nice to honor the way you grew up, the lifestyle of your childhood -- you don’t want it to just disappear like that.”

Ben-Gacem estimates the cost of preserving the synagogue at about $60,000, including the cost of restoring and digitalizing the books discovered there to create a small library. Currently, the main hurdle is the lack of response from the Jewish community leaders, whose approval is required for the works to begin.

“I wrote an official letter to the Grand Rabbi of Tunis, hoping that he would reply, but he never did,” notes Ben-Gacem with disappointment.

“I tried a few more times through Tunisian Jewish friends, but I’m under the impression that the community officials prefer not to do anything with this space.”

Nevertheless, the locals remain hopeful. “This building represents a big history,” Agrebi agrees. “We can’t just be lazy and neglect this part of our community. The least we can do is to fix it, even if the Jewish community doesn’t maintain it. It is in both of our communities’ interests that this building be maintained. If this structure just decays, it would be a major loss.”

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS's correspondent in Germany.

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