Egypt's Last Jews Struggle to Preserve Culture

Inside a stone building in downtown Cairo, Magda Haroun gazes at the benches where worshippers used to fill the seats. She is inside the imposing Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue, built around 1900 and modeled after an ancient Egyptian temple. The building is just one of about a dozen synagogues that need restoration.

Wikimedia Commons/Nebi Daniel Association public photo collectionA photo of Rabbin Moshe Cohen's choir taken at Samuel Menashe synagogue in Alexandria sometime before 1967. From a peak of 120,000 faithful in the mid-20th century, Jews in Egypt have dwindled over time brought about by the Egyptian-Israeli war.

As the president of Cairo's Jewish community, Haroun bears the responsibility of being the custodian of Egypt's Jewish heritage. The burden is overwhelming considering there are only six remaining active members in the community — all elderly women, according to AFP.

At her age of 65 and with the Jewish presence almost non-existent in Egypt, she may be the last custodian.

"It's my duty for future generations," Haroun said. Her mother Marcelle, 91, could only weep as she talked about her community's fading past. "According to the stories, Jews lived in Egypt since the pharaohs. Do you want to make centuries of history vanish?" she said.

There were 80,000 to 120,000 Jews in Egypt up until the mid-20th century, informed Haroun, a retired engineer. The community disintegrated during Egypt and Israel's several wars beginning in 1948. Today, there are only 18 Jews left in Egypt, most of them preferring to keep a low profile.

Haroun maintains a register of Jewish sites and antiquities that are for safeguarding. "There is very little I can do, I am all by myself. In two to three years, there will no longer be Jews in Egypt, so it is up to Egyptians who survive us to preserve their country's heritage, because it would be the biggest testament to what a pluralistic, vibrant and colorful society we once were," she said.

Haroun is banking on the government's pledge to take care of Jewish monuments. The Ministry of Antiquities allotted funds for the roof that caved in at a synagogue in Alexandria. "The minister promised me that a museum of civilizations will open, representing all the civilizations of Egypt," she said.