BEIRUT: Alex Goldberg was nervous about his visit to Tripoli. He had flown without his kippah, substituting it for what he assured The Daily Star was a “trendy” hat from a London store.
He was nevertheless wary of being recognized as Jewish in a city from which his community had been driven out over the course of the past century. But once he arrived in Lebanon’s second-largest city last month as part of a delegation of religious leaders promoting interfaith dialogue, his initial trepidation started to dissipate.
“It was interesting and actually quite heartwarming to see what I saw in Tripoli, which is religious leaders who openly admitted they didn’t originally trust each other and coming together and actually being friends,” the London-based barrister and Jewish chaplain of the University of Surrey in southern England said.
Judaism is still one of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious denominations. However the community, facing increasing hostility with the proclamation of the state of Israel and subsequent related conflicts, all but disappeared through the 20th century. The exact number of Jews remaining in Lebanon is unknown, but there are no operating synagogues. The Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Downtown Beirut was given a high-profile restoration in 2009, but was never reopened.
Goldberg is not the first rabbi to visit Lebanon since the decline of the local Jewish population: Recently, two American anti-Zionist rabbis visited a former synagogue in Sidon in 2012. However, the delegation told Goldberg he was the first to visit Tripoli in approximately 40 years.
The British religious leader, who had never before visited Lebanon, said he hoped the delegation’s visit would not only encourage understanding between the religious communities in Tripoli, but would help dispel prejudices against Jews. “The actual experience of meeting someone of that faith [is] going to change perceptions and open dialogue,” he said.
That work is all the more important since in the latter part of the 20th century, increasing hostility toward Jews in Lebanon led the vast majority to leave. Goldberg said this development had affected both those who had left their homeland and the country they left behind. “If you don’t have a Jewish community in the midst, that community is spoken about a lot. Then you end up with a mythical Jewish community or a ‘mythical Jew,’” Goldberg said. “The mythical Jew is never the reality.”
The delegation’s visit to Tripoli, which was organized by U.K. charity the Lokahi Foundation, included a meeting with North Lebanon Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar. Goldberg requested a selfie with Shaar, who accepted. The rabbi later published it on his social media accounts.
Goldberg praised the mufti’s apparent willingness to meet a Jewish religious leader, saying, “he’s sent out a message to his own followers that the path of dialogue is the path to peace and reconciliation, however long it takes.” However, when contacted by The Daily Star, Shaar said he didn’t know he had met a rabbi among the delegation. “I heard there were many people coming, including Christians, but I didn’t know that there was a rabbi,” he said.
The rabbi was hesitant to speak to The Daily Star about Lebanon’s troubled relationship with its southern neighbor: “Talking about politics and silos doesn’t seem to bring people together.” He feels instead that his goal is to promote dialogue. “If I start listening to the stories of the other then I can hope to understand where they’re coming from in order to form a common future. Imposing peace from above may happen but I don’t think I’m in a position to do that,” he said.
Goldberg wrote about his trip to Lebanon for London-based newspaper The Jewish Chronicle, and hopes his visit might encourage more Jewish visitors to the country. “What I noticed when I was in Lebanon was that people do talk a lot about my community and they need someone to talk to about it,” he said.
Following the article, Goldberg said he had been contacted by a man who said his family had lived in Lebanon for 300 years, and had expressed a wish that he might one day be able to return to the country.
A trip to Deir al-Qamar had Goldberg daydreaming about reviving the Chouf village’s Jewish community. “I did close my eyes and think, ‘the air is fresh, the place is beautiful, there’s a disused synagogue, why not?’” he said. Additional reporting by Aya Fares