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Leader of Egyptian Jews Honored at Funeral

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Egypt’s Jewish community was once strong, numbering at its peak about 80,000. On Thursday, a dwindling community held a funeral for its leader at a cemetery she helped save from destruction. Carmen Weinstein died Saturday in Cairo.

Egypt's fading Jewish community has receded even further. Carmen Weinstein, the leader of about 20 elderly women who make up the last of Cairo's once vibrant Jewish presence, was laid to rest Thursday. She was 82.

Rabbi Marc Elfassy, a close friend, came from Paris to remember her and pay homage.

"She gave her heart and soul," said Elfassy. "It was her son, her children - the association of the little Jewish community in Cairo."

Funeral services were held for Carmen Weinstein at the Adly Street Synagogue in Cairo, April 17, 2013. (VOA/Y. Weeks)

Funeral services were held for Carmen Weinstein at the Adly Street Synagogue in Cairo, April 17, 2013. (VOA/Y. Weeks)

Elfassy was among friends from home and abroad, including Israel's ambassador and Weinstein's successor as the community's president, Magda Haroun. They gathered at Cairo's Adly Street synagogue.

Mourners hailed Weinstein's “dogged determination” to preserve and protect. Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee:

“She shouldered not just the responsibility of these small number of Jews, but really the heritage that has been the legacy of Jews in Egypt - at its height some 80,000 people, here in Cairo alone, 10 synagogues," said Baker. "This had really been an enormous challenge, even burden, that she undertook.”

Among her successes was pushing for the restoration of the Maimonides Synagogue, named after the great Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. She also help saved a portion of the Jewish cemetery of Bassatine, the only remaining Jewish cemetery in Cairo.

Jewish leader Carmen Weinstein was buried at the Bassatine Cemetary in Cairo, April 17, 2013. (VOA/Y. Weeks)

Jewish leader Carmen Weinstein was buried at the Bassatine Cemetary in Cairo, April 17, 2013. (VOA/Y. Weeks)

But on the day she was buried there, the fortunes of a long-gone community are painfully clear. Graves are defaced for their marble, wild dogs move through the trash.

Weinstein was one of the stubborn few Jews who stayed in Egypt. Many left starting in the 1950s as tensions grew between the new Israeli state and Egypt's government, led by Arab-nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser. By the 1967 Arab Israeli war, very few remained.

For returning Egyptian Jews, this moment was bittersweet. Roger Bilboul, of the Nebi Daniel Association, was a teenager when he left.

“You cannot go back in time," said Bilboul. "You have to accept that things have changed. All you can do is ensure the memories are preserved. And that one will be going forward in terms of making sure that our descendants have a place where they can see where they came from.”

As for the Egyptian Jews who remain, they hope their final days will be peaceful - even as the country has been seized by religious tension.

Bilboul believes there is safety in small numbers.

“It is not worth bothering about such an small, frail, old community," he said.

A small community, but one whose legacy Carmen Weinstein ensured will endure.
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