Region’s Oldest Synagogue Represents New Hope for Bahrain’s Jews

Community Role Envisaged to Nurture International Understanding
Houda Nonoo, the first Jewish Arab Ambassador to America (2008-2013). (Supplied)

It was a solemn yet joyful Passover last Sunday for Bahrain’s tiny (just about 35 members) Jewish community which gathered at the newly renovated synagogue in the heart of old Manama Souq to offer prayers. The synagogue, called ‘The House of Ten Commandments’ has been lovingly restored with careful attention to the original architectural details. A rectangular off-white one-storeyed building with wooden arches and traditional mashrabiya facing the exterior and with a serene interior with the palm-thatch effect ceiling typical of early 20th century Bahraini buildings, it symbolises a renewal for Bahrain’s Jews.

SYMBOL OF NEW BEGINNING

It is also the oldest synagogue in the GCC and, with the Jewish cemetery in the Kingdom, it represents a continuum for the Gulf’s only indigenous Jewish community. Built in the 1930s by Iranian Jewish merchant Shimon Cohen and financed by an American jeweller whose name is recorded only as Rosenthal and who came to Bahrain to buy the Kingdom’s famed pearls, it was at the centre of the Jewish business quarter, a thriving market for textiles, pearls and money exchange. Today, that area, Sasa'ah Avenue, is part of the textile market still but much of the bustle has faded.

Its history echoes not only the ebb and flow of the community’s presence in the mosaic of faiths in Bahraini society but also, more recently, it has become symbolic of the new friendship between Bahrain and Israel.

Ransacked in 1947 by mobs protesting the U.N. Partition Plan that recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish States and then twice renovated, once in 1997 and again in 2006, this third and most recent renovation has seen the synagogue once again take its central place in the heart of the community.

EMOTIONAL MOMENT

In June 2019, on the sidelines of the US administration’s economic peace workshop held in Manama, Ambassador Houda Nonoo, who holds the distinction of being the first Jewish Arab Ambassador to America (2008-2013), helped to arrange for a prayer meeting at the synagogue,  led by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and attended by worshipers like Jason Greenblatt, then-US President Donald Trump’s special adviser for Middle East peace; interfaith activist Rabbi Marc Schneier; Middle East scholar David Makovsky; New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger and a handful of Israeli businessmen and reporters attending the conference.

“It was an emotional moment for us all and one that many had not expected to see in our lifetime,” Houda Nonoo told Majalla, “Indeed, the normalization of ties with Israel through the Abraham Accords, one of the most profound ways that this Passover was different from all others is when we say during the Seder, “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim” or “Next year in Jerusalem” - Because of the signing of the Abraham Accords, that dream is now a reality and many of us will spend time next year in Jerusalem.”

INTEGRATING FOR DEVELOPMENT

Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo, the Jewish community’s unofficial leader and President of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) which has been formed in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords which normalized relations between the Gulf Arab countries and Israel, says that although the Bahraini Jews are not a large number, they have always been a part of the Kingdom’s mainstream and entrusted with economic, political and diplomatic roles.

“My father was the first Bahraini Jew to hold political office as a member of the municipal council in 1934,” he told Majalla, “The King of Bahrain, His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has always acted on his vision for inclusive development and in 2001, he appointed me the first Jewish member of the Upper House of Bahrain’s Parliament, the Shura Council.

“Since then, there has always been a member of the Jewish community in the political process – my cousin Houda followed me and later, when she became the first Jewish Arab Ambassador to USA, Nancy Khedouri became Shura Member and she still is one.”

Ebrahim Nonoo, head of Bahrain Jewish community. (Getty)
Ebrahim Nonoo, head of Bahrain Jewish community. (Getty)

INCLUSIVE ROLE

Ebrahim Nonoo says integrating Jews into the political process of the country was a matter of huge significance for the community.

“The broad-minded vision of inclusiveness of Bahrain’s leaders predates the present development of the Abraham Accords and speaks of the essence of inter-faith harmony that the Kingdom practices,” he says, “For instance, at one point, the Jewish community wanted to convert the unused synagogue for another use or give it to charity. However, the government would not allow it. They insisted it remained as a synagogue and Bahrain's Crown Prince and Prime Minister, HRH Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa even offered to pay for the construction of a new synagogue on the same site or give the community a piece of land to rebuild the old synagogue. This attitude has always been is nurtured by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.”

FUTURE FRIENDSHIP

Going forward, the synagogue is expected to play an important role in the renewal of the community’s identity. Houda Nonoo says the open-ness with which Bahrain’s leadership embraced the Abraham Accords is a gift for the future generations.

“We are a very small group – the youngest Bahraini Jews are 10 and 8 respectively and then the next age group is in the thirties,” she pointed out to Majalla, “Now with new climate of Arab-Israeli friendship, we want to get our children who are abroad to come back to Bahrain and once again make their lives in this lovely Kingdom. Moreover, it sets the stage for future generations to understand each other – when our Jewish children learn about Islam and the Arab children about Jewish traditions, it lays the foundation for a better understanding between the people.”

The synagogue will also function as an information and cultural centre to educate the public about the tiny Jewish community in Bahrain. “We plan to have someone full-time present at the synagogue to interact with visitors,” added Ebrahim Nonoo. Once the Jewish cultural centre is operational later this year, the community could also get a full-time Rabbi.

The renovated synagogue in Manama – oldest in the GCC. (Supplied)
The renovated synagogue in Manama – oldest in the GCC. (Supplied)

Bahrain was once home to around 2,000 Jewish families, many having migrated here from Iraq and other countries. As we go to press, Bahrain has also announced the establishment of full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel and Khalid Yousif Al-Jalahama has been named the Bahraini Ambassador-designate to Israel. Al-Jalahama has been Director of Operations in the Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Bahrain’s Deputy Ambassador to America between 2009 and 2013 (co-incidentally when Houda Nonoo was Ambassador)

Shura Council member Nancy Khedouri. (Supplied)
Shura Council member Nancy Khedouri. (Supplied)

“We cannot emphasize enough the historic significance of the synagogue – and amazingly, it seems to have taken centre-stage ever since talks began to normalize relations between Arab countries and Israel,” said Shura Council member Nancy Khedouri.

Ebrahim Nonoo told Majalla that already the synagogue has started attracting international attention. “Many people from our community have moved on and settled all around the world. I know that children of former Bahrain residents would want to come back here and visit to see where their parents and grandparents lived. In addition, we will see tourism from Israel and Jewish groups from all over the world coming here in the months ahead – hotels here are already working on kosher menus and I believe that the synagogue and our cemetery, both of which are the oldest in the GCC, will be part of the tapestry of Jewish life in Bahrain.”