By: Eli Hazan
The Jewish community of Alexandria, numbering (in 1900) 10,000 persons, is governed by an elective body of prominent men called the "Communità." This body numbers sixteen members, four being elected annually to serve for four years; only those contributing to the congregational treasury have the right to elect. The amount qualifying for the voting privilege ranges from £1 ($5) to £10 ($50) annually, according to the circumstances of the individual. The constitution and by-laws of the community are registered with the Austrian government. The Communità has entire control of the finances and affairs of the several congregations, making no distinction between natives and foreigners, or between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. In the year 1899 there were distributed at Passover 1,700 kilos (3,400 pounds) of maẓẓot. The Communità is called upon almost every week to provide means of transport for poor travelers. For such cases of illness as do not need hospital treatment, it maintains in the city a dispensary with attendant physicians.
The revenues of the community are derived from synagogue dues and offerings, burial fees, and the tax on "kosher-meat," as well as from real estate and the dowry tax. All ecclesiastical matters are in the hands of a chief rabbi.
A printing-house was founded in 1874 by Ḥayyim Mizraḥi, from which numerous prayer-books, sermons, and responsa, and many volumes in Arabic and Hebrew as well as in European languages have been issued. In equipment and in the quality of its work it bears comparison with the best European presses.
With the exception of the blood accusation of March, 1881 (see Fornaraki Affair), which threatened for a time the peace of the community, the condition of the Jews in Egypt has been very satisfactory. They are under no special restrictions. Their trade is with Europe in general, and with England in particular. Many of them are bankers and capitalists; while merchants, commercial travelers, scribes, and artisans are numerous among them. They are also represented among the lawyers and officials of the courts. The languages spoken by the Jews of Alexandria represent many tongues. They are of various nationalities, and include Syrians, Turks, Rumanians, Russians, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and Frenchmen, with all the diverse characteristics and customs of each nation.
Situated as it is on the Mediterranean highway, Alexandria always has a large transient population of poor Jewish emigrants, going east or west, and these often are a heavy tax upon the resources of the community.Synagogues.
The synagogues are: (1) "Keneset Eliyahu," the most ancient of all, recognized as the synagogue of the community, and so called because it is said that the Prophet dwelt on that spot for some time. In the year 1487 Rabbi Obadiah da Bertinoro visited Alexandria on his journey from Italy to Jerusalem, and referred to this synagogue, stating that there were about twenty-five Jewish families in the city, and two ancient synagogues, in the smaller of which (dedicated to Elijah the prophet) the majority of the community worshiped. About the year 1870, prominent men of the community set about restoring this relic of antiquity; and it is now an elegantly appointed building with marble pillars and pavement, glass windows, and modern sittings. The women's gallery runs round three sides of the auditorium, and the building is situated in a well-kept garden or park. One-storied houses face both sides of the park; and into these sick persons, both Jews and Mohammedans, are taken in the belief that miracles are performed there by the prophet Elijah. This synagogue is well attended by the wealthier portion of the community: on the Day of Atonement as many as five hundred persons worship there. Alongside is a large hall where funeral services are held.
(2) The chief synagogue in Alexandria is known as the "Zeradel." Its antiquity is evidenced by a stone slab inserted in one of its walls, which bears the following inscription in square Hebrew characters: "I, Judah, son of R. Saul of Spain (unto whom be peace), bought this site and built this synagogue for the welfare of my soul and the souls of my family, in the year 1311 after the destruction. . . ." The remainder is obliterated by decay. The lowestline reads: "These pillars and the lintel came from the door of the sanctuary . . . and this is the door . . . to support it upon them . . . for a memorial." A particular treasure of this synagogue is a Hebrew Bible in elegantly written square characters, the work of a veritable artist. Each column or page is surrounded with elaborate ornamentation consisting of the Masorah, both "Great" and "Small," written in the most microscopic Hebrew letters, which are legible only with a magnifying-glass; the readings of Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali are also given. The last page bears the inscription, "The property of David ha-Kohen, called Kutina, 5127" (1367). The name of the writer and date are unknown. There is also a Pentateuch, together with the early prophets, written upon parchment of larger size, of about the same period. Both these valuable manuscripts are jealously guarded, and are taken from the ark only upon the annual festival of the "Rejoicing of the Law," to be borne around the synagogue in the customary Procession of the Scrolls. In 1880 this synagogue was repaired and restored.
(3) A synagogue named "'Azuz"; date unknown, smaller in size than the "Zeradel." In addition to these there are the following: (4) The Franks' (that is, the European Spanish) synagogue, founded in 1840. The building is hired, not owned, by the congregation. (5) A hired room used as a bet ha-midrash (college) and a synagogue by the Moroccan Jews. (6) A bet ha-midrash named after Jedidiah, a former rabbi of the city. (7) The Gohar synagogue founded by Elijah Gohar. (8) Two halls hired by the Ashkenazi Jews for worship according to their own particular rite. (9) The Menasce synagogue, founded in 1878 by Baron J. L. de Menasce: a handsome building with marble ark, pillars, and pavement, costing about £8,000 ($40,000). It is supported by the revenues of two houses set apart by the Baron for this purpose. In 1900 the president was M. Joseph Tilche, who has so carefully managed the funds derived from the synagogue offerings and fees that the interest received from their investment is sufficient to defray the expenses of the school connected with it. (10) A synagogue, projected by Abraham Green, to be erected in a suburb where there has been a steady settlement of Jews for the past twenty-five years. The hall hitherto hired for prayer-meetings becoming too small, M. Green purchased (1900) a site in a suitable location and will erect a building to cost about £5,000 ($25,000).Schools.
The community possesses several schools, but owing to the lack of those conducted upon modern lines, the children of the upper-and middle-class Jews attend the Christian private schools of the city. The most important Jewish schools are (1) that established by Baron J. L. de Menasce at a cost of more than £5,000 ($25,000). This is pleasantly situated in ample grounds. In 1900 it had 160 pupils, who received free education in the Pentateuch and secular subjects. French Arabic (the language of the country), and, of course, Hebrew were taught. The director was Joseph Tilche; and associated with him was M. Solomon Barda. School materials are supplied gratuitously to the pupils, the expenses being defrayed from the receipts of the Menasce synagogue. Needy pupils receive clothing twice a year. (2) A Talmud Torah school, called the Aghion School, established about the year 1880 by the brothers Moses and Isaac Aghion, owing to the fact that the Menasce School was unable for want of room to accommodate all applicants. On the death of these brothers their children set aside 20,000 fr. ($3,900) as a sinking-fund for its support; and Moses Jacob Aghion gave an additional sum of 20,000 fr. for a school for girls. In 1900 there were about 280 pupils, of both sexes, who received free education in religion, Hebrew, French, and Arabic. The salaries of teachers and expenses for materials amount to £880 ($4,400) annually; clothing-supplies, shoes, etc., cost £160 ($800) more. (3) Other small elementary schools teaching the Pentateuch, prayer-book, etc., according to the grades of their pupils. (4) A school established about 1896 by the Alliance Israélite Universelle for boys and girls, at which a moderate charge was made for tuition. In its first year the school was attended by more than 200 boys and 150 girls; but owing to frequent changes in the teaching staff, due to a dearth of capable teachers, the attendance fell rapidly. French, English, and Arabic were taught, as well as Hebrew and religious subjects; the girls were instructed additionally in sewing. A new teacher was secured in 1900; and there was then every indication of a return of the school's original prosperity.Charitable Institutions.
A number of eleemosynary institutions have been founded in the community, and of these the following are the most important: (1) An association, "'Ezrat Aḥim," to aid poor and deserving Israelites, which expends annually £700 ($3,500) in donations of money, flour, and meat. It is supported by 370 members, who contribute three francs or more monthly. The president is Abramino Tilche, and its secretary Ẓemaḥ Amram, a son of Rabbi Nathan Amram. (2) The association "Berit Abraham," founded about 1880, extends assistance in obstetric cases among the poor, who receive medical attendance and small grants of money. It is supported by voluntary contributions. (3) The society "Hakhnasat Orḥim" (Care of Strangers)—founded, 1882, to assist poor travelers: it hires a house as a "refuge" and shelters and feeds them during their sojourn. It was established by subscription, but is now maintained by the Order of B'ne B'rith. (4) The Order of B'ne B'rith, the wellknown Jewish-American order, was established here in 1892, with a membership of 150. It opened a trade-school which, however, gradually declined and has now only a feeble support. (5) In 1885 a Dowry Association was established, to assist eight poor girls annually, with a dowry of 500 fr. ($97.50) each. When the annual outlay of 4,000 fr. ($780) was no longer easily obtained from the membership—though, by reason of the growth of population, the number of deserving candidates had increased—Joseph Tilche and Moses Aziz exerted themselves in behalf of the association, and through a collection amounting to £6,000 ($30,000) provided a fund, the income of which secures every year a donation of £10 ($50) to each of forty maidens on her wedding-day. (6) The Menasce Hospital built by Baron J. L. de Menasce and his brother Felix, in memory of their father, Bechor, is a spacious edifice with ample grounds, situated outside the city proper, in a well-selected location. The building and appointments cost £5,000 ($25,000). Annual expenses are 30,000 fr. ($5,850). It is supported by a one-per-cent tax, levied on all marriage dowries of £100 ($500) and over. An annual entertainment is given in its behalf. The hospital is provided with a dispensary for the poor. (7) A Home for the Aged, devoted in part also to the reception of convalescents from the Menasce Hospital, who frequently need more care and nourishment than their own homes afford. At the laying of the corner-stone of the Green Synagogue, the chief rabbi took the opportunity to urge the attention of those assembled to the matter. A subscription was taken up at once and headed by Baron Jacques de Menasce,the president of the community, who was supported by various other generous members. The sum, which amounted to £1,785 ($8,925), has been augmented by later collections. Aged Hebrews without means of support, as well as convalescents from the hospital, are thus provided for in this real "Home": the former for life; the latter until they have regained their strength.