December 14, 2018

Operation Passover: Israeli Rabbi smuggles matzah to Syria’s Jews

By the morning of Feb. 19, Rabbi Abraham Haim had collected more than 300 pounds of Jerusalem-made matzah for delivery to Syria. Boxes of the traditional Jewish crackers were stacked up to the ceiling of his cramped apartment in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb of Tel Aviv.

A few days later, the matzah would travel on a plane with the rabbi to Istanbul, Turkey.

And by late March, just before Passover — “God willing,” said Haim — the matzah, repackaged in label-less brown boxes, will have made the journey, through rain and snow, to a Turkish border town near Aleppo, Syria. Turkish smugglers who work closely with Haim then plan to cross into Syria and hand-deliver the matzah to approximately 50 Jews who, according to Haim, still live in the urban center of Damascus. (Others with connections to the Syrian-Jewish community have put its population even lower, at around 20 people.)

Haim makes this Passover mission every year — “and every year, we have a miracle,” he said, sitting at his dining-room table in Bnei Brak. “I’m speaking by phone with these people, and every year, they tell me they got it, that it arrived.”

So far, none of the matzah shipments has been intercepted by Syrian officials, rebels or terrorists. “But every year,” Haim said, “I’m thinking maybe this is the last year.”

Little has been heard from Syria’s Jews since spring 2011, just before anti-government riots broke out and the current civil war began. At the time, Jewish community leader Albert Cameo — then 70 years old and living with his two sisters — was quoted in multiple news stories, commending Syrian President Bashar Assad for his promise to restore Syria’s fleet of historic synagogues. 

Before the war, Cameo was one of about 200 Jews remaining in Syria, according to Bloomberg News. “Morally, I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo told Bloomberg. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”

The prior November, Cameo gave a tour of Damascus’ last active synagogue to a Cornell University student who blogged the encounter. Jacob Arem wrote on the New Voices site that two Syrian guards were on duty at the time to protect the Jewish quarter of Damascus’ Old City. “Cameo has not given up hope of a Jewish resurgence,” Arem wrote — and “to prepare itself, the community has purchased abandoned properties in the Quarter and is preserving them in the hope that Jews could return to Damascus after the signing of regional peace deals.”

In the four years since that visit, huge swaths of Syria have been rendered unrecognizable by relentless crossfire between Syrian forces, rebel fighters and foreign terror groups. More than 200,000 Syrians have died — nearly half of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

And although Damascus hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as Aleppo, there have been reports of heavy fighting at its edges and a suffocating government crackdown at its center. “You cannot begin to imagine what’s going on there,” Haim said.

One sure casualty of Damascus has been the 400-year-old Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the city’s Jobar suburb — considered by some to be the holiest Jewish site in Syria. In 2013, the synagogue’s roof was reportedly blown off and its contents looted. And in 2014, rebel forces provided the Daily Beast with photos of the synagogue in total ruins — shelled to splinters, they claimed, by the Syrian regime, as part of its “scorched earth” policy.

The famous Shrine of Elijah, located in the synagogue’s basement, is now thought to be sealed in rubble. “Big miracles happened in this place,” Haim said. “Now, it’s destroyed.”

A silver platter that Haim says was salvaged from the Jobar synagogue — and smuggled out by one of his men — now hangs in his hallway in Bnei Brak. “I’m not sure what this is, but I know it’s from Eliyahu Hanavi,” Haim said. One of the synagogue’s ancient prayer books, too, is in Haim’s possession — wedged between hundreds of others on his bookshelf, which sags from the weight.

Browsing through digital photos taken by his smugglers inside Syria, Haim stopped on a shot of Jewish community leader Cameo in his Damascus office from a few years back. In the photo, Cameo’s desk is decorated with a Syrian army flag and an intimate photo of the Assad family.

Like most of Syria’s religious minorities, “They have a good connection to the government,” Haim said of Syria’s last Jews. But beyond that, he said, “I don’t know if they’re OK, because we don’t have any real connection to them.”

Boxed in by bombing and shelling, and perhaps afraid of breaking their fragile relationship with the regime, Cameo and his sisters are now difficult to reach by phone. But when Haim called them from his cellphone on Feb. 19, they recognized his number and picked up.

Together, Haim and this reporter spoke to Cameo’s sister Rachel in a combination of Arabic, Syria’s native tongue, and Spanish, a hand-me-down from the Sephardic Jews who fled to Syria around 500 years ago, when they were driven out of Spain.

“It’s cold here. It’s so cold today,” Rachel Cameo said over a shaky connection. Asked if she was safe or if she needed anything, Rachel dodged the questions, clearly uncomfortable. But before she hung up, Rachel did ask about this year’s Passover shipment.

“Will there be cheese?” she pleaded.

Haim silently shook his head, “No.” The cheese wouldn’t stay fresh for the weeks-long trip from Istanbul to Damascus, he later explained. Not wishing to upset Rachel, he didn’t share this in the moment — but he did reassure her that the annual shipment of Passover matzah, both plain and chocolate-flavored, was on its way, along with around 10 bottles of kosher wine. “Thank you, brother,” Rachel answered. (“They are speaking according to what someone listening wants to hear,” Haim explained after he ended the call.)

Haim’s annual Passover shipment costs about $6,000 to purchase and transport —money he collects from donors in the Jewish Diaspora, mainly in Brooklyn and London. 

The rabbi, who is Sephardic with Turkish and Iraqi roots, has watched the paranoia surrounding his Passover operation multiply since 2012, when the civil war intensified. That year, the matzah was delivered via one of Turkish Airlines’ final flights between Istanbul and Damascus. Since then, Haim’s men have had to travel by car, and — afraid authorities might search their phones on the way out — are no longer willing to take photos for him.

They do, however, smuggle out the occasional thank-you letter from Rachel, written in French. “ ‘Pray for us’ — she is saying this every time,” the rabbi said. “‘Please, please pray for us.’”

Haim said residents have refused his offers to try to smuggle out more artifacts, nervous they could get intercepted or stolen. “They have connections in the army, but they’re afraid, afraid, afraid,” Haim said.

The small community of Jewish elders has instead chosen to stick out the war and personally guard what’s left of the Jewish-owned infrastructure in Damascus — synagogues, schoolhouses, books, graves.

So, Haim said, the least he can do is help them to uphold kosher law. Along with matzah and wine (and sometimes cheese) for Passover, Haim also sends in an annual load of around 220 pounds of frozen, kosher-cut meat. And every Sukkot, he smuggles in lulavim, etrogim, hadasim and aravot — the four plant species essential to the holiday.

“They are keeping kosher — it’s crazy,” the rabbi said of Syria’s Jews. Perhaps, he added, because “when someone is in trouble, he’s closer to the faith.”