Syrian Jews see chance for a new beginning Many will leave their homeland to come to the U.S.

October 07, 1992|By Boston Globe

DAMASCUS, Syria -- As twilight settled over the ancient warren of alleyways, men in somber suits emerged from hidden, ornate houses and quickened their pace. Small boys with freshly slicked-down hair ran to ivy-covered synagogues.

The haunting chants of Yom Kippur, when Jews ask forgiveness for the sins of the past year and pray to be inscribed for life in good fortune, soon filled the spice-scented air of Damascus' ancient Jewish quarter, mingling with the muezzin's call to prayer for Muslims.

In Damascus, site of one of the oldest Jewish communities, Yom Kippur took on an especially poignant quality yesterday, because for the majority of Syrian Jews this will likely be the last in their homeland.

"Our community is as old as Damascus itself and now we are seeing it disappear," lamented Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, who presides over the exquisite, ivory and wood Frange Synagogue. "You can't forget the place where you were born, where your family has always lived. There is nothing more basic to life than customs and rituals."

Last April, following years of American pressure and media horror stories, President Hafez Assad lifted travel restrictions on Syrian Jews.

And while the lot of Jews in Syria in recent years has been largely indistinguishable from that of other Syrians, with stories of discrimination and harassment largely relegated to the past, the chance to start a new life in the United States and escape Syria's ubiquitous secret police and an unknown future has been too tempting for most to pass up.

Already, the 4,000-member community has been cut in half as Jews leave daily to join relatives, mostly in Brooklyn, N.Y. By this time next year there will probably be no more than 100 families left to fill the two dozen small synagogues spread through the quarter.

The Jews are not permitted to immigrate to Israel. And while there is a Syrian community in Israel, most still here say they prefer New York anyway because that is where their families are. Jewish organizations offer the Syrian newcomers free food and housing for the first six months but what will happen after that is a subject of much debate.

Because no Syrian is permitted to sell his or her home and take zTC the proceeds out of the country, the Jews who leave simply lock their doors and wonder if they will ever return.

For less well-off Jews, such as Meir Salmom, a 38-year-old tailor with five children, the chance for a new beginning in the United States is irresistible.

He has sold his furniture and his family is flying out on Oct. 20. Mr. Salmon said that if peace came to the region, perhaps some Jews would return.

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