A glad exodus threatens Syria's Jews


DAMASCUS, Syria -- The living room at midnight was stuffed with neighbors to bid farewell to Jacob Lalo and his family. At 3 a.m. the Lalos would drive to the airport to fly to America.

Some will not be back.

"It's a new life," said Esther Lalo, Mr. Lalo's wife. "Our daughter will be married in New York, and she will stay. Maybe all the young generation will stay. For us . . ." She shrugged. "Who will know the future?"

That is the question for all of this close-knit community of 3,700 Jews, now that Syria has opened its exit doors to them. Syria's president Hafez el Assad removed restrictions in April that blocked Jewish families from leaving the country together.

The action followed a long international campaign by Jewish groups in America, Israel and other countries. Since then, about 750 have left Syria, according to community officials here.

But many of the rest are not sure whether to go. Ironically, they say life is not so bad for Jews in Syria. They are prosperous merchants and businessmen not anxious to abandon their success.

"Am I going to have a house like this in Brooklyn?" asked Jacob al-Bouckai. His home in the Jewish Quarter of Damascus is an elegant 2-story building surrounding a courtyard with a fountain, a lemon tree and canaries.

Yet in the side of the courtyard, there is a chalkboard with English lessons. An instructor comes three times a week to teach the family the language of what is likely to be their next home.

"For each one who travels abroad, I feel they have taken part of my body," says Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, the head of the Jewish community in Damascus. He predicts that all but about 1,000 of the Jews will leave.

Rabbi Hamra said he does not try to dissuade others in the community from leaving; he does not even rule out going himself. But he argues that Jews do not face discrimination now.

"Now we have all our religious rights, our rights to commerce, to traveling abroad," he said. "We are a part of the Syrian society."

They are a very old part. The Jewish community in Damascus is one of the oldest in the world and still numbered 30,000 early this century. But since the formation of Israel in 1948, Syria has become a bitter foe of the Jewish state and Jews have left.

Jewish groups abroad alleged that Syria kept the small remaining Jewish community as a hostage against attack by Israel. Jews traveling abroad had to leave other family members and a large deposit behind as insurance for their return.

Mr. Assad's move now is seen as a gesture to the West, with whom he wants to improve relations. Virtually all the Jews leaving are going to Brooklyn, where there is a large Syrian community and where many already have families. Few have expressed a desire to go to Israel.

Their trip does not have to be one-way: Mr. Assad's order gives Jews multiple-entry passports, allowing them to come and go.

"We actually have better deals than other Syrians," who get only single-trip visas, said Mr. al-Bouckai.

Some Jewish leaders think those who leave will return, once they have tasted the life of an immigrant in New York.

"They think paradise is in Brooklyn," said Nassim Hasbani, a physician and member of the Jewish Committee in Damascus. "I have been there. I don't think so.

"After six months or a year, a majority of them will come back," he predicted. He hopes his own family will be among them: His wife and children have left for New York.

In a cool, elegant synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, Rabbi Hamra leads about 40 men in prayers at the sundown close of the Jewish Sabbath. An old Torah scroll is lovingly removed from behind a blue curtain, and ancient Hebrew prayers roll off tongues with the clip of lifelong familiarity.

When one of the young boys at the service becomes too rambunctious, he is scolded, in quick Arabic.

"Of course, I consider myself an Arab. I'm a Jewish Arab," said Mr. al-Bouckai, who owns two metalworking shops. "I am emotional like Arab people. I like to be with Arab people. We go to Arab weddings and funerals. We live together."

The Jews are not anxious to draw attention to differences in a country where there is deep animosity toward Jewish Israel. The Star of David has long since been removed from each door. Jewish residents pointedly ignore the occasional poster in their quarter lauding the latest Palestinian "martyr" who died in the West Bank or Gaza.

There is a sense of ease in the Jewish Quarter, as residents mix easily with the Iranian Shiite Muslims, the Syrian Sunni and the Palestinians who share the crowded maze of tiny alleys and shops.

"The problem is not political now," said a Jewish merchant who asked not to be named. "The problem is that 90 percent of our relatives are now outside Syria. As more people leave, we will not have a viable community."

The merchant spoke in a metalworking shop to the accompaniment of the tap-tapping of silver being inlaid on an ornate copper plate. The work was being done by Rebecca, a shy 17-year-old who plans to leave for the United States soon.

"My relatives are there, and I heard they have better living conditions there," she said. "My family worries about [the move], but for the future of the children, we have decided to go."

Many of the first to leave have been the families of working class Jews, who labor in the shops of the successful merchants, but do not share their standard of living.

Mr. al-Bouckai, who says he has lost half the 40 Jewish workers in his metalworking factory, acknowledged some responsibility for that exodus. The community leaders have not helped working-class Jewish families with affordable housing in the expensive Jewish quarter, he said.

"If the rich Jewish people in Damascus would have helped the poorer ones, probably they would not have left," said Mr. al-Bouckai.

Shop owners have relied on Jewish labor, and many jobs are filled by Jewish children who work long hours.

Rebecca has been working in the silver shop since she was 14. When she leaves, there is no one skilled to take her place, said the store owner.

The departures also are leaving a social void. Young women who wish to marry have found a paucity of Jewish men. Even before the new regulations, some 300 young women left their families behind to immigrate to New York in hopes of finding husbands.

As younger Jews are drawn to the lure of the United States and families move to give their children more opportunity, the Syrian community here threatens to become one only of the old. As the community dwindles, the religious and social customs that held it together become more difficult to observe. Those who remain are watching anxiously as Jewish butchers close and the three active rabbis in Damascus ponder their own plans.

"The more we lose, the more trouble we have," said Mr. al-Bouckai. "If we need to have a circumcision, who will do it? If we want some people to slaughter for kosher, who will we have?

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