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Egyptian Jewish leader buried in rundown cemetery

Thursday - 4/18/2013, 8:04pm  ET

Mourners carry the coffin of Carmen Weinstein, inside the Jewish cemetery in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Carmen Weinstein, the leader of Egypt's dwindling and aging Jewish community, was well known for her tireless work preserving synagogues and a once-sprawling Jewish cemetery. She died on Saturday, April 13, 2013 at the age of 82. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

SARAH EL DEEB
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- The late leader of Egypt's dwindling and aging Jewish community was buried Thursday in one the oldest cemeteries in Egypt, the once-sprawling burial ground she tirelessly worked to restore but which has now suffered looting and is drenched in sewage water and strewn with trash.

Because of the sewage water that recently seeped up from underground, Carmen Weinstein, who died at the age of 82 in her Cairo home Saturday, was not buried near her mother Esther, but at the other end of the Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine district of Cairo.

As the community's leader for nearly a decade, Weinstein had worked quietly but persistently to preserve Jewish sites in Egypt and the memory of a once thriving community. Numbering tens of thousands in the early 20th Century, only around 60 Egyptian Jews remain in the country, mostly aging women and Jews married to Muslims or Christians -- and "those who choose to remain in the shadows ... Except when death comes calling," as Weinstein once wrote.

Rabbi Marc El Fassi, who held the prayers during the service, called her "wonder woman." Known as a powerful personality, she was able to push officials to restore a handful of Egyptian synagogues and the yeshiva where the 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught, as well as private Jewish properties. She bristled at Jews abroad who treated the community as if it were dying, arguing with Jewish groups that campaigned to take some remaining Torah scrolls out of Egypt.

At a public ceremony in Cairo's downtown Gates of Heaven Synagogue, nearly 100 guests, including a handful of Egypt's surviving Jews, diplomats and Muslim and Christian Egyptians, came to pay tribute to Weinstein, then moved to the Bassatine Cemetery for the burial. The deteriorated cemetery is one of the immediate challenges facing Weinstein successor, attorney Magda Haroun, 60, who was elected to lead the community.

"I asked you to come here to see the dump we will bury her in," said Haroun sharply, addressing the media who joined the mourners at the cemetery.

The cemetery's decline mirrors the dramatic changes Egypt has undergone as its population skyrocketed and poverty grew. On the outskirts of Cairo in an area named in Arabic after the gardens that were once there, Bassatine has over the past decades grown into densely populated slum of tightly-packed redbrick apartment buildings that house poor Egyptians migrating from the countryside.

Since the late 1970s, Weinstein worked to preserve the cemetery from urban encroachment, getting a wall built and succeeding in renovating and cleaning up the ancient site, dating back to the 9th Century. She planted trees and shrubs to beautify the site.

But it has rapidly deteriorated in recent years. A wall was torn down to allow construction of a sewage system for nearby construction but the project was never finished. The wall was never restored and sewage has poured into the site. Residents have dumped trash inside the cemetery, and marble has been stripped from many tombstones.

Rabbi Andrew Baker of the Washington-based American Jewish Committee said he visited the cemetery last month with Weinstein. She confessed to him, "I never come here anymore," reflecting her disappointment at the cemetery's condition, he said.

Baker said he is returning to Egypt in May to discuss with the Egyptian government the condition of the cemetery.

The rise of Islamists to political power, including the election of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has Egypt's religious minorities, including the large Christian minority, nervous about their future. But several at the ceremony expressed optimism that the tone is actually changing in favor of the Jewish community.

Baker acknowledged that the cash-strapped Egyptian authorities may not have the money to spend on new restoration projects of Jewish buildings and synagogues. But, he said, they have an opportunity to "demonstrate a commitment in deed to having respect for other religions" by at least controlling the sewage in the cemetery.

Roger Bilboul, a French Jew of Egyptian origin who heads the Paris-based Nebi Daniel Association for the heritage of Jews of Egypt, said there are hints of an evolving attitude.

"I have been coming to Egypt for 20 years on annual basis. There has never been a time where there has been such an interest in our own Jewish history by Egyptians. That is why I am hopeful this can be a first step to greater things to come," he said.

The new, Islamist-backed constitution enshrines Judaism as one of the country's national religions, along with Islam and Christianity, and directly guarantees the rights of Jews to practice their religion -- in contrast to the previous constitution that didn't mention Judaism.

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