Egyptian Jewish leader buried in rundown cemetery she sought to preserve

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.

Bilboul also pointed to a new documentary playing in Egypt called the "Jews of Egypt" that documents the community and emphasizes how they are part of the country. Recently, a Brotherhood figure urged Egyptian Jews to return home. The film and the comments started an unprecedented public debate about Egypt's Jewish heritage.

The Jewish community largely left more than 60 years ago at a time of hostilities between Egypt and Israel. Estimates say that since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, about 65,000 Jews left Egypt — most of them for Europe and the West. Some settled in Israel.

Their departure was fueled by rising nationalist sentiment during the Arab-Israeli wars, harassment and some direct expulsions by then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Since then, the tiny community has faced popular perception of ties with Israel, seen by Egyptians as their number one enemy.

Weinstein's death was heavily covered in Egyptian newspapers. Morsi, in a statement published in the New York Times, mourned Weinstein as a "dedicated Egyptian who worked tirelessly to preserve Egyptian Jewish heritage and valued, above all else, living and dying in her country, Egypt."

Weinstein had succeeded her mother in 2004 as the leader of the community. Since the late 1990s, the community has had female heads as the male population dwindled.

Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Yaacov Amitai, addressed the congregation, describing Weinstein as a "distinguished character" who managed to protect the Jewish heritage in Egypt.

Bilboul told The Associated Press he hoped Haroun, who chose her sister Nadia as her deputy, will be more "democratic" than Weinstein "who was forced to be an authoritarian entity" operating in the Egypt of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

"She often had very difficult times, and very often lonely times," said Bilboul during the ceremony. "She did so with courage, with intelligence and with a dogged determination."

Haroun has to navigate a complex reality in new Egypt, dealing with the legacy of Weinstein, who operated alone for years, sharing little details of her work.

Haroun also operates in the shadows of her father, Chehata Haroun, one of the most prominent Jewish politicians in modern Egyptian history. A communist and an outspoken anti-Zionist, he defended the community in the late 1940s and beyond against official accusations of being agents to Israel and he insisted on stay in Egypt during the multiple Arab-Israeli wars.

"I want to break the barriers that have been erected between people from different religion and beliefs," said Haroun during the ceremony. "I promise I will take care of all the Jewish heritage and hand it over to the Egyptian people to take care of it. It is their heritage. I want everyone to remember the Egyptian Jews were living in Egypt."