DJERBA, Tunisia — Anticipating the sun’s rapid ascent in the African skies, six barefoot men align themselves early in the morning in a drafty corridor of the still-cool interior of Africa’s oldest synagogue.
Casually humming a biblical hymn in Hebrew, they and an Israeli journalist hold off on holiday prayers in the hope of performing them in a minyan — the quorum of 10 Jewish men that Orthodox Judaism mandates for certain prayers, and a threshold requirement for any viable community.
Members of a dwindling Jewish minority on this Tunisian island, they wait for hours under the ornate arches of the centuries-old El Ghriba Synagogue in Riadh, a town where thousands of Jews once lived but now has only a handful of Jewish families. It will take a while for reinforcements to arrive: three more Jews from Hara Kebira, the last remaining Jewish town in Djerba, located four miles north of the synagogue.
Belonging to one of the Arab world’s few active Jewish congregations, their patience reflects a determination to preserve their ancient tradition in a tight-knit community of 1,000. Many members feel duty-bound to remain on the island even though they can envisage no future here for their children.
“Everybody’s thought about leaving, myself included,” says Ben Zion Dee’ie, a 30-year-old yeshiva teacher who walked four miles to the El Ghriba Synagogue from his parents’ home in Hara Kebira, where nearly all Djerba Jews live. “The economy’s bad, the currency’s plummeting, tourism’s suffering because of terrorism and jobs are scarce and not well paying. It’s not perfect.”
But leaving “would be very difficult,” adds Dee’ie, who comes each year with other congregants to make sure El Ghriba has a minyan. “It feels wrong to leave where my ancestors lived for so many years.”
Nonetheless, various factors, including state-tolerated violence against Jews following Israel’s victory over its neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War, have gradually…