When the majority of Jewish families in Bahrain fled the country in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Nonoo family stayed – despite the country’s only synagogue being burnt down in the capital city Manama.
Now the new generation of the family is planning to revive the remnants of the declining Jewish community – including the synagogue following the historic normalization between Bahrain and Israel.
Leader of the community Ebrahim Nonoo told Al Arabiya English “the agreement changes everything.”
Despite the historic presence of Judaism in Bahrain, there has not been an acting rabbi in the country for over 40 years.
“We are hoping to create a functioning synagogue with a rabbi,” said Nonoo, a businessman who previously served as the first Jewish member in Bahrain’s parliament.
Bahrain is home to the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf, which numbers about 50 to 60 people. In addition, the Jewish community in the country also includes a number of ex-pats.
“I have a strong feeling that the community will grow now that the normalization is in place,” Nonoo said.
‘Bahrain is home’
While Nonoo and his family could have left the country at any time to become citizens of Israel, they actively chose to stay in Bahrain, where they are citizens.
“I really do consider myself a Bahraini. It wasn’t the Bahrainis that took objection to the Jews after 1948. The backlash was mostly from a group of foreign workers in the country,” said Nonoo, adding that the Bahraini leadership has always protected the Jewish minority.
The Noono family’s decision to stay will now allow Bahrainis who fled to Israel, to return to a welcoming community when the two countries open up tourism.
“Now the children of the Jews who left for Israel will be able to return and visit the houses where their parents used to live,” said Nonoo.
The Jewish synagogue –rebuilt in the 1980’s by his father – is now being refurbished.
“For me as a Jew, it will be a very heartening thing to be a guide for Jewish visitors from Israel,” he said.
Rooted in Manama
In the 1890s, Jewish people from Iraq first began immigrating to Bahrain, drawn by the country’s role in international trade.
One of the immigrants was Noono’s grandfather, one of an estimated 900 Jewish people in Bahrain in the 1920’s.
During this period a Frenchman constructed a synagogue for the Jewish people of Bahrain and put the deed in the name of the “followers of Moses,” according to Nonoo.
Less than thirty years later the synagogue was ransacked and burnt to the ground and its Torah scroll, the Jewish sacred scripture, stolen.
The Torah was returned to the community years later in damaged condition, according to Nonoo, who hopes to use the sacred text in the restored synagogue.
New year, new era
This Friday will mark the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, but Nonoo said it feels like a new era.
“The Jewish community here always felt ‘oh dear, our kids won’t stay here’ – but this changes everything,” he said.
“This allows us to have the ability to educate the kids in Hebrew, to have an active community and synagogue,” he said.
“Hopefully everything will be ready by Purim [a celebratory Jewish holiday] in February,” he added.