The Race to Save Jewish Heritage in the Middle East

In the early 1900s, nearly 1 million of the world’s estimated 15 million Jews were still living across the Middle East and North Africa. In some countries, only dozens remain.

Libyan Jew David Gerbi prays inside the Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli, Libya on October 1, 2011. Gerbi and his family fled Tripoli in 1967 when an Arab-Israeli war stoked anger against the Jewish state and led to attacks on Jews in his neighbourhood. Gaddafi expelled the rest of Libya's 38,000 Jews two years later and confiscated their assets. Most Tripoli synagogues have since been destroyed or converted to mosques. After returning from exile in Libya, Gerbi attempted to restore it before locals made it clear he was not welcome.
David Gerbi Source: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

On a sunny morning in February 2016, Sami Solmaz, a Kurdish filmmaker from Turkey, took a ride with Kurdish forces from the Iraqi town of Sinjar to the front lines. He spent the day filming gun battles between Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State militant group for a documentary he was making on ISIS attacks against religious minorities. That afternoon, as he was heading back to town, he heard a soldier’s voice crackle over his driver’s radio: “Be careful! ISIS is firing chlorine bombs into Sinjar.”

The militant group had been launching homemade rockets filled with chemicals toward Sinjar since Kurdish forces pushed them out of the town in late 2015. Earlier in February, a chemical attack in Sinjar had left Kurdish fighters sick, and Solmaz knew it was best to stay away. The only problem: His driver’s car was in town, and so they decided to hurry back and retrieve it. “We were only there 10 minutes, but you could smell [the gas],” he tells Newsweek.

On his way out of Sinjar, Solmaz’s face began to swell and his throat started to burn as he drove toward the Iraqi city of Duhok, where he fell into a deep sleep at his sister’s apartment and awoke more than 20 hours later. When he was feeling better, he emailed Jason Guberman, the director of Digital Heritage Mapping, a nonprofit he’d been helping in New York, to apologize for slipping out of touch.

Guberman was relying on Solmaz, an atheist from a Muslim family, to document Jewish heritage sites—from synagogues and cemeteries to ruins of schools, houses and community centers Jews once used in the Middle East and North Africa. For years, his staff and a rotating cast of about a dozen interns and volunteers have been racing to create digital records of Jewish sites. The project’s name is Diarna, which means “our home” in Judeo-Arabic. As wars in the region destroy these sites, Guberman’s team is running out of time.

In his office near Manhattan’s Union Square

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