Help on the way for Iraqs fragile Jewish community

NEW YORK — When the bombs started raining down on Baghdad in late March, most Jewish anxiety was focused on Israel, which had been the target of Iraqi missiles during the first Persian Gulf War.

But for a very small group of Jews in the Middle East, the danger was from American bombs.

Those Jews — the remnants of Baghdad's once thriving Jewish community — are now the focus of a new welfare effort by international Jewish organizations, whose reach is extending into the Iraqi capital for the first time in decades.

Now that the smoke has cleared and Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime is gone, Baghdad's Jews are tasting freedom for the first time.

Many are finding it fraught with peril.

"They're very, very wary," Rachel Zelon, vice president for program operations at the New York office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said upon her return Monday night from a week-long trip to Baghdad.

"They've been alone and isolated for over 30 years, and now all of a sudden people keep knocking on their doors," she said. "They're very reluctant to open up because of the various circumstances that they've lived under for so long."

"They are very secretive about the fact that they're Jewish," Zelon said, from a hotel in Amman, Jordan.

There are at least 34 Jews left in Iraq's capital, about half of them elderly. Long-time residents of the city, many of them are poor and lack basic needs such as clothing, medication and food — not to mention Jewish ritual objects.

Zelon and a senior official from the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jeff Kaye, sought to address those needs in the Iraqi capital last week. Kaye, who is the director of financial resource development and public affairs at the agency, brought the Jews prayer books and tefillin, among other things.

Zelon helped them obtain household items like sheets, towels, clothing and insulin.

While the Jews face no direct threat at the moment, they are laying low. For many families, only their closest neighbors know they're Jews, Zelon said.

Some of those neighbors are Muslim or Christian friends who for years have helped the community's older members survive.

A few, but not all, of Iraq's Jews plan to leave to join relatives in England, Holland or Israel. But it could be a while before they get there: Iraq's Jews don't even have passports.

For now, Zelon said, Jewish organizations will focus on helping the community survive.

World Jewry largely has been powerless to help Iraqi Jews over the past half century. Though Baghdad's lone synagogue, Twigg Avraham, today counts less than three dozen Jews, the city has a rich Jewish history.

Shortly after the war, American forces stumbled upon a treasure trove of Jewish artifacts in the basement of the bombed Mukhabarat headquarters. The basement was flooded, so American authorities froze the objects to protect them from further decay and summoned officials from the U.S. National Archives to deal with the find.

Jewish officials are being briefed on developments, and Kaye and Zelon were taken to view the artifacts while they were in Iraq.

For the time being, the fate of the artifacts, like that of Iraq's Jews, remains unclear.