In the walled old city of Tripoli, Libya’s independence flag pokes through crumbling buildings and a gang of children wielding toy pistols tear through dusty alleyways.
In these run-down streets stands the empty, faded peach-colored Dar Bishi synagogue.
The interior can only be seen by climbing up the rubble of a collapsed house and the ark, which would normally shelter the sacred Torah scroll, is instead stuffed with a mattress.
The Hebrew inscription above it “Hear, O Israel” is barely perceptible from wear, and empty paint cans are strewn across the floor. The site of the Mikve baths, used once for ritual cleansing, is now a trash dump where stray cats scour for food next to a discarded washing machine as veiled women look on.
Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi said he has dreamed of restoring this synagogue for 10 years, when smoke from New York’s burning twin towers evoked one of the most powerful memories of his Libyan childhood.
The 12-year-old 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 neighborhood.
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. Jewish cemeteries have been razed to make way for office blocks on the coast.
Gerbi says he is the first Jew to return to Libya since the revolt that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in August.
He said he knows this because he negotiated the extraction of the last one — his aged, dying aunt who stayed behind to protect the family treasures — from a hospice in 2002.
Now that Gaddafi is gone, Gerbi wants to help interim Libyan leaders rebuild the lost Libya of his childhood and foster the type of religious tolerance between Jews and Muslims that exists in other parts of the Maghreb such as Morocco.
And he wants the Dar Bishi synagogue to be the symbol of reconciliation between Jewish and Muslim Libyans.