(JTA) — When a security official opened fire outside a Tunisian synagogue during a pilgrimage on Tuesday night, killing two Jewish pilgrims and two security guards, he shattered what was meant to be a day of sacred celebration for the country’s Jews and their compatriots around the world.
The shooting at the synagogue in Djerba, an island in Tunisia, is the deadliest attack on the holy site in more than 20 years. It brought tragedy to a public celebration of Jewish life at Africa’s oldest Jewish house of worship.
Here’s an introduction to the Jews of Tunisia, the annual pilgrimage to Djerba and how the community is reacting to Tuesday’s attack.
Who are the Jews of Tunisia?
Jews have lived in Tunisia since ancient times. Archaeological evidence has shown that there was a Jewish community in the area that once surrounded the Roman city of Carthage, and Jewish life continued to exist there as the territory was conquered by Muslim empires, France and Nazi Germany. During the Holocaust, the Nazis seized Jewish property, put thousands of Jews in forced labor camps and persecuted them in other ways.
Tunisia gained independence in 1956. During and after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, Jews endured an increasingly hostile environment, including antisemitic riots and the torching of a synagogue in Tunis. In the years that followed, the vast majority of the country’s Jews emigrated, shrinking a Jewish population that once may have numbered more than 100,000 to around 1,000-1,500 today.
What is the Djerba synagogue, and why does it host an annual pilgrimage?
Tradition has it that the synagogue on the island of Djerba was founded at the time of the destruction of the First or Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in either 586 BCE or 70 C.E., and contains a stone from the temple. Today the synagogue, which was rebuilt in the 19th century, has rows of benches, brilliant white-and-blue arches as well as an outdoor arcade and other resplendent design features.
The synagogue’s name, El Ghriba, means “the isolated one” and comes from another legend. According to “A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations,” published in 2013, local Jews long ago found the body of a girl who lived and died alone — but whose body was miraculously preserved.
That incident was also the inspiration for the annual pilgrimage on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, which takes place each spring, a little more than a month after the beginning of Passover. Pilgrims who come to the synagogue pray, dance, sing, feast, light candles and write their wishes on hard-boiled eggs.
In the 1990s, the pilgrimage attracted some 10,000 people, according to a report in The Conversation, and attracts thousands today. Since 2011, Israelis have been able to enter the country for the pilgrimage even though Israel and Tunisia do not maintain diplomatic relations. Attendance dipped in the years following the 2011 Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia, and the pilgrimage was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Has the synagogue ever been attacked before?
Yes. In 2002, al-Qaeda set off a truck bomb near the synagogue that killed 20 people, most of them German tourists, about six weeks before the pilgrimage. Tunisia’s government denounced the attack and paid to restore the damage.
How will this attack affect the pilgrimage?
Tuesday’s attack, and the fact that it was perpetrated by a security official, have led to despair among current and former pilgrims to the synagogue. Avi Chana, who has gone on the pilgrimage, told the Times of Israel, “I think it’s a death blow, at least for the foreseeable future, to a beautiful tradition and pilgrimage, and it is causing palpable pain. This is dealing the pilgrimage a mortal blow.” Another former pilgrim opted not to organize a group this year out of fears of an attack.
Tunisian President Kais Saied, who has been accused of gutting Tunisia’s democracy, is seeking to reassure future visitors that the country will be safe, and condemned the attack as “criminal and cowardly.”
“I want to reassure the Tunisian people and the whole world that Tunisia will remain safe despite this type of attempt intended to disturb its stability,” Saied said, according to the Times of Israel.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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