Under unprecedented security, the Tunisian island of Djerba hosted an annual Jewish pilgrimage on Lag BaOmer, amid raised fears of violence after deadly Islamic terrorist attacks last year scared away visitors.
Soldiers guarded the area in southern Tunisia and special forces carried out checks of vehicles and hotels.
Under a sweltering heat, crowds gathered for ceremonies Wednesday and Thursday at the 2,500-year-old Ghriba synagogue, which was targeted in a 2002 attack. The pilgrimage used to draw huge crowds but security concerns have deterred many people from coming. Still, travel agent Rene Trabelsi estimated 2,000 visitors came this year, including about 600 from abroad and 50 from Israel, despite Israeli government having issued a warning earlier this month advising Israelis not to travel to Tunisia for the event.
Rabbi Raphael Cohen of Safat in northern Israel was among them. In a black suit and long white beard, he praised Ghriba as a “symbol of tolerance and peaceful cohabitation” between Muslims and Jews, and welcomed what he called “a reassuring security presence.”
Knox Thames, special adviser at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, also joined the ceremonies, saying Tunisia should serve as a model for allowing religious minorities to practice freely.
The Ghriba shul is said to have been built around 500 B.C.E. by Jews fleeing the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, on a stone rescued from the Beis Hamikdash itself.
Thousands of Jews gather on the island each year on Lag BaOmer to visit the tziyun of La Ghriba, and the shul named for her. She is considered an important tzaddekes through whom many yeshuos came in the past.
The tradition of the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage is rooted in the ceremony of lighting a lamp in front of the aron kodesh dedicated to the memory of the Tanna Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.
Senior political and religious figures from Tunisia and abroad, including Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi, took part in the opening ceremony Wednesday.
“Tunisia will remain a land of openness, conviviality and joy, despite the challenges of violence and hate,” she said.
The event wrapped up Thursday with the procession of a bronze Torah, candle lighting and a ritual involving placing an egg in a cavity at the shul, with prayers written on the eggshells for those needing yeshuos.
Alice Tal came from Paris this year to offer thanks. “Last year, my daughter left an egg with a marriage wish. Her wish was granted: She is getting married next week!”