Jewish Pilgrims Visit Tunisia’s Djerba Island Despite Pandemic
Lag b’Omer pilgrimage taking place under strict conditions after annual rite canceled last year due to coronavirus restrictions
Hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are taking part in an annual pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, as the country faces a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pilgrimage is taking place from April 25 to May 2 to mark the holiday of Lag b’Omer, which falls on Thursday night and Friday. Unlike pre-pandemic times, when thousands of worshipers from around the globe would make the trip, only a few hundred faithful were able to do the same this time around.
Last year the rite was canceled altogether due to the coronavirus.
“In 2021 there have been about 300 visitors, smaller than usual,” Steve Bentzen, CEO of UK-based tour operator Sunny Heart Travel and a specialist on Tunisia, told The Media Line. “There were 5,000 persons in 2019,” he said.
The popular event comes as the North African nation saw a record number of deaths from the coronavirus on Tuesday, according to local media outlets. More than 10,000 Tunisians have died as a result of COVID-19 and a nightly curfew is currently in effect from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. across the country.
The Tunisian government on Wednesday further announced that travelers entering the country will be required to self-isolate for seven days and present two negative PCR tests, the Tunisian La Presse news website reported. Up until this week, tourists visiting the country as part of an organized tour were exempt from quarantine measures.
“The feeling is that tourism in Tunisia will still be hard this summer, as we wait for decisions from governments of volume markets like the UK,” Bentzen said.
Unfortunately, the situation is greatly limiting the number of tourists who can visit; it’s mainly people who are used to traveling here that are coming or those without children
Rene Trabelsi is the owner of Paris-based tour operator Royal First Travel and is currently leading a group of 50 pilgrims on Djerba. Most of the tourists in the group are French Jews.
“It was very difficult to organize because traveling from France is complicated due to ongoing travel restrictions,” Trabelsi told The Media Line. “You need to have a pressing reason to be able to travel. Because this is important, the Ghriba synagogue administrative committee decided to cancel [some events] but to keep the synagogue open for the pilgrims who are here to pray, carry out rituals and light candles.”
Trabelsi, who is Jewish, previously served as Tunisia’s tourism minister. He says that “very strict conditions” are in place for worshippers on the island. In addition to wearing masks, only small numbers are permitted to enter the Ghriba synagogue at a time in order to help maintain social distancing. In addition, nearly all the travelers in the group have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and have undergone PCR testing.
The atmosphere on the island is anything but festive, as the entire country battles a rise in infections.
“We’re waiting for the [third wave] to pass and for better days to come,” Trabelsi said. “Unfortunately, the situation is greatly limiting the number of tourists who can visit; it’s mainly people who are used to traveling here that are coming or those without children.”
He says there are only six hotels open on the island, so “the situation is very complicated.”
According to Jewish oral history, the earliest Jewish settlement on the island of Djerba began with a group of priests from the Temple in Jerusalem. One tradition holds that the priests, also known as Kohanim, settled on the island after the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
The Ghriba synagogue, located in the Jewish village known as Hara Seghira on the island of Djerba, is the oldest in Tunisia. The building that is visible today was built in the 19th century over the site of a Jewish temple believed to have been built nearly 1,900 years earlier.
“Local legends claim that the Ghriba was built in ancient times and incorporates either a door or stones – or both – from the Temple of Jerusalem,” Haim Ghiuzeli, director of the Databases Department at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line.
Because of its rich past, the synagogue has long been a popular pilgrimage destination, especially for Jews of North African descent. It also is still in daily use thanks to an active local Jewish community, which counts nearly 1,200 members.
“Djerba is a popular tourist center; it’s a nice place on the Mediterranean to take a vacation,” Ghiuzeli said. “That has brought prosperity to the place, including to the local Jewish community, which is another reason that the Jews stayed.”