TRIPOLI, Libya -- An exiled Libyan Jew fulfilled his lifelong dream by starting the ambitious project of restoring Tripoli's main synagogue on Sunday, crying as he broke down a concrete wall blocking the entrance and surveyed the damage.
David Gerbi was 12 when he fled with his family to Rome. It was 1967 and Arab anger was rising over the Mideast war in which Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Two years later, Gadhafi expelled the rest of Libya's Jewish small community.
Gerbi returned to his homeland this summer to join the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi and he rode into the capital with fighters as Tripoli fell. He now wants to rebuild the destroyed Dar al-Bishi synagogue in Tripoli's Old City. He began Sunday, sledgehammer in hand, by knocking down the wall blocking the door to the crumbling peach-colored building inside the walled Old City after spending weeks getting permission from Libya's new rulers.
"He tried to eliminate us," Gerbi said of Gadhafi. "I want to bring the legacy back. I want to give a chance to the Jews of Libya to come back."
The Star of David is still visible on the outside walls and inside, faded Hebrew above an empty ark where Torah scrolls were once kept reads "Shema Israel" -- "Hear, O Israel" -- the beginning of a Jewish prayer.
But the floor and upper chambers of the building are covered in garbage -- plastic water bottles, clothes, mattresses, drug paraphernalia and dead pigeon carcasses.
Gerbi has hired a team of residents from the neighborhood to do the cleaning and help with the renovation. That is just the first step. The 56-year-old psychoanalyst has a broader goal of promoting tolerance for Jews and other religions in a new Libya.
The building, which sits in Hara Kabira, a sandy slum that was once Tripoli's Jewish quarter, has most recently been used to house impoverished Libyan families who are no longer there.
Jews first arrived in what is now Libya some 2,300 years ago. They settled mostly in coastal towns such as Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks, Italians and ultimately the independent Arab state that was run by Gadhafi for nearly 42 years.
At it's peak, the community numbered about 37,000 before it vanished.
Gerbi isn't sure how many Jewish properties were confiscated, but he said his next goal is to resolve that issue and build a garden memorial on the site of the former Jewish cemetery, which Gadhafi had covered with high rises and a parking lot.
Most of the other synagogues around the country have either been demolished or put to other uses. Some were turned into mosques.
Gerbi is hopeful about Libya's future, although he has not yet been allowed to join the National Transitional Council as a full representative. Members of the panel that is now governing Libya said he must wait until fighting has completely ended and liberation is declared.
However, he said later Sunday that he had won even more important approval from the neighborhood's main sheik, who also offered him protection.
"My hope and wish is to have an inclusive country," he said in an interview. "I want to make justice, not only for me, but for all the people of Libya for the damage that Gadhafi did."