We were in the middle of the street, ten or fifteen students huddled together on the median, when the siren began. People got out of their cars and stood, leaning on their bumpers, staring at the sky. All around us, on the sidewalks and in the shop windows, they froze in place. No one moved – no one spoke.
For most young and involved Jews growing up in Israel, Europe or North America a trip to Poland is a formative part of their Jewish journey. In Israel they call it a ‘Tiyul Shorashim’, a trip designed to help you discover your roots.
Although many of my mother’s mother’s family were part of the 98% of Salonikan Jewry murdered by the Nazis, for me personally, these few days to Turkey have been my chance to rediscover by roots.
Pardes in Turkey, March 29th Sunday – With a warm gray sky contrasting the green rolling hills of Istanbul, this morning we headed bleary-eyed and smiling into our final day of this amazing experience. Having said or written tearful goodbyes to our home stay hosts, we returned to our home synagogue of Etz Ahayim to share one last shacharit. The food here has been such a part of our connection, and enjoying a final beautiful and friendly breakfast with our beloved Murat and key community leaders was apropos. We have been treated like royalty, fed and cared for and shuttled from one space to another in caravans of cars, cabs and even buses! The love, friendship and strength of this community is all encompassing and palpable. The air energized, the hearts open, and the conversations dance meaningfully between joy of connection, hope for the future, fear of attrition and fierce determination of spirit. Lingering we hesitated to say good-bye only lehitraot.
Today was our 5th day in Istanbul with the warm and welcoming Turkish Jewish community. For the majority of us, it was our first Shabbat in Istanbul and a rather interesting experience considering that the majority of us were also not familiar with Sephardi prayer services and keeping Shabbat without an eruv. But despite these challenges, we had already proven our accomplishments as a team by successfully dodging crazy Turkish drivers and sticking together in the crowded subways.
After spending a few days getting to know the Jewish community here in Istanbul, we went today to the Jewish old age home, to hear their stories and to sing with them. Although we met one resident who spoke wonderful English and who told us about her studies in America and her time as a high school teacher in Istanbul, we communicated with most of the residents simply by looking into each other’s eyes, a touch of the hand, and a shared Jewish melody. As we traveled singing from one floor to the next, residents heard the guitar and drums and wandered out of their rooms to see what was happening. Some took to the music right away, including one man who quickly scrambled back into his room and came out with a drum of his own to join in on the fun!
Today at 4:55am I was ushered into my day by the Muslim call to prayer from the bed of my home stay in Istanbul. This was the perfect beginning to my day, as I and the whole of our group needed to be ready at 5:30am to board the bus that would take us to the town of Edirne for the grand reopening and rededication of the towns last remaining synagogue. The anticipation and excitement surrounding the day was sharp as we boarded the bus full of eager and emotional community members. Continue reading
The chuppah travels down the isle, carried by the youth of Istanbul. Dozens of people walk with it, surrounding it on all sides as if they would prop it up with their tightly-packed selves – many shoulders for the chuppah to lean on. On each side, the crowd, parted like the Red Sea, stands cheering out and tearing up, hundreds of guests bused in from hours away. Some have just returned to visit their old home after more than thirty years. Some are distant family. Some, including us, are so distant that they don’t even speak the language, but they are still family. The procession moves at a stately pace, accompanied by a dramatically slow, and emotion-filled, rendition of “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.”
Today brought me back to my days as a Nitzanim (4th/5th grade) counselor at Camp Ramah in California. I am not the only one on our trip with youth group leadership experience, so I am sure others felt similarly. We did our best to bring lots of energy to the young Turkish students in order to cultivate within them a love for the Jewish religion and culture. And we heard great feedback from the school, and even from our students’ parents! But this time, far away from sunny Southern California where shuls and day schools are abound, with our students there was a language barrier, cultural differences, and a lack of strong Jewish education outside the razor-wire layered gates and thick steel entrance doors of the school.
At our first Turkey Team meeting, Levi charged us with the magnitude of our trip, pumping us up for what he ensured would be a meaningful, fulfilling, and, yes, exhausting trip. Weeks later, we have arrived — our bags full of lesson plans, song sheets, divrei Torah, and even some Pesach goodies for the Turkish Jewish community.
After a short plane ride, the trip began in true Pardes fashion. As the city of Istanbul whizzed by our van in a whir of bright-colored buildings, mosques, and cloudy mountain views, we engaged one of our young hosts, Gabi, in a conversation about what it is, exactly, we do at Pardes. Gabi was eager to ask, and we were, as always, happy to answer. What kinds of programs are offered at Pardes? Why did each of you choose to take a year of study? What are the benefits of men and women learning Torah together?
My favorite service of the whole year is Hallel, a special service we add to certain holidays and to the seder. Hallel has a strange structure. It starts out by saying we are commanded to praise God. Why would be commanded to praise? Does praise really even count if it is not done by choice? This command is followed by praising God, remembering the Exodus from Egypt, praising God as different from the idols of other peoples, stating that God remembers us and has heard our pleas, and then logically thanking God. Up until here, the service is fairly linear – it follows a logical order.