These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Turkey 2018: Day 2 — Jewish Unity

Posted on February 22, 2018 by Benji Elson


Today, we met with members of the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey. Unfortunately, we were not able to meet with the chief Rabbi himself, the Haham, as planned due to his being ill (he should have a speedy recovery!). But we did get to meet with four important rabbis of the Turkish community. Each of them is a rabbi of a synagogue and has devoted his life to serving the 17000 member-strong Jewish community.

Meeting them was both very interesting and very inspiring. We spoke of the fabric and texture of Jewish life here, as well as some of the troubles and woes that the rabbis face as Jewish leaders. We also spoke of many of the successful projects that they have created to inspire and strengthen their communities.

One of the main issues that they face is the declining population of active Jewish members. As the years go on, more and more young people leave turkey moving to the US or Europe or Israel in search of a different life, both culturally and Jewishly. This phenomenon has resulted in a minimally active and minimally knowledgeable population of older folk. Their lack of knowledge is due to a 30-40 year period in Turkish history of secularization- when religious expression was frowned upon and religious education- even in the Jewish private school was not allowed. As such, while most of the previous generation that we have met tell us that their parents were quite religious and committed (my host included), they themselves have little Jewish education or connection.

However, in the past 20 years there has been a resurgence of Jewish life here in Turkey. And these four rabbis are at the heart of it. They work tirelessly to connect the members of their community to Judaism, both spiritually and culturally, through various activities and programs. Each rabbi gives a  weekly Torah class to his congregants,  teaches in the Jewish school, leads Jewish rights of passage and cycle of life rituals, and is active in the thriving JCC-equivalent club..

Perhaps the most inspiring things that I took away from our meeting is the importance of Jewish unity that exists here in Istanbul and Turkey. All the rabbis and all the synagogues work together to improve the Jewish lives of their members. They are in constant connect with one another, often leading activities and events together. The truth is, as they shared, they do not see themselves as each having their own congregations- rather, they see themselves as being the co-rabbis of one united Turkish Jewish community. In fact, their parting message to us was a call to us to always remember how important Jewish unity is. They told us to not see Jews as being a member of this or that denomination, or this or that movement, but rather simply as Jews.

This Shabbat we are spending Shabbat in Rabbi Nafi’s synagogue. People from the various synagogues plan on making the trek to his shul to join us for Shabbat. I look forward to it and to feeling the strong unity of this fascinating Jewish community here in Istanbul.