Posted on February 23, 2018 by Nate Swetlitz
In Turkey, the time is different than it is in Israel. It’s not just that it’s an hour later here. In Turkey, we have two days in one.
After one and a half days of experiencing the city of seven hills (imagine a combination of San Francisco for the streets, LA for the traffic, and Haifa for the hills), we started to give back to the Jewish community here in Istanbul. We began the day davening at the school, hearing the 300-year-old deer-skin Torah being leined.
Then we got to the teaching: one 12th grade, two 4th grade, two 5th grade,. One lunch break. For the 12th graders, we go to see how the students connected their own values of Jewish heroism to the story of Purim. We connected with students who were applying to college, who are in the same positions that many of us were many years back when we were in high school.
For the 4th and 5th graders, we danced and we sang. We told the story of Purim. And we talked about the importance of taking off your masks and revealing who you truly were. Esther’s bravery was that she stood up, risked her own life, and embodied her true self. We played charades with the kids, handing out masks for them to wear when they were acting out who they wanted to be. We ended the lesson with a conga line back to their classrooms singing “Mishenichnas Adar!” As we left the classrooms, we heard the students continuing to sing the song, and “Am Yisrael Chai,” which we also taught near the end of the lesson. Later in the day, the earlier classes stood outside the door, asking if they could come in, if they could take the masks home with them.
That was the first day of today—but it was just a bit after noon.
We left the school and headed over to the shore of the Bosphorous to attend a national event commemorating the tragedy of Struma. During World War II, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Romania was denied passage through or docking at Turkey. The ship was forced to turn back to the Black Sea and was sunk by Russian submarines. There was only one survivor of the 762 passengers. The mayor of Istanbul spoke, and the son of the Chief Rabbi of Turkey recited Kaddish d’Rabanan. Standing before the water, with Turkish flags on either side, the son of the Chief Rabbi’s Kaddish served as a stark reminder that no human force, individual or collective, was above the mandate of Gd, was above the ethical injunctions of seeing and treating other people with dignity.
From the service, we visited the Jewish Museum in Turkey and davened in the main Sephardic shul in Istanbul. We then walked over to the elderly home carrying out guitars, flute, triangle, and hand drums, and sang, danced, and got to know the residence of Or Yom. The residents sang along to Ladino songs—Abraham Avinu and Ein Keloheinu—and Hebrew ones—Oseh Shalom, David Melech, Heveinu Shalom Aleichem. After a dinner at the home, we relaxed in a wonderfully graffitied part of town with a few beers and a lot of laughs and l’chaims, taking stock of what we’ve had the fortune to do, and preparing for our second day of teaching! Looking forward to meeting more students and what should prove to be a wonderful Shabbat!