A Glimpse at the Istanbul Jewish Community
Updated: Sep 7
A Glimpse at the Istanbul Jewish Community
By Rabbi Pamela Frydman
(Many of Rabbi Pam's sermons are linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah. This particular sermon also forms the basis of Rabbi Pam’s column in the Times of Israel, entitled, “Calling Courageous Tourists: Plan Your Next Vacation in Istanbul”
I was in Istanbul in August to attend an interfaith symposium. While I was there, I took a half day Jewish Heritage Tour. The tour was a fantastic experience that gave me a bird’s eye view of the magnificence, resilience and challenges of Jewish life in the ancient and modern city of Istanbul.
Istanbul is a beautiful city. It is a city on the water and it is partly in Europe and partly in Asia. Istanbul has three waterways: The Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmara. The Golden Horn is a fjord, or inlet, in the shape of a horn. I think it is called “golden” because of the lovely golden rays of the sun that wash magnificently over the buildings along the shore at sunrise and sunset.
During the Ottoman Empire, the shores of the Golden Horn were populated by Jews from Spain. Over the centuries, many Turkish Jews migrated elsewhere, either to other parts of Turkey or to the west or the east. In the 1950s and 60s, tens of thousands of Turkey’s remaining Jews migrated to Israel. Today, there are five active Sephardi synagogues in Istanbul. The word “Sephardi” is Hebrew and it means “Spanish.” Sephardi Jews are those Jews who ancestors originated in Spain or passed through Spain or adopted the practices of Spanish Jews.
Istanbul’s five active Sephardi synagogues are vibrant. They have services on Shabbat and many have services every day of the week.
In addition to the five active Sephardi synagogues, Istanbul also has a Macedonian synagogue and an Ashkenazi synagogue. The Macedonian synagogue is called the Achrida Synagogue. The Achrida Synagogue was opened in 1430 when the city was still part of the Roman Empire, and still called Constantinople. Twenty-three years after the opening of the Achrida Synagogue, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans and became known as Istanbul. To the best of my knowledge, the Achrida Synagogue has been open continuously since 1430; it is the oldest synagogue in Istanbul. The Achrida Synagogue has a simple elegant design. The sanctuary is in the shape of a rectangle. There is a lovely ark in front and it is replete with Torah scrolls. There is a large ornate bimah in the middle of the room where worship is led and Torah reading takes place. There is also a lovely women’s balcony that encircles the back and sides of the sanctuary. The women’s and men’s sections have upholstered seats. Near the door on the ground level, there is a table covered with a tablecloth. On the cloth are piles of prayer books ready for worshippers when they arrive for services.
Based on what I just said about the men’s and women’s section, you can get the idea that the Achrida Synagogue is Orthodox. In fact, all of the synagogues I visited in Istanbul are Orthodox and the people I met in the synagogues were warm and welcoming.
A short car ride from the Achrida Synagogue is the Ashkenazi Synagogue. The Ashkenazi Synagogue is, literally, called the “Ashkenazi Synagogue.” The Ashkenazi Synagogue was founded in 1900 by Jews from Austria. Over the years, there were also other Ashkenazi synagogues in Istanbul, but they have all closed.
The Ashkenazi Synagogue has very tight security and entering it is a bit of an ordeal. The intense security is for all the right reasons and once inside, the Ashkenazi Synagogue is lovely, warm, and friendly. They have services every day of the year and I attended morning services on the day of my tour. The Ashkenazi Synagogue is built in a rectangle like the Achrida synagogue. It also has a women’s balcony that extends in the shape of a U along the back and going down both sides of the sanctuary. In the men’s section, there is an ark up front filled with Torah scrolls and the bimah is right in front of the ark just like our set up here at Congregation P’nai Tikvah.
When I arrived at the Ashkenazi Synagogue, I was escorted up to the women’s balcony. Toward the end of the service, I came down the stairs and stood at the back of men’s section, hoping to meet some of the locals. The back wall of the men’s section has glass windows and a glass door, which are well inside the strong security doors. At a certain point, the man leading the service spotted me and pointed to me. Within a few seconds, one of the men sitting toward the back came and opened the door. He spoke to me in Turkish, so I don’t know what he said, but he was very warm and kind and he motioned to me to go sit in the men’s section in an area where there were a few empty rows. I sat down, picked up a prayer book and prayed along until the end of the service. Afterward, the men shook my hand and spoke Turkish spoke to me. They were kind and friendly even though we could not understand each another, and they seemed happy I was visiting. A few of the men spoke Hebrew and with their help, I learned more about the Ashkenazi Synagogue and had an opportunity to see the Torah scrolls in the ark.
A few decades back, the neighborhood around the Ashkenazi Synagogue was filled with Jews. Over time, however, the neighborhood changed and it was no longer a safe place for Jewish families, so the Jews moved out. The present members of the Ashkenazi Synagogue drive to synagogue or take public transportation because it is too far to walk. The man who leads the worship, and some of the other members, rent a place near the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays so they can walk to services.
There is one other curious fact about the Ashkenazi Synagogue, which is that, while it is still called the Ashkenazi Synagogue, and while numerous members are Ashkenazi, they no longer having aa Ashkezazi rabbi or worship leader. Instead, they have a Sephardi worship leader who leads the service in nusach Baghdadi, which means that the entire worship is chanted out loud except parts such as the Amidah (silent devotion).
Now I want to talk about Istanbul’s Sea of Marmara. The Sea of Marmara is home to a number of islands. Many Jewish families have summer homes or summer destinations on three of the islands. During the school year, these Jews live in or around Istanbul. When school lets out in June, mothers take their children to their island get away for summer vacation. Husbands tend to stay home in order to work and they join their family on the island on weekends and during their vacations from work. As a result, the three islands each have a seasonal synagogue. During the summer, these seasonal synagogues are open on Shabbat. When the kids go back to school, the synagogues close, waiting for their congregants to return during their next vacation.
As this year’s summer vacation ends, Turkey is looking to attract courageous tourists from around the world who are willing to visit despite the failed coup and the terrorist attacks at the Attaturk International Airport in Istanbul and during a wedding in south eastern Turkey. Because of heightened security in the Jewish community, you must sign up for the Jewish Heritage tour in advance and you must mail or email a copy of your passport in advance. However, these precautions are not related to the latest violence in Turkey. Rather, the precautions date back to the violence that began in 1986 when the Neve Shalom Synagogue was attacked for the first time and 22 leaders and congregants were massacred. Entering the Neve Shalom Synagogue and the adjacent Jewish Museum is like going through airport security, plus you have to leave your ID with the security guard while you are inside.
My connection with the Jewish community began when I attended services at Neve Shalom Synagogue in 1983. It was a lovely service back then. I sat in the women’s section. The women were very friendly, but they only spoke Turkish and Ladino. My languages don’t include either of those, so we smiled at each other a lot and the smiles were our main communication, except for the prayers. When we prayed, we all read and sang together in Hebrew and that felt just like home.
The women in the Neve Shalom Synagogue had one custom I could never figure out, which was that they had little glass jars of spices. The tops of the jars had holes like you would have to pour out the spices to cook with them. The Turkish women invited each other and me to smell the spices. We do that on Saturday night during havdallah, but they were doing it on Friday evening. I never figured out why.
When I attended the Neve Shalom Synagogue back in 1983, there were two cantors who led the service. Those two cantors were killed in the 1986 massacre. It made an indelible impression on me and I have felt a connection with the Neve Shalom Synagogue ever since. I don’t like going to dangerous places, but I do like going to places that were dangerous and seem safe now. If you saw all the security at the Neve Shalom Synagogue, you would know what I mean. It feels safe there now, and the Turkish police and the Jewish community are working hard to keep it that way.
As you may know, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. Approximately ninety-three percent of the population of Turkey is Muslim. I don’t know how it is everywhere in Turkey, but in Istanbul, once a year, the Chief Rabbi, the Chief Catholic Bishop, the Orthodox Patriarch, and the head Muslim Imam all get together for a meeting and sharing about their respective faiths. The meeting is well publicized so citizens can read about it and hear about it in the media. That is one of the activities that helps keep Turkey on a religiously even keel.
Turkey is going through a very difficult time, but Turkey’s Jewish population seems to be doing alright. Let’s hope it stays that way. Kayn yehi ratzon. So may it be. Shabbat shalom.
 In the olden days, Istanbul had many more Sephardi synagogues. The buildings of the old synagogues have either been torn down or put to other use.