Turkey's Incredible Jewish Community

Emma Morgenstern traveled to Turkey with JDC in March 2012.

My first trip to Turkey was in 2009–alone, via an overnight train from Thessaloniki, Greece. When I stepped onto the streets of Istanbul, it was like entering a different world: bustling, crowded, dirty (in the way that’s pleasant to foreigners), women wearing Muslim head coverings. 

My overwhelming feeling after that three-day jaunt was that I just had to come back. 

When I saw JDC, an organization a good friend of mine had been involved in, was offering a trip to Turkey to meet the country’s Jewish community in March 2012, I jumped at the chance.

I felt that same excitement, that frenetic energy, when I arrived in Istanbul with JDC. The windy streets carve out impossible paths in the over-settled hills of the city, which has an official population of ten million, not to mention the masses of people that pour into the city from the surrounding areas every day for work. 

We started off at the Jewish school, supported by the community and the JDC, and met students who were as eager to talk to us as we were to talk to them. And throughout the days we spent in Istanbul, throughout the architectural grandeur and spice markets and seemingly bottomless historical legacy, I couldn’t get enough of the people we met.

Turkey's Incredible Jewish Community

Our JDC group split up among several households for Shabbat dinner, and I went to the apartment of a couple about my parents’ age. The woman heads some of the Jewish youth activity in Istanbul–and she also happens to be the best cook in Istanbul. She had invited some of the high school- and college-aged students we’d met earlier in the week. 

They spoke to us candidly about the issues that face Turkish Jewish youth, specifically the future of the community, and how they can’t be completely open about their Jewish identity. These were sentiments we’d heard from adult leaders of the community as well. Even though the Shabbat dinner was punctuated by these pronouncements, we also were able to hear about the successes and dreams of Turkish Jews, and share our own experiences of Jewish life–and, well, just *life*–in the United States.

 Turkey's Incredible Jewish Community

The trip reinforced the feeling of connectedness to the global Jewish community–the idea that we are responsible for one another, and everyone draws strength, love, and meaning from a supportive community or partnership. The Turkish Jewish community does not, on the whole, struggle financially. But they do struggle with how to maintain their identity, how to create a lasting community that will maintain their history and culture.

In many ways, it’s not unlike the American Jewish community, but perhaps with more urgent circumstances.

If you’re in Boston, I hope you’ll come out to Inside Jewish Turkey for an at-home glimpse of what this community is really like: the people, the culture, the vibrancy, and the reality of their situation.

Turkey's Incredible Jewish Community


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