Monday, August 8th, 2011...8:10 am
Margalit Rosenthal: Reflections on the Jewish Community of Turkey
There are still Jews in Turkey?
This is a common question I faced when I told people I would be traveling to Istanbul with the JDC, but I only had a very simple answer: yes. I couldn’t really elaborate. Even though I had traveled through Turkey several years prior, it was difficult as a backpacker equipped with only a guide book to find the Jewish community or participate in Turkish Jewish life.
Exploring Turkey (specifically Istanbul) with the JDC proved enlightening and insightful into Turkey’s rich Jewish history, the achievements of its modern community, as well as the issues it may face in the near future. Though the size of Turkey’s Jewish population is up for debate (somewhere between 15 and 20,000 in the country, compared to Istanbul’s general population of 17 million), the culture is rich and relatively thriving, with the next generation ready (and excited) to take the helm as leaders.
As a Jewish communal professional, this trip was more than just meeting Jews from across the globe and getting to know their community. This trip helped me extricate myself from the narrow world of the “American Jewish community” (no matter how large in numbers it is) and see another society and how it functions.
The Jewish community in Turkey is based on a concrete membership model: You are Jewish, you pay ‘taxes’ to the Jewish community, you are a community member, and therefore you can receive the benefits. While this is a model unfamiliar and alien to young Jews in America, there are many things we can learn from it. A prime example is how the 20s and 30s age bracket is so eager to lead their community into the future, to ensure that there is a community in the future. They have a unique feeling of belonging, of being a member, and being proud of that. Not only is their identity alive and strong, but they are actively participating in leadership training programs, including mentoring programs for teenagers.
This excitement, passion, commitment, and dedication are what I grew to admire most. And in my opinion, these are qualities that American Jews not only could use a little more of, but they are also qualities that we should be supporting in all peoples abroad. But I cannot adequately convey this feeling of commitment, you have to hear about it first hand to understand how history has led to the current state of the community and its potential future. Turkish Jews are living in a rapidly changing country and are facing a future of uncertainty. In an increasingly conservative environment with a strained political relationship with Israel, I believe their community not only needs support, but most essentially they need us to care.
On August 10th, New York will host Inside Jewish Turkey: Where East Meets West, an awesome opportunity to sample some Turkish cuisine and hear first hand from someone who grew up in the Jewish community there, as well as a JDC Jewish Service Corps member’s experience living and volunteering there for an extended period of time.
I’m excited to sample a little more Turkish life in America and hear more personal stories, and I hope you’ll join me! Both of our communities have a lot to gain from one another, including a renewed appreciation for the opportunities we each have to be the new leaders of the global Jewish community.