Istanbul with JDC
This month, I co-chaired a trip to Istanbul, Turkey with 16 young Jewish adults living in the States to learn about the Turkish Jewish community. The trip was organized by the NextGen department of JDC. Unlike most of JDC short-term trips, which are usually for college students, the participants on this trip were either young professionals or in graduate school. Many participants were previously involved with JDC work. Some were Jewish Service Corps Fellows in placements such as Belarus and Ukraine and others had completed JDC short-term service trips in countries such as Argentina and Israel. Many others are now currently involved in Jewish community programs in the States, through fundraising and other Jewish orgs such as the Moishe House. Through this trip, which ended in Berlin on Sunday, we were exposed to a new perspective on Global Jewry in the Diaspora and given the opportunity to build a network among ourselves, sharing our considerable experience with Global Jewish life with one another.
There are over 20,000 Jews living in Turkey today. The majority of Turkish Jews live in the city of Istanbul, the only city in the world that sits on two continents: Europe and Asia. Unlike the Jewish community of Germany, the Jewish community of Turkey is shrinking: emigrating; making Aliyah; disassociating; and aging.
However, Jewish life in Istanbul is vibrant despite being a tiny religious minority. There is a Jewish school, hospital, elderly home, youth center and synagogues. Unlike the States, the Jewish community functions on a system of volunteerism. Almost all of the community organizers we met were volunteers who are also balancing demanding careers. For example, Tuna, who develops Jewish youth leadership programs, is a dentist.
Ami, Director of JDC Turkey and Egypt, who has developed strong friendships and partnerships in the community although he is based in Israel, gave us a great tour of the community. Ami does not speak Turkish, but all of the leaders of the community speak Hebrew and/or English, too. My favorite part of the trip was speaking with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey Izak Haleva. He spoke in Hebrew, and Ami translated. The Rabbi explained that he has very good relationships with Turkish religious leaders from other faith traditions.
Like everyone on the trip, I was not just excited to learn about the Turkish Jewish community, but to also experience Turkish culture in Istanbul! Berlin has the largest Turkish population of any city in the world outside Turkey. In Berlin, I live in one of the most densely populated Turkish areas. On my street, there is a Turkish Market twice a week and we have many Turkish restaurants and fabric stores. I almost had zero culture shock in Turkey because I’m so used to seeing Turkish writing, hearing Turkish and eating Turkish food. I joked that the real culture shock was being around so many Americans again – my gosh, are we loud! And now that I’m back in Berlin, it’s wonderful to talk to all the Turkish Germans about my experience in Istanbul.
On our last night in Istanbul, the Jewish youth center welcomed us for dinner. We were able to talk with many of our peers and enjoy a delicious Turkish feast!
The next day we flew to Berlin together, where the wonderful 2nd part of our experience awaited us – which I can hardly wait to share in my next post!