Istanbul is a beautiful city. It is a city on the water and it is a city that 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 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 Jews migrated to Israel. Today, there are five active Sephardi synagogues in Istanbul. Additional Sephardi synagogues have closed. In many cases, the buildings have been torn down or put to other use. However, the 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 in Istanbul, there is also 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 was still called Constantinople. 23 years after the Achrida Synagogue opened, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans and it soon became known as Istanbul. To the best of my knowledge, the Achrida Synagogue has been open continously since 1430 and 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 aron kodesh 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.
A short car ride from the Achrida Synagogue is the Ashkenazi Synagogue, which is called, “Ashkenazi Synagogue.” The Ashkenazi Synagogue was founded in 1900 by Jews from Austria. Over the years, there were also other active Ashkenazi synagogues in Istanbul, but those other synagogues have closed.
The Ashkenazi Synagogue has very tight security and entering is a bit of an ordeal, but the 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, and 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 of the Ashkenazi Synagogue, there is an ark up front filled with Torah scrolls and the bimah is right in front of the ark.
When I was visiting, 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 a section 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, all the men shook my hand. Those who only spoke Turkish spoke to me and were kind and friendly even though we could not understand each another. They seemed happy I was visiting. A few of the men spoke Hebrew and with their help, I learned more about the congregation and had an opportunity to see the Torah scrolls in the ark.
The most amazing things I learned about the Ashkenazi Synagogue and its neighborhood are that there used to be many many Jews living there who attended services. Over time, the neighborhood changed and it was no longer a safe place for Jewish families, so the Jews moved out. Many of today’s Ashkenazi Synagogue members drive to the synagogue because it is too far to walk from where they live. Some, including the baal tefillah (leader of the worship) rent a place to stay near the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays.
The other amazing thing about the Ashkenazi Synagogue is that while it is still called the Ashkenazi Synagogue, and while numerous members are Ashkenazi, they no longer having a rabbi or worship leader who is Ashkenazi, so they have hired a Sephardi baal tefillah (worship leader) who leads the service in what I would call Nusach Baghdadi, which means that almost the entire worship is chanted out loud except parts such as the Amidah (silent devotion) and Tachanun (penitential prayers). I really enjoyed the service I attended at the Ashkenazi Synagogue.
Going now to the 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 in the Sea of Marmara. These Jews live in or around Istanbul, and 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. These seasonal synagogues are open on Shabbat during the summer months. When the kids go back to school, the synagogues close, waiting for their congregants to return during their next vacation.
Are you enticed? Go to Turkey! They would love to see you! Turks are out on the streets going to and from work, and shopping and visiting when they are not at work. It is not a depressive environment; just the opposite. It is a lovely vibrant environment, albeit one where people are careful about what they say lest they be taken into custody for opposing the government. But from the point of view of tourism, the shop keepers and hotel and restaurant owners would love to see you and treat you to Turkish hospitality which is quite warm and enjoyable in the areas of Istanbul where I visited.
Like Israel after bouts of terrorist attacks, Turkey is looking to attract courageous tourists. If you are a courageous tourist, take a chance, book a trip, and while you are at it, sign up for the Jewish Heritage Tour. Because of heightened security in the Jewish community, you must sign up in advance for a tour of the Jewish sites, and you must also mail or email a copy of your passport in advance. These precautions are not related to the latest violence in Turkey. Rather, it dates 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 Jewish Museum is like going through airport security plus you need to leave your ID with the security guard while you are inside. I’m not telling you that to scare you away, but rather to encourage you. Security at Jewish sites is quite good and all in all, I had a great time in Turkey and I felt quite safe notwithstanding the news. You might just have a good time too.