New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Mendy Chitrik the Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Turkey since 2003 and chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in the Islamic States since 2019 to ask a few questions about Jewish life and the community in Turkey. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Rabbi, many thanks for your time. Can you tell us about yourself? Why did you decide to come to Turkey and how long have you been here? You were elected in 2019, as Chairman of ARIS (Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States). Can you explain what this organization means to our readers?
Rabbi Chitrik: My wife and I came to Turkey in 2001. We came here per the request of the Turkish Jewish community. We were young people; I was 24, my wife 23, and my son Elie wasn’t born yet. We came to help the Jewish community with education and other projects. Eventually, I started being involved as the Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, as well as running the kosher services that the Jewish community here offers. With time, my job has evolved. I’ve also been chosen to be the chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic State. It’s an alliance of some 55 rabbis in 16 different Muslim countries, and it is our responsibility to these communities to strengthen and give the rabbis the tools needed to strengthen their commitment to their communities. We also lobby on behalf of Jews in Muslim countries to let people know about their existence and to strengthen Jewish life in countries where they don’t have Jewish communities yet.
NYJTG: Can you describe Jewish life and the community in Istanbul? What is the community made up of? and what are its demographics?
Rabbi Chitrik: The Jewish community resembles the ancient community in Turkey and has been in existence for 2,700 years. First, there was the period of the Romaniote Jews in which the Jews of the Roman Empire existed. Then before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, 2,700 years after the Assyrian conquest of Northern Israel, where they brought the Jews into exile into Assyria, all the way as far west as the city of Sardis, which is right off about an hour drive from Izmir, that is the oldest settlement of Jews in Turkey. The Jews of Istanbul itself or Romaniotes Jews, that is Jews from the Roman Empire have lived here for more than 2000 years, and they have always remained here under Byzantine rule and later Ottoman rule. The second Jewish community in Istanbul is the Ashkenazi Jewish community. It’s the smallest one today, and it has been here for some 750 years since the Jews were expelled from Hungary in the year 1250. And some 500 years ago, the Jewish community of Spain was exiled by the Inquisition, and they arrived in Istanbul to become the most dominant Jewish community. Today 95% of the Jews of Istanbul are descendants of those Sephardic Jews who came from Spain to live here. The Jewish community today has a school, a secular Jewish school, and some 15 functioning synagogues open on Saturday. It is not a very religious community. It’s a secular Jewish community, but the services are following the Orthodox Jewish interpretation.
NYJTG: What is the Jewish population in Turkey and where do most Jews live? I heard a range from 22,000 to as low as 16,000 of which 95 percent of Turkish Jews are of Sephardic origin and 5 percent are of Ashkenazi origin. What is the correct estimate? Where does the Jewish population live: on the European side or the Asian side?
Rabbi Chitrik: The Jewish population in Turkey is about 15,000 Jews. About 1,000 Jews live in Izmir and another 500 to 600 Jews are scattered around other cities like Bursa and Antakya and several other cities, and about 13,000 Jews live in Istanbul itself. These are the estimates, although nobody knows the exact numbers. There are a great number of Jewish ex-pats who are coming here; journalists, diplomats, other businesspeople, and young people who find Istanbul to be cheaper than other cities in Europe. Most Jews live on the European side with most of the synagogues. On the Asian side, there are three functioning synagogues, maybe fewer, which are usually open, but most Jews live as I said, on the European side, where there are more synagogues and Jewish centers.
NYJTG: How do the members of the Jewish Community interact, and socialize? Do these social relationships occur within the context of the larger community, for example in schools and universities? I understand that keeping a decent kosher diet in Turkey is not so easy as you don’t have all the kosher ingredients needed in the supermarket that you can find elsewhere. How do you manage?
Rabbi Chitrik: Members of the Jewish community meet and interact at weddings, bar mitzvahs, brises, synagogue services, unfortunately at funerals, and other religious ceremonies. There is also a Jewish club on one of the islands off the coast of Istanbul. Three islands have synagogues where Jews socially interact. They are open during the summer when Jewish members mostly come together and socialize. There is a Jewish club, Buyakata on Princess Island. Unfortunately, there are no Jewish supermarkets and there are no kosher markets. There is a Jewish slaughterhouse, in Istanbul for the Jewish community. Soon there will be a brand new, beautiful kosher restaurant for fine dining which will be of great interest to tourists and locals where they can enjoy kosher Jewish Turkish cuisine
NYJTG: Are there any factories in Turkey that have a Kosher certification? How many are there?
Rabbi Chitrik: There are hundreds of factories in Turkey that have kosher certification. Turkey used to be the breadbasket. If Ukraine was the breadbasket of food in Europe, Turkey today is the breadbasket of Jewish food, where every given day there are hundreds of factories preparing kosher food. More on a commercial scale, there are always religious rabbis to supervise the production of kosher food all over the country. Turkey has been quite successful in capturing this segment of the Jewish community in the manufacturing of kosher food. I am responsible for the kashrut of the Turkish rabbinate for all exports, and it is my responsibility as a representative of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox Union and other cultural organizations to supervise kashrut, for these factories, among other things. We also have a production of local kosher wine, and local kosher Arak because Arak in Turkey is made from grapes and that is why it must require cautious care. Other Arak markets around the world are made from other grains or fruits, and that’s why they don’t require a kosher certification in most cases.
NYJTG: How is the local attitude toward the Chabad and the Jewish community in Istanbul?
Rabbi Chitrik: We’ve been living here in Turkey for more than 21 years and never encountered any direct antisemitic insults or anything like that directed at us in the street. Yes, there are always some, you know, conspiracy theorists who write some things in the newspapers, or on social media. And my son encountered antisemitism from some tourists while we visited the Turkish airport some months ago when he was on the way to New York. He told me it was the first time that anybody has insulted him as a Jew, in his 19 years living in Turkey. So, we have never encountered anything like that. We here at Chabad have an open house where there are some 70 guests every Shabbat, sometimes more, sometimes less. We are always happy to host people for Shabbat, always happy to have people with us here. It is our pleasure and an honor to serve all local Jews as well as tourists and businesspeople who pass by the Jewish community. The Chabad operation is funded by donations coming from passersby and local donors and this is how we are maintained. Chabad here in Turkey may be different than in other countries, it is very much integrated into part of the local Jewish community. I’m a rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jewish community and this is unique and may be an example for other communities: to be always embracing, loving, and united, united in a way that makes us different.
NYJTG: Thank you for your valuable time and for all the information you shared with us. I appreciated it, as will our readers.
For more information:
To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or go to https://www.tga.gov.tr/about-us/
Fly Turkish Airlines – https://www.turkishairlines.com/
To contact Chabad House of Istanbul, Turkey, or to reserve a seat for Shabbat dinner, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ela Turizm – Historical religious tours. – https://www.elaturizm.com.tr/index.aspx
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA)