I left the Grand Hyatt near Taksim Square in Istanbul at 6:40 a.m., in an Uber that took me to the home of Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Chitrik.
The Chitriks are one of those heroic Chabad couples who move to a foreign country, have a large family, and serve their community with unending amounts of love.
When I travel, there are few things I enjoy more than joining the local minyan. I had made up with Rabbi Chitrik, who serves as the rabbi of the Ashkenazi Community and is responsible for the Kashrut division of the Turkish Rabbinate, that I would come to his house at 6:50 a.m. and accompany him to the Jewish school in Ulus, where the minyan would take place.
Upon arriving, I climbed into their minivan together with his two children — Devorah Leah, 9, and Yehuda, 7 — and joined them for their daily ride to school.
As we made the short drive in the rain, I looked out the window trying to take in the sights of Istanbul, making mental notes of the architecture, street signs and restaurant names (I knew there was a Hammurabi Code, but did not know there is a Hammurabi Cafe).
We drove for about a minute when Rabbi Chitrik began his daily routine with his children. For the duration of the 10-minute drive the rabbi and his children recited all of the morning blessings, sang songs and recited verses from the Torah. All by heart.
Can you hear what that sounds like?
“Baruch atah . . .”
It sounds like any daily morning prayer that is chanted in Jewish homes, schools and synagogues around the world. It sounds like the daily thanks we give to our Creator for blessing us with the ability to see and walk and talk and for the wisdom to know the difference between good and evil.
I also grew up saying these blessings at home or while riding my skateboard to school. Only I grew up in Miami Beach. I didn’t go to a school that was deep in a secure compound protected daily by 30 policemen. I didn’t grow up in a country that although once very welcoming to Jews has recently become virulently anti-Israel.
As I listened to the sounds of these familiar blessings, everything that is good and holy and makes me proud to be a Jew seemed to be converging at once:
Our love and dedication to our Father in Heaven, our gift to the world of recognizing our Creator and starting our day with words of appreciation.
Rabbi Mendy’s love for his children, the dynamic of how Judaism has survived, passed down from parent to child.
And finally, the Chitrik family’s history embodies the Chabad weltanschauung of love and sacrifice for Judaism and our people. Last century, his great-grandparents literally sacrificed their lives for our people in the Soviet Union. Now he and his wife live in Istanbul, serving the 14,000 Jews of Turkey.
Dear fellow Jews, brothers and sisters. Take pride in knowing that our love, faith and dedication to bringing light into this world is not just alive and well but thriving in Istanbul.
As I heard Yehuda and Devorah Leah chant along with their dad, I thought to myself: Right now, in this Chrysler minivan, is the secret to our people’s survival.
I saw it. I felt it. I heard it in the Chitriks’ daily morning commute.