Shaanan Scherer

When they kissed my hand in Turkey…

Playing hacky sack with Turkish children in refugee village
Playing hacky sack with Turkish children in Refugee Tent Village. Note Kippa on Shaanan's head.
The 23 Hebrew University volunteers in Turkish Refugee Camp.

Reading about the tragic earthquake in Turkey this past week takes me back to August of 1999, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake killed over 17 000 people and left over 250 000 people homeless. I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the time. Later in September, I heard that a few students were planning on going to Turkey to help out. I had no idea what that meant, but I was very interested. I was 21 years old, had six weeks off of school and heard the calling to join them. I got a few vaccinations, bought my plane tickets to Istanbul and I left during Chol Hamoed Succot. I was travelling with two other volunteers who were Shomer Shabbat. We were able to spend the last days of the Holiday with the Istanbul Jewish community. Earthquakes are an imminent threat there that the shuls there are equiped with  special earthquake helmets under every seat. The Jewish community was very warm and welcoming to the three of us. We had an authentic Jewish Turkish experience with their local cuisines and even sang Ladino songs at the table. We also learned a few words of Turkish which would help us for what was ahead. Merhaba Arkadash means hello my friend and Tesheker Ederum means thank you.

After the chag, we traveled to a city called Adapazari in the central part of the country. Apapazari was one of the worst affected cities and was totally devastated. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw eight story buildings collapsed to rubble under 20 feet high knowing that there were still dead bodies inside. The city’s main mosque was toppled. It was a total shock to see such destruction. We met about twenty other Hebrew University students who had already been there for several days. I spent the next two weeks living in a refugee camp with Turkish families who lost their homes and loved ones. The group of students whom I volunteered with mostly helped by setting up a day camp for the kids, but we were also there to cheer up all Turkish refugees of all ages. To show them that we care and want to help. The residents of this camp lived simple lives. Most have never even been to Istanbul and almost no one had ever left Turkey. The only time they saw non Turkish people was in the movies, so we were like Hollywood celebrities to them. They saw us and asked for autographs, touched us, shouted our names and just gazed at us at any opportunity. We created many fun activities for the kids like tye dying clothes, talent shows, giving out hot chocolate, planting in a garden and my personal favourite playing hacky sack. We had dance parties almost every single night. Our favorites were Michael Jackson and Bob Marley songs which were proven to be universal music.

In 1999, Turkey and Israel had a very strong relationship. Turkey was considered one of Israel’s closest allies in the region. I recently became more observant and didn’t even think twice about wearing my kippa and tzitzit while I was there, despite it being a Muslim country. I had the same conversation over and over again with so many Turkish Muslims I met in the refugee camp. They pointed to my kippa and said “Musliman?”, asking if I was Muslim. I nodded my head no and told them “Yehudi”, I am a Jew. After that, they kissed my hand! How often does a Jewish person openly tell others in a Muslim country that he is Jewish and then get kissed on his hand? The reason why I was given such an honor is because the heroes who saved their lives and dug them out of the rubble after the earthquake were IDF soldiers wearing the Israeli flag on their uniform. The Turkish people associated Jews with Heroes. 

It was an incredible privilege and honor to be the recipient of the tremendous gratitude these Turkish earthquake survivors had for their life saving Jewish heroes. These were gestures which I myself hardly deserved yet I received because I am simply part of the Jewish people. The IDF has been doing this kind of relief aid for disasters worldwide for many decades. Now that the IDF is doing the same for Turkey, they are continuing to be the ambassadors for Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. It is the perhaps the greatest expression of an Am Kadosh and Ohr Lagoyim (A Light Unto the Nations).

About the Author
Rabbi Shaanan Scherer currently lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and 5 children. After spending over a decade living and learning in Israel, Shaanan brings his Israel experience to both his classroom and on his child- centered Israel tours that he guides during winter and summer breaks.
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