The great majority of the Jews live in Istanbul. There are also communities in Izmir (2,300) and about 100 Jews in Ankara, Bursa, and Adana. The community is 96% Sephardi. Most members of the Jewish community earn their living as industrialists, artisans and traders. There are also many in the free professions and engineering. About 100 Karaites live in Turkey, but for the most part they do not consider themselves a part of the Jewish community and do not take any part in its activities. Today the Jewish community consists of appromately 18,500 people.
Relics of Jewish settlement in Anatolia from the 4th century b.c.e. have been unearthed in the Aegean region, making the Jewish community in Turkey one of the oldest in the world.
In general the Jews welcomed the military successes of the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries. When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1324, they found a Jewish community that had been persecuted during long centuries of Byzantine rule. Over the next decades, the country became a haven for Jews fleeing repression and expulsion from various parts of Europe, including Hungary, France, Spain, Sicily, Salonika, and Bavaria.
In the liberal atmosphere of Ottoman rule, Jewish activity flourished and many Jews held important positions. Constantinople was the home of great rabbis and scholars and was a Hebrew book-printing center.
The militantly secular regime that emerged out of Turkey’s debacle in World War I was bitterly opposed to religious teaching. As a result, Hebrew was banned until the death of Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk in 1938. Jews were hit hard by various taxes, and their economic situation deteriorated.
Consequently, many Turkish Jews elected to seek their fortunes elsewhere and joined existing Turkish Jewish communities in North and Latin America and in the Land of Israel.
The Jewish community of Turkey is recognized by the state through its chief rabbinate. At its head is the haham bashi, as the chief rabbi is called. The community operates hospitals in Istanbul and in Izmir and also several homes for the aged. There are several youth and family social clubs, and some of these include libraries, sports facilities, and even discotheques.
Newspaper: Şalom (weekly)
Istanbul and Izmir have one Jewish school each. Talmud Torah courses are also provided. A weekly newspaper in Turkish and Ladino called Shalom and a monthly journal in Turkish called Tiryaki keep the Jews informed.
There are 17 synagogues in Istanbul, all but one of which are Sephardi. There are ten synagogues in Izmir and one each in the remaining communities. These are served by five rabbis and cantors, all of whom reside in Istanbul or Izmir. Kosher meat is produced in Istanbul and in Izmir. Although the synagogues are Orthodox, most people tend toward Conservative religious observance.
Israel and Turkey have full diplomatic relations. In addition to the embassy in Ankara, Israel maintains a consulate in Istanbul. Aliya: Since 1948, 61,221 Turkish Jews have emigrated to Israel.
The Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul dates from the early 15th century. Its most outstanding feature is its bima, built to resemble the prow of a ship. Traditions says that its builder was inspired by Noah’s ark or by the ships that brought to Turkey Jews fleeing Spain. Nearly destroyed by fire in the late 17th century, an imperial decree called for its immediate reconstruction. Turkey is also the site of synagogue ruins dating back to the 2nd century b.c.e.
Chief Rabbinate of Turkey
Yemenici Sokak 23 Beyoglu, Istanbul
Tel. 90 212 244 8794, Fax. 90 212 244 1980
Mahatma Gandhi Sok. 85, Ankara
Tel. 90 312 446 3605, Fax. 90 312 426 1533
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database