Touring Turkey's Synagogues

Davening on the Bosphorus and Beyond

Worship: Neve Shalom is one of the rare synagogues in Turkey still in regular use.
Chadica/Wikimedia Commons
Worship: Neve Shalom is one of the rare synagogues in Turkey still in regular use.

By Mark I. Pinsky

Published December 21, 2012, issue of December 28, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Leon Elnekave, the affable leader of the dwindling Jewish community of Bursa, Turkey’s old Ottoman capital, met my wife and me on a narrow, cobbled lane and unlocked the black wrought iron gate to the 500-year-old Gerush Synagogue. As he led us into the landscaped courtyard, my wife, Sallie, suddenly began to cry. “I don’t know what it is,” she said, “but I feel like I’ve been here before.” An odd reaction, I thought to myself, for an American woman who converted to Judaism from Presbyterianism in middle age. But immersing yourself in a mystical place like this can provoke unexpected emotions.

My own motivation for the visit was more pedestrian than spiritual: I had a suburban, white-bread, Ashkenazi curiosity about our Sephardic cousins and their exotic history. Not that we overlooked any of the great wonders of Istanbul and Turkey — the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus, the Roman ruins at Ephesus and the cave churches of Cappadocia. Yet in the end it was this Jewish dimension to our itinerary — more than a dozen synagogues in three cities — that enriched and defined our trip last May.

Some years ago, while in Britain, I heard about a book called “The Guide to the Locked Churches of England,” a literary commentary on Europe’s declining worship. A similar book could be written about the synagogues of Turkey. Once there were hundreds of vibrant congregations made up of Jewish goldsmiths, copper and leather workers, commercial traders and diplomats. Today, many of the synagogues are empty, accessible only by appointment with a caretaker.

Turkey’s Jewish population (between 24,000 and 26,000 people) is slowly diminishing as the younger generation moves to the United States, Israel, Europe and Australia. The ruling Islamist government’s shift away from secularism over the past decade has made life uncomfortable, several Jews told me. Another factor accelerating the decline is spillover from Turkey’s diplomatic break with Israel in 2010. That year, eight Turkish nationals and a Turk with a U.S. passport were killed in a clash with the Israeli military on a flotilla bound for Gaza. The event led to some anti-Semitic incidents in Istanbul and other cities.

Even so, Jewish life still exists in Turkey. At least as meaningful as our synagogue visits were our encounters with the Jews who showed us around and with the others we met at the three Sabbath services we attended, whose homes we visited and whose meals we shared.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.