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After making security arrangements (see italicized information below), we attended Friday night services at Bet Israel Synagogue in the fashionable Sisli neighborhood, where many Jews live. On Saturday morning we visited Neve Shalom Synagogue, where most of Istanbul’s Jewish communal events, such as weddings, b’nei mitzvot and brit milah, are held. Unlike many of the older sanctuaries, which are built with the pulpit in the center in the traditional Orthodox style, both of these have rows of pews that face front. The two congregations, both founded in the 20th century, have been targets of horrific terrorist attacks. In 1986, 22 morning Sabbath worshipers were gunned down at Neve Shalom by the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization suicide attackers; in 2003, 20 people were killed in multiple bombings at Neve Shalom and Bet Israel.
Visiting Neve Shalom we saw numerous reminders of the 1986 attack: bullet holes at the base of the black, wrought iron railing around the bimah; a seared marble panel left in the wall near the ark, and a memorial plaque in the lobby. But our hosts there — as elsewhere — also pointed out the menorahs, Torah finials and spice boxes topped with silver and brass crescents and stars, the Turkish national symbol, in gratitude for their hosts’ tolerance and hospitality.
After a spirited Sephardic service, we were invited to a Kiddush luncheon at Neve Shalom’s social hall, where we feasted on local cuisine — including lox — and got a spontaneous lesson on the history and state of the Istanbul Jewish community by some of its most prominent members.
Our next stop was the Ahrida Synagogue, built in 1460 and named for its founders’ home village in Macedonia. The building is tucked away in the warrens of Istanbul’s Balat section; our taxi driver had to stop four times for directions, and even then he mistakenly drove us to an Orthodox Church, St. Stephen of the Bulgars. Ten minutes late for our appointment, we rang the bell at the synagogue gate, and then pounded on the door, but no one answered. The cranky caretaker, we later figured out, had been watching us from the street without identifying herself. Two days later, we had better luck when we started out earlier and joined several guided groups.
Once we made it to the synagogue, we eavesdropped on tour guide Erol Mofola’s excellent commentary and marveled at the marble floor, tiled walls and the famous wooden bimah in the shape of a ship’s prow — either a reference to Noah’s Ark (said to have landed on Turkey’s Mt. Ararat) or, more likely, to the ships that brought many members of the community from Spain. The community’s folklore includes fanciful tales of desperate Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition being rescued from Andalusian beaches by a daring Ottoman admiral. One of the things that Erol did not mention was that this was the only Turkish synagogue that allowed the preaching of Sabbetai Zvi, the infamous 17th-century false messiah who later converted to Islam to save his life.