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Through the Turkish Jewish Community office, we arranged to meet local caretaker Leon Elnekave and visit Bursa, a city of two million, across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul. Leon unlocked the city’s two surviving synagogues, Gerush and Mayor. In addition to Turkish and Ladino, Leon speaks Spanish and Hebrew, so we were able to communicate. He briefed us on the city’s Jewish history, dating back to the early 14th century, when the Ottomans captured it from the Byzantines and gave the Jews there permission to rebuild their synagogue in what would become their quarter.
Gerush Synagogue was established in 1494, and survived the city’s catastrophic earthquake of 1855 with the loss of just a few of its red roof tiles. From the central dome hangs a crystal chandelier that lights the bimah. In a small side room are ancient texts in Hebrew, Spanish and Ladino, and pottery and delicate silk embroidery done by women of the congregation.
At both Gerush and up the lane at the Mayor Synagogue, founded by immigrants from the island of Mayorca, there is a unique architectural flourish: Above the back entrance to the sanctuary is a small, narrow balcony — a pulpit in the air — flanked by two narrow stairways. The balcony, which extends, tongue-like, from the wall, is used only on High Holy Days and special occasions.
Gerush hosts services only occasionally, and at Mayor, the only ritual observed is the washing of the dead. In any event, there are just a handful of older Jews left in Bursa; even Leon’s own son has migrated to Israel. He fears that soon — in spite of 2,500 years of tolerance and hospitality — there may be no Jews left.
Longtime religion writer Mark I. Pinsky is the author of “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed” (Westminster John Knox, 2006).
Security is a serious issue with Turkish synagogues, so there are no spontaneous visits. Well before you go, you (or your tour company) need to contact the Turkish Jewish Community (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com), fill out and return a security form, send a photocopy of the front page of your passport and wait for a response. When you arrive, make appointments for each visit or service. Hospitality does tend to be spontaneous and spur-of-the-moment. There are numerous Jewish heritage tours in Istanbul and Izmir, although fewer than before the Gaza flotilla incident and the U.S. recession, which impacted American Jewish tourism. We regretted missing the highly regarded Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, which is not far from the Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul.