ISTANBUL, Turkey — Yoel Ulcer was so set on helping Istanbul’s Jewish community that he could hardly wait to turn 18, when he could join the corps of volunteer guards that stands outside synagogues and Jewish institutions in Turkey’s commercial capital.
Ulcer’s devotion cost him his life: He was one of 25 people, including six Jews, killed in twin suicide bombings at the Neve Shalom and Beit Israel synagogues during Sabbath services Saturday morning.
“The reason that he joined is because he wanted to help us,” said Berk Termin, a friend of Ulcer’s who also is part of the volunteer security group, which is made up of university-aged Jews from the Istanbul community. “He was waiting for this, because he couldn’t join before turning 18. It’s something he wanted to do for years.”
The Jewish community buried its dead Tuesday as an intermittent autumn drizzle turned into a steady downpour.
Armored military vehicles stood guard outside and helicopters flew overhead as an estimated 3,000 mourners gathered in Istanbul’s largest Jewish cemetery.
Among the crowd were survivors of Saturday’s attacks, some of them still in bandages, their faces covered with lacerations.
Over a public address system, the voice of a cantor carried the mournful intonation of a traditional prayer for the dead.
“Throughout time, Jews have been victims of violence and massacres only because they are Jewish,” Turkey’s chief rabbi, Ishak Haleva, told the crowd. “I ask God to come and hold our hands and help us all love each other and help us see human life as something holy.”
Speaking before the chief rabbi, one of the community’s leaders, Izak Ibrahim Zade, told mourners that life must go on despite the community’s tragedy.
“We invite everyone to take on the responsibility to build a better world and a better future for your children,” Zade said. “Please, everyone, think about what we can learn from this, and let us all work together to make this a better world.”
Among the crowd were relatives and friends of the victims, both Jewish and Muslim. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs as well as the Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis of Israel were present.
“Most of us know each other. Many of us are related. We grew up together,” said one mourner, a 49-year-old man who would gave his name only as Nissim. “It hurts. It hurts that people are taken from the world before their time.”
The six Jewish victims, their coffins draped in the red Turkish flag, were buried in a marble-lined memorial plaza holding the graves of the 22 Jews killed in the 1986 terrorist attack on Neve Shalom, Istanbul’s central synagogue.
The Jewish dead were identified as Anna Rubinstein, 85, and her granddaughter Anet Rubinstein, 8; Avraham Idinvarul, 40; Berta Ozdogan, 34; Yona Romano, 50, who died of a heart attack as a result of the bombing; and Ulcer.
Much of the community’s grief seemed to center around the death of Ulcer, 19, who died while standing guard at the Beit Israel synagogue in Istanbul’s Sisli neighborhood.
“We are doing this not for a profession. We are responsible for keeping the Jewish community’s back,” said Ulcer’s friend Termin, 21. “He was also sharing the same idea, because we need to secure each other.”
Like many of the other volunteers, Ulcer was active in the Jewish community’s youth club, where he served as a counselor and was known as an outspoken advocate for Israel, Termin said.
“Every person on the team knew about the danger, but we never went with fear,” he said. “We were doing what we were doing, and we knew that something could happen. We were expecting something like this, but we never thought one of us would die.”
The younger of two children, Ulcer had started to study dentistry this year at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University.
“He was super. He was a like a prince,” Termin said. “He was smiling all the time. He was like that all the time.”
As the coffins were covered with dirt and then flower wreaths, their families moved out of the rain and into the cemetery’s chapel to recite Kaddish.
Sitting outside the chapel, Avraham Darsa, 57, the community’s chief kashrut supervisor, looked out toward the plaza holding the just-buried coffins.
“Life has to continue. We don’t have a choice,” Darsa said. “They blew up the synagogue, but the next day we went to another synagogue to pray. We’re not afraid.’’