Yes Virginia, There's a JCC in Turkey.
By Jewish News Service
"We have to keep Judaism alive and sparkling. The younger generation is moving away from religion and becoming more secular. So we need some sparks, energy and enthusiasm," says Sami Aztar, a volunteer with the Turkish Chief Rabbinate Foundation - the Jewish Community of Turkey, otherwise known as the Turkish Jewish Community Center or T.J.C.
Aztar, who lives in Izmir, runs a smaller JCC program about a 45-minute plane ride from Istanbul, where two larger JCCs are established. In his town of nearly 4 million people, only about 1,700 are Jewish.
"In the last 10 years, we have had 387 deaths and only 38 births," notes Aztar during a recent interview in Jerusalem. He and his colleague, Tuna Alkan, who volunteers with youths between ages 18 and 35 through the Istanbul T.J.C. network, attended the JCC Global 2015 World Conference from Nov. 3-6. Somewhat isolated as a Jewish community in a Muslim-majority country where they are forced to keep a low profile, Azar says the conference helps her to "feel more motivated... It is very good for us."
The institution of the JCC in Turkey is different than the traditional model in the United States, whose pillars are early childhood, camping, health, and recreation. In Turkey, the JCC is "really the center for the Jews to feel safe and they feel that is their community," explains Smadar Bar-Akiva, executive director of the JCC Global organization in Jerusalem.
Alkan, a dentist by profession, says life is not as bad for the Jews in Turkey as it might appear in the news. "We haven't had anything in the streets in a long time. I feel safe." She also feels that there is a future for Jews in the Muslim-majority country.
"In Turkey, we survive our Jewish life," Alkan says with a smile, taking a trip back in history. Jews have lived in Turkey since Hellenic times. There are several historic synagogues there, including a synagogue in Sardis that dates back to the 3rd century CE.
The majority of Jews arrived in Turkey in 1492 from the Iberian Peninsula, after the Spanish expulsion. Today, there are estimated to be as many as 18,500 Jews throughout the country. The majority of them (17,000) reside in Istanbul. Some 96% are Sephardic and the other 4% are of Ashkenazi descent.
Alkan describes the Jewish community as "traditional," with roughly 5% of the Istanbul community and 10% of the Izmir community identifying as Orthodox. A new program for young adults that Alkan runs is meant to halt a rapidly growing rate of intermarriage. She says there is an intermarriage rate of around 34% in Istanbul.
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