Turkey's Jewish Future

Jessica Nysenbaum is a co-chair of Inside Jewish Turkey on April 22 in Washington, DC. She recently returned from JDC Entwine's Insider Trip to Turkey.

On my recent JDC Entwine trip to Turkey, no experience was more profound than visiting and getting to know the Jewish community of Izmir.

Izmir, formerly known as Smyrna, is a beautiful city on the Aegean coast where the Jewish population used to number over 40,000 but today is significantly less. This population decline presents the community with many challenges such as keeping synagogues open with declining membership and educating children on their Jewish heritage when their numbers are too small to support a formal school.

Given these realities, you might expect that Jewish identity in Izmir is waning and that visiting the community would be depressing.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

What I saw in Izmir was a Jewish community with an incredible strength and vitality. A community with incredible young leaders who willingly gave up their free time to hang out at the Jewish community center. A community where these same teenagers teach the younger children at Hebrew school, and are excited to spend their summer at a Jewish summer camp in Hungary or traveling to Israel.

And yet many of these same young leaders plan to leave Izmir to fulfill their dreams of attending college abroad in America or going to school in Istanbul. While we understood the aspirations of these young leaders, and I excitably encouraged the young women eyeing my alma mater to apply, hearing their plans was bittersweet.

Our group couldn’t help but talk amongst ourselves about our fears that if the young people of Izmir choose to leave that the community’s ability to survive is imperiled. Coming to terms with this reality, that the Jewish community of Izmir may not always physically be there, led me to an even greater appreciation of the work JDC does to help sustain and build Jewish identity and community around the world. JDC is helping give these young people choices. For those who want to stay in Izmir, they have a strong and active Jewish community. For those who chose to leave, they bring with them the foundation of their strong Jewish identity and the traditions of their community. 

This is just a sample of the issues facing this community. Join me on April 22 for an in-depth discussion on Turkey's Jewish future. I'm co-chairing Inside Jewish Turkey at Agora Restaurant. RSVP here.

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April 15, 2013 at 4:04 PM




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