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Turkish Historical Jewish Community

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Turkish proverb: "Bir kahvenin kirk yil hatiri vardir"

A cup of coffee commits one to forty years of friendship

Note: Bob Dylan's paternal grandmother's maiden name was Kirghiz and her family originated from Kağızman in north eastern Turkey. Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman ( Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham - שבתאי זיסל בן אברהם ).

Relics of Jewish settlement in Anatolia from the 4th century b.c.e. have been unearthed in the Aegean region, making the Jewish community in Turkey one of the oldest in the world. Mount Ararat (Agri Dag), where Noah and his family ran aground after the deluge, is located in the east of the country, near Dogubayazit.

The synagogue of Sardis, about fifty miles inland from Izmir, was once one of the largest in history, built first in 220 B.C. and rebuilt in the 3rd century A.D. The enormous hall was part of the municipal bath-gymnasium complex, lavishly decorated inside with mosaic floors and marbled walls.

When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1324, they found a Jewish community that had been persecuted during long centuries of Byzantine rule. Over the next decades, the country became a haven for Jews fleeing repression and expulsion from various parts of Europe, including Hungary, France, Spain, Sicily, Salonika, and Bavaria. In the liberal atmosphere of Ottoman rule, Jewish activity flourished and many Jews held important positions. Constantinople was the home of great rabbis and scholars.

The Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul dates from the early 15th century. Its most outstanding feature is its bima, built to resemble the prow of a ship. Traditions says that its builder was inspired by Noah's ark or by the ships that brought to Turkey Jews fleeing Spain.

In the late 1930's and early 1940’s, Turkey opened its homes and universities to Jews who had fled from Nazi oppression and persecution. In 1933 Ataturk invited to Turkey many university professors of Jewish origin who were threatened by Nazi cruelty. In the beginning of the 19th Century Turkey was home to more than 100,000 Jews.

Today's total Jewish population is around 26,000 (the second largest Jewish community in a Muslim country, being the first is Iran), with a great majority living in Istanbul. In 1992 the community celebrated the 500th anniversary of its existence in Turkey since the spring of 1492.

The Jewish people in Turkey contributed immensely to the economic, cultural and political life during the times of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic after the War of Liberation led by Ataturk. The Jewish community of Turkey is recognized by the State through its Chief Rabbinate, and Chief Rabbi is called "Haham Basi" in Turkish. Today there are 17 synagogues in Istanbul, all but one of which are Sephardi. There are ten synagogues in Izmir and one each in the remaining communities. These are served by five rabbis and cantors, all of whom reside in Istanbul or Izmir.



The history of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey covers the 2,400 years that Jews have lived in what is now Turkey. There have been Jewish communities in Asia Minor since at least the 4th century BCE and many Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from Spain were welcomed to the Ottoman Empire (including regions part of modern Turkey) in the late 15th century.

Sardis Synagogue
The synagogue was a section of a large bath-gymnasium complex, that was in use for about 450 – 500 years. In the beginning, middle of the second century AD, the rooms the synagogue is situated in were used as changing rooms or resting rooms. The complex was destroyed in 616 AD by the Sassanian-Persians. 

Roman and Byzantine rule
According to Jewish scripture, Noah's Ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat, a mountain in the Taurus range of the Armenian Highlands which is now a part of Turkey, near the modern borders Armenia and Iran.

Turkey which once held an established Jewish population. Based on physical evidence, there has been a Jewish community in Asia Minor since the 4th century BCE, most notably in the city of Sardis. The subsequent Roman and Byzantine Empires included sizable Greek-speaking Jewish communities in their Anatolian domains which seem to have been relatively well-integrated and enjoyed certain legal immunities.

The size of the Jewish community was not greatly affected by the attempts of some Byzantine emperors (most notably Justinian) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success.

Romaniotes and Early Ottoman Jewry (1299-1492)

The first Jewish synagogue linked to Ottoman rule is Etz ha-Hayyim in Bursa which passed to Ottoman authority in 1324. The synagogue is still in use. The number of native Jews was soon bolstered by small groups of Ashkenazi Jews that immigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1421-1453. Among these new Ashkenazi immigrants was Rabbi Yitzhak Tsarfati, a German-born Jew of French descent (Hebrew: Sarfati, meaning: "French"), who became the Chief Rabbi of Edirne and wrote a letter inviting the European Jewry to settle in the Ottoman Empire, in which he stated that: "Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking".

Sephardi Settlement (late 15th, early 16th century)
The greatest influx of Jews into Asia Minor and the Ottoman Empire, occurred during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror's successor, Beyazid II (1481-1512), after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. The Sultan issued a formal invitation to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal and they started arriving in the empire in great numbers.

Sultan Beyazid sent out proclamations throughout the empire that the refugees were to be welcomed. He granted the refugees the permission to settle in the Ottoman Empire and become Ottoman citizens. He threatened with death all those who treated the Jews harshly or refused them admission into the empire.

Moses Capsali, [Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire], who probably helped to arouse the sultan's friendship for the Jews, was most energetic in his assistance to the exiles. He made a tour of the communities, and was instrumental in imposing a tax upon the rich, to ransom the Jewish victims of the persecutions then prevalent.

The Spanish Jews were allowed to settle in the wealthier cities of the empire, especially in the European provinces (cities such as: Istanbul, Sarajevo, Salonica, Adrianople and Nicopolis), Western and Northern Anatolia (Bursa, Aydin, Tokat and Amasya), but also in the Mediterranean coastal regions (for example: Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, Egypt). Izmir was not settled by Spanish Jews until later.

The Ottomans at their Apogee (15th century - 17th century)

Although the status of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire may have often been exaggerated, it is undeniable that the tolerance they enjoyed was unprecedented. Under the framework of the millet they had a considerable amount of administrative autonomy and were represented by the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi.

Jews who reached high positions in the Ottoman court and administration include Mehmed II's minister of Finance ("defterdar") Hekim Yakup Pasa, his physician Moses Hamon, Murad II's physician Ishak Pasha and Abraham de Castro, the master of the mint in Egypt.

But generally speaking, friction between Jews and Turks was uncommon. A tremendous upheaval was caused when Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed to be the Messiah. He was eventually caught by the Ottoman authorities and when given the choice between death and conversion, he opted for the latter. His remaining disciples converted to Islam too. Their descendants are today known as Donmeh.

Daniel de Fonseca, who was chief court physician and played a certain political role. He is mentioned by Voltaire, who speaks of him as an acquaintance whom he esteemed highly. Fonseca was involved in negotiations with Charles XII of Sweden.

But by 1908, there were five Jewish members of the Ottoman parliament. The minister plenipotentiary from the United States to the Ottoman Empire, Oscar S. Straus, was a Jew. Straus was again minister from 1897 to 1900. In the war of 1885, although not admitted to the army, they gave pecuniary and other aid.

Turkish Republic

The troubled history of Turkey during the 20th century and the process of transforming the old Ottoman empire into a modern Western nation state after 1923 however, had a negative effect on the size of all remaining minorities, including the Jews. The planned deportation of Jews from East Thrace and the associated anti-Jewish pogrom in 1934 was one of the events that caused insecurity among the Turkish Jews.

The effect of the 1942 Varlik Vergisi, the "wealth tax" is still remembered as the "catastrophe" among the non-Muslims of Turkey and it had probably the most detrimental effect on the numbers of the Jewish community. Many people unable to pay the taxes were sent to labour camps and about 30,000 Jews emigrated. The tax was seen as a racist attempt to diminish the economic power of minorities in Turkey.

During World War II
Despite the harsh policies of ethnic homogenization during the early republican period, the Turkish stance towards Jews in German-occupied Europe remained relatively positive. Even though Turkey remained neutral during World War II and officially forbade granting visas to German Jews, individual Turkish diplomats (such as Necdet Kent, Namik Kemal Yolga, Selahattin Ülkümen and Behiç Erkin) did work hard to save Jews from the Holocaust.

According to Prof. Stanford J. Shaw "some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and even of some 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe" were saved because of Turkish efforts. On the other hand, Turkey has been implicated in the Struma disaster, due to its refusal to allow the Jewish refugees on board to disembark in Turkish territory.

 Contemporary Period.

Contemporary Community

The present size of the Jewish Community is estimated at around 26,000 according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale, Iskenderun and Kirklareli. Sephardic Jews make up approximately 96% of Turkey's Jewish population, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazi Jews.

Turkish Jews are still legally represented by the Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Ishak Haleva, is assisted by a religious Council made up of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Thirty-five Lay Counselors look after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Committee of fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay Counselors, runs the daily affairs.

In 2001, the Jewish Museum of Turkey was founded by the Quincentennial Foundation, an organisation established in 1982 consisting of 113 Turkish citizens, both Jews and Muslims, to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey is among the first countries to formally recognize the State of Israel. Turkey and Israel have closely cooperated militarily and economically. Israel and Turkey have signed a multi-billion dollar project to build a series of pipelines from Turkey to Israel to supply gas, oil and other essentials to Israel.

In 2003 the Arkadas Association was established in Israel. The Arkadas Association is a Turkish-Jewish cultural center in Yehud, aiming to preserve the Turkish-Jewish heritage and promote friendship (Arkadas being the Turkish word for Friend) between the Israeli and Turkish people.

Another event worth mentioning, is the establishment of the Ülkümen-Sarfati Society by Jews and Turks in Germany in 2004. The Society, named after Selahattin Ülkümen and Yitzhak Sarfati, aims to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue and wants to inform the public of the centuries of peaceful coexistence between Turks and Jews. Source

Town Projects


The Antakya Synagogue is located in Antakya, Turkey near the border with Syria. It serves a tiny community of about 60 Jews (as of 1996).

The building was erected in 1890. Because Antakya is north of Jerusalem, the synagogue is built with the Torah Ark on the southern wall in a semi-circular apse. (Joel A. Zack, Historic synagogues of Turkey, 2008, p. 188)

The rabbi lives in Istanbul - 1000 km away. Every Thursday afternoon, boards a bus for a 22 hour ride to Antakya to lead Shabat services and teach the kids. And on every Sunday, he returns to Istanbul. Source

Selahattin Ülkümen (14 January 1914 in Antakya – 7 July 2003 in Istanbul) was a Turkish diplomat and consul in Rhodes during the Second World War, who assisted many local Jews to escape the Holocaust. In 1989 Israel recognized him as among the Righteous Among the Nations and listed his name at Yad Vashem.


Turkish Jewish Notables

Shabbtai Zevi, ‎שבתי צבי

Sabbatai Zevi (August 1, 1626 – c. September 17, 1676) was a Sephardic Rabbi and kabbalist who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He was the founder of the Jewish Sabbatean movement.
At the beginning of the year 1666, Sabbatai left Smyrna for Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) He may have been forced to flee by city officials. Nathan Ghazzati had prophesied that, once in Istanbul, Sabbatai would place the sultan's crown on his own head. . . . Continued

Chief Rabbis of the Turkish Republic (Hahambaşı)

  • Haim Moşe Becerano (1920–1931)
  • Haim Ishak Saki (1931–1940)
  • Rafael David Saban (1940–1960)
  • David Asseo (1961–2002)
  • Ishak Haleva (2002–


  • Izel Rozental
  • Shlomi Shabat
  • Rabbi Moshe Ventura
  • Léon Castro
  • Elia Rafael Carmona
  • Nessim Korkidi נסים קורקידי
  • Menahem Bey Hodara
  • Yosef Nasi
  • Gracia Mendes Nasi דונה גרציה
  • Aaron ben Joseph Sason
  • Aaron ben Solomon ben Hasun
  • Caleb Afendopolo
  • Elza Niego affair
  • Anjelika Akbar
  • İshak Alaton
  • Munis Tekinalp
  • Isak Andic
  • Ruhama Avraham
  • Pini Balili
  • Avraham Ben-Shoshan
  • Maír José Benardete
  • Seyla Benhabib
  • Ceki Benşuşe
  • Can Bonomo
  • Emmanuel Carasso
  • Aaron Cupino
  • Dalia Dorner
  • Haim Moussa Douek
  • Rober Eryol
  • Nachman Fahrner
  • Moris Farhi
  • Üzeyir Garih
  • Shlomo Gazit
  • Erol Güney
  • Mikhail Gurevich (chess player)
  • Umut Güzelses
  • Cem Hakko
  • Vitali Hakko
  • Joseph Halévy
  • B. Hallegua (chess player)
  • Moses Hamon
  • Barzillai ben Baruch Jabez
  • Alexander Malcolm Jacob
  • Abba Judan
  • Victoria Kamhi
  • Albert Karasu
  • Matilda Koen-Sarano
  • Sami Levi
  • Shabtai Levy
  • Miriam Lichtheim
  • Roni Margulies
  • Julius Martov
  • Janet Akyüz Mattei
  • Jeffi Medina
  • Paul Misraki
  • Darío Moreno
  • Chaim Nahum
  • Haim Palacci
  • Meshulam Riklis
  • Dani Rodrik
  • Berry Sakharof
  • Moshe Sardines
  • Aaron ben Isaac Sason
  • Solomon ibn Verga
  • Cem Stamati
  • David Tzur
  • Aaron Zorogon