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Rabbis From Small, Far-Flung Jewish Communities Welcomed in Turkey

by Menachem Posner – chabad.org

As the rabbi of the only Ashkenazi synagogue in a country with a mostly Sephardic population in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, Rabbi Mendy Chitrik doesn’t often get to enjoy a good Yiddish conversation or schmooze about the nuances of a Chassidic teaching.

But that’s what happened this week in Istanbul when he and his wife, Chaya, hosted 80 Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins serving remote communities from around the world.

Assembled at the European and Central African Regional Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim), they gathered to discuss specific challenges affecting such communities, including creating sustainable, quality Jewish education in places with minimal infrastructure; accommodating the Jewish needs of seasonal tourists; and, for many of them, confronting a rise in anti-Semitism.

The group enjoyed classic Turkish hospitality from the country’s Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, in whose synagogues they prayed and with whom they broke bread.

When asked why Turkey was chosen for the conference, which draws participants from places as distant as Iceland in the north and Mauritius in the south, Chitrik explains that Turkey’s central location makes it an ideal meeting place, which many attendees could reach with only one or two flights.

Why Not Turkey?

His answer was echoed by Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos 302, who accompanied his father, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch—the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—and chairman of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. “People ask, ‘Why Turkey?’ ” says Kotlarsky, “and I answered, ‘Why not Turkey?’ The purpose of this conference is to strengthen and encourage shluchim in small, geographically isolated communities—to give them the feeling that they are part of a big loving family, and that they are not alone. To that end, Turkey fits right in.”

The group met with Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Haliva and community president Erol Kohen, who shared details of Turkish Jewish history, which dates back to the Temple era. While Turkey was a dynamic center of Jewish life for centuries, its Jewish community has truncated significantly during the course of the 20th century; there are now four times as many Jews of Turkish descent in Israel than there are Turkish Jews in Turkey.

In his address, Haleva noted that many participants serve communities with a majority Sephardic Jewish population, and how they could look towards Istanbul as an example of creating unity and inclusivity that crosses the barrier of ethnic origin or nuance of prayer rite.

During the course of the conference, participants received guidance from their peers, including Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, Chabad emissary and head of the rabbinical court in Budapest, and Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who has directed Chabad in Central Africa since 1991.

They also enjoyed a lecture by Mendy Chitrik on the history of Jews in Turkey and their unique customs. In her talk, Chaya Chitrik shared advice on providing a warm and welcoming Chassidic education without the benefits of a Chassidic community.

For many attendees, a highlight of the regional conference—a scaled-down version of the annual conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., that draws nearly 6,000 participants—is the opportunity to interact with the elder Rabbi Kotlarsky, who has spent decades jet-setting around the world to assist the shluchim in remote communities, many of whom were placed there due to his efforts.

“We were honored to host our peers from all over,” says Chitrik. “But more than anything else, it was an opportunity for people to consult with each other, to strengthen each other and gain inspiration.”