Feature Stories

Focusing on the Future In Jewish Turkey

Growing up in the small Jewish community of Izmir in southwest Turkey, Mirey Cukurel often struggled to find her place. Like many of her peers, Cukurel was disconnected from Jewish life in her adolescence due to a lack of community programming geared toward teens and young adults.

A graduate of Izmir’s now-closed Jewish elementary school, Cukurel attended an American high school in Izmir, and then traveled to the United States and Spain to pursue degrees in industrial engineering and international management, respectively.

While there, Cukurel attended sporadic holiday events and synagogue services, but never became an active member of these Jewish communities.

In fact, it wasn’t until she completed her studies abroad and moved back to Turkey in 2010 — this time to Istanbul — that Cukurel, 26, finally found her Jewish niche.

Almost immediately upon her arrival in Istanbul, she was recruited to participate in the JDC-supported Generation Next program, a leadership and professional development institute for young Turkish Jews. She has been actively involved ever since.

“The moment I experienced the welcoming environment [at Generation Next], I was hooked,” Cukurel says.

She quickly became a regular face at Generation Next events, participating in professional seminars to build her resume, while simultaneously strengthening her understanding of Jewish history and culture.

Founded six years ago as Hadracha College, Generation Next invests in the community’s future by providing young adults aged 22 to 37 with the training and resources they need to strengthen their own professional skills, explore their Jewish identity, and contribute to the broader community.

Generation Next begins with a weekend team-building seminar where the Jewish community’s “up-and-coming” leaders brainstorm new community projects. The group reconvenes every month or two throughout the year for seminars covering topics such as leadership development, Jewish history and traditions, Holocaust education, and management skills.

The program targets Jewish young adults from Istanbul, with small numbers of young people also living some eight hours southwest in Izmir. Graduates of the program often receive Generation Next and JDC support to continue their Jewish learning at leadership development programs at institutions like Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies, in Stockholm, Sweden.

“Generation Next seminars respect my unique personal interpretation of what ‘Jew’ means,” Cukurel says.

She said she appreciates the program’s focus on both professional development and issues of Jewish identity, an integrated and open approach that inspires her to “create my own projects that tackle areas where I perceive that the Jewish community has room for improvement.”

Indeed, her motivation to stay involved is not only for her own individual growth, but because she believes the program is imperative for the sustainability of the Turkish Jewish community.

Thanks to Generation Next, Cukurel’s engagement has evolved further — she now also serves on the steering commite — working to create programming and events for Turkish Jewish young adults. She’s also on the advisory council for the Rabbinate of Turkey, the umbrella institution for all Jewish initiatives in the country.

For Cukurel, programs like Generation Next are not merely a generous service provided by the community, but rather exemplify its responsibility to “do all it can to recognize the potential of self-exploring young adults and provide them with the necessary outlet to both grow and contribute to the broader community in their own creative ways.”

“The young provide idealism and a critical creative energy,” she says.

Generation Next in Turkey is generously supported by Claude and Etty Arnall.

Tags for this story: Youth / Young Adults

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