Feature Stories

Jewish Education in Istanbul Paves Way for Community’s Future

JDC scholarships help dozens of young Turkish Jews attend the Ulus Jewish school in Istanbul, the community’s only Jewish educational institution and the bedrock of Jewish life in this cosmopolitan city of 13+ million people.
JDC scholarships help dozens of young Turkish Jews attend the Ulus Jewish school in Istanbul, the community’s only Jewish educational institution and the bedrock of Jewish life in this cosmopolitan city of 13+ million people.

“What I know about Jewish culture and traditions; my close group of Jewish friends; and the great education that enabled me to go to university are all thanks to my Jewish education,” explains Rafi*, 21, a graduate of the Ulus Jewish School in Istanbul, Turkey.

Rafi came to Ulus as a first-grader, but after his parents divorced and finances for his single mom grew thin, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to remain there to complete his education—even though he anticipated the incredible opportunities it could offer him.

JDC, partnering with the local Jewish community, was determined to ensure a Jewish future for Turkey’s tiny Jewish minority by providing students like Rafi with the much-needed scholarships that would allow them to attend the private Jewish school rather than public, secular institutions.

“I would not have been able to attend a private school without a scholarship,” Rafi says. And today he is grateful for the Jewish foundation that this education afforded him. “If I hadn’t gone to Ulus, I would not be as enthusiastic as I am about passing on my Jewish heritage to my children and grandchildren. Now this is very important to me.”

In Turkey, as in thousands of communities around the world, Jewish education is a proud cornerstone of the community’s ongoing success and is fundamental to building a strong, enduring Jewish future. Ulus, which was founded in 1915, is one of the pillars developed by the local community to ensure its children could explore their identity as Jews and continue the millennia-old traditions of Jewish life here; it is also among the country’s top-rated educational institutions today.

Rafi is now in his third year studying Mechanical Engineering at Istanbul’s Technical University. At least a third of his classes are conducted in English—a skill set he acquired at Ulus at a young age, and which he’s certain is going to help him succeed despite the quickly changing local and global economy.

The Ulus Jewish School enrolls approximately 600 students—half of the Jewish children living in Istanbul—in its kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools. In the country’s increasingly uncertain sociopolitical climate, growing numbers of Jewish families are seeking private Jewish education for their children rather than a public one. Enrollment has risen 77% since 2004.

Many of the families, however, are still feeling the effects of the recent economic crisis that hit the local economy especially hard, and cannot afford the tuition fees. The organized community—which also has to sustain a dozen other institutions—can provide only limited support.

Joining hands with the local community, JDC provides Jewish education scholarships for dozens of young Turkish Jews who will ensure the stability and continuity of local Jewish life.

Sami*, 21, came to the school as a ninth grader when his family moved to Istanbul from a small town in southeastern Turkey. His parents, who were not university graduates, had a hard time adapting to the city both socially and economically and his father had difficulty finding a job; the adjustment to life in a much bigger city took a heavy toll on everyone in the family.

“The Jewish community welcomed us and helped us a lot. I’d gone to a public school before but after we moved I wanted to go to a Jewish school because the community was so kind to us,” Sami recalls. The family needed financial assistance for Sami to enroll at Ulus, however.

Sami showed promise and as soon as he entered the school he learned English quickly and was able to follow along with—and eventually supersede—his classmates academically. He made new Jewish friends, who helped him through the tough transition. What is more, he took an avid interest in the school’s Jewish curriculum.

“I learned Hebrew and Jewish traditions, which connect me to my family and to a much larger community beyond. My Jewish education is very important to me,” Sami, now a second-year chemistry student at Istanbul Technical University, reflects.

As Turkey’s only formal Jewish day school, Ulus mission is “to accept and educate everyone who applies, without regard to financial and academic level,” explains Robert Filiba, Executive Director. “About 38% of the students receive some sort of scholarship or tuition subsidy, and some also receive assistance with the purchase of books, school uniforms, and transportation to/from the school. Providing scholarships to our students ensures that they will get a good education, be accepted to the best colleges in Turkey or abroad, and get the best preparation for their future careers.”

In addition to upholding rigorous academic standards in its secular subjects, Ulus imbues its students with a strong Jewish identity through a Jewish Studies curriculum focusing on Hebrew language, religious festivals, biblical figures, and fundamental concepts and values in Judaism. Whenever possible, teachers integrate these topics into relevant general studies classes, such as literature and history.

“In the past, Jewish education was provided at home in larger families where children, parents, and grandparents used to live together. Nowadays, the core family has shrunk and children come back from school to a home with two working parents,” Mr. Filiba explains. “At Ulus, we strive to shape Jewish identities and provide the Jewish educational foundation that will ensure our community’s future.”

* indicates names of scholarship recipients have been changed.

Tags for this story: Education, Families

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