In Turkey, Celebrating Community’s Unique History, Exciting Future

October 3, 2017


A former madrich (counselor) in the Turkish Jewish community, Sami Levi worked for 20 years in the seafood business before realizing his passion wasn’t business administration—it was Jewish peoplehood.

Two years later, Levi, 45, is now the Jewish studies coordinator at Istanbul’s Ulus Jewish School and an adviser for Göztepe Kültür Derneği, a Turkish Jewish youth group.

“When I was a madrich, my dream was to be a professional madrich. But in those years, that was impossible in Turkey,” he said. “When the school gave me this opportunity, it was a chance to realize my dream.”

Along with Senior JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow Joey Leskin, Levi has worked to develop and implement a pioneering new curriculum that emphasizes Turkish Jewish history, culture, and traditions. The initiative is supported by a grant from JDC.

“I try to help everyone
understand there’s a point
to being Jewish in Turkey.”

Targeted at middle and high schoolers, the curriculum includes lessons like an overview of Diaspora Jewry in the 21st century, an examination of Maimonides’ levels of charity, and a study of the motivations and characteristics of the Sephardic Jews who settled in Turkey in the 1400s.

“It’s allowing them to engage with their own history and explore with a bit more depth and a bit more breadth what Judaism can mean to them,” said Leskin, 28, a London native. “When the Turkish Jewish community is thought about, it’s often discussed in a very historical way—the Spanish inquisition and so on. For me, it was important for the kids to understand all of that, but also to get a really accurate picture of who they are right now and the strength of the infrastructure they do have.”

Turkey has about 15,000 Jews, and its young people participate in a wide variety of pan-European programs coordinated by JDC like Junction; Leatid; the annual Resilience Summit in Barcelona; and Szarvas, JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary.

Yasmin Eskinazi, 14, doesn’t attend the Jewish day school in Istanbul but went to Szarvas in the summer of 2016 and participated in a Turkish Jewish tour of Israel led by JDC-trained madrichim in the summer
of 2017.

She said JDC programs like Szarvas help her find her place in the global Jewish family.

“At Szarvas, it was such a great experience to learn new dances, have fun like crazy, and feel like I’m not in the minority, the way I feel when I’m in Turkey,” she said. “As I heard the different folk songs, I felt so happy and proud to be Jewish.”

Leskin, the Entwine fellow who has served in Turkey for two years, said he’s “obsessed with the community.”

Beyond his responsibilities with Levi at the school, he helps advise a young professionals group and trains madrichim at two to three leadership seminars annually.

“I try to bring animation and energy. Having me around, having someone here makes these young adults feel like there’s something to work toward, that there are people from outside trying to help who are interested in their community,” he said. “I try to help everyone understand there’s a point to being Jewish in Turkey.”

Having a JDC envoy like Leskin on the ground in Turkey helps the country’s Jewish community find its place in the global Jewish community, said Gabi Behiri, 25, the community board’s youth representative.

“When they notice they have the same goals and challenges as their brothers and sisters the world over, they understand they have a role in this global family and become more attached to their identity,” said Behiri, who helps coordinate Turkish participation in programs like Szarvas or BBYO’s annual International Convention in the United States. “JDC is an important organization
for Turkey. It connects us to the whole Jewish world.”

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