Uncovering layers of history with the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, Turkey

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    The New York Jewish Travel Guide had a conversation with Mr. Nesim Bencoya, the Cultural Heritage Project Manager, to gain insights into the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project. The interview has been edited for enhanced clarity.

    NYJTG: Could you provide some insights into your background? How did you become involved with the Izmir Project, and how long have you been dedicated to it? Additionally, can you shed light on the project’s goals, significance, and relatively unknown status within the Jewish community?

    Nesim Bencoya: I was born in Izmir and later moved to Israel, where I spent four decades experiencing life as an Israeli. During the last fifteen years of my stay in Israel, I worked at Haifa Cinematheque, eventually becoming its director.

    Thirteen years ago, I made the decision to return to Izmir, and I was instantly drawn to the profound cultural heritage that awaited me here. Despite having attended synagogue with my father during high school holidays in my youth, I was largely unaware of this cultural treasure. My fascination led me to embark on the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, a journey I’ve been committed to for thirteen years now.

    It’s crucial to dispel the notion that the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project solely focuses on the restoration of synagogue buildings. While restoration is indeed part of our mission, our broader objective is to unite these restored synagogues into a single expansive complex. Each synagogue will serve as a distinct section within a museum-like visitor’s center or open-air site. This project aims to become a source of pride for the Izmir Jewish Community, affording them a platform to engage in the city’s decision-making processes once more. This revitalization holds the potential to empower a community that has, over time, lost its social and cultural influence. Moreover, it serves as a powerful means to combat antisemitism. In essence, the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project transcends being a mere historical account; it is a strategic tool for us to exert influence and relevance within the broader Izmir society.

    The obscurity of the Jewish heritage in Izmir within the broader Jewish community can be attributed to the historical stance of the Izmir Jewish community itself. Whether due to understandable reasons or other factors, this community often chose to maintain a discreet profile. Consequently, they remained largely unseen and unknown. This is indeed regrettable because Jewish life in Izmir was once vibrant and dynamic. Figures like Hayim Palacci, as well as Shabbetai Zvi and others, continue to be subjects of theological study. It is our hope that through this project, coupled with the restoration of our synagogues, we can reclaim the recognition we rightfully deserve on the global stage. We are determined to achieve this goal.

    NYJTG: Could you provide a brief overview of the history and current condition of these synagogues? How many synagogues are there in total, and are they predominantly of Sephardic heritage, with traditions in Ladino for their religious practices? Furthermore, which organizations are actively backing this project, and what are some of the primary challenges you’ve encountered?

    Nesim Bencoya: Most of these synagogues indeed follow the Sephardic tradition. This is due to the significant influx of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula into the Ottoman Empire, who left an indelible mark on the local culture. While there were small communities of Romaniote and Ashkenazi Jews in Izmir, the overall atmosphere here was predominantly Sephardic. Indeed, we have discovered remnants of a synagogue that served as a place of worship for these immigrants during their time in Izmir.

    Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a notable wave of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who arrived in Izmir, fleeing persecution in Russia.

    In total, there are nine synagogues in the Synagogue Street area (First Juderia) and two more in Karatash (Second Juderia). They all adhere to Sephardic heritage and utilize Hebrew and Ladino in their worship practices.

    The Izmir Jewish Heritage Project currently enjoys support from the European Union, with a three-year commitment. The restoration of Bet Hillel was made possible with assistance from the Metropolitan Municipality, and the Turkish Government, in collaboration with the German Republic, played a crucial role in preserving the Talmud Tora and Forasteros synagogues. These partnerships have been instrumental in our efforts to revitalize this cultural heritage.

    Challenges abound, with the primary one being the need for sustainable funding to continue restoration efforts and promote awareness. Additionally, engaging the broader community and fostering a sense of ownership in the project is another ongoing challenge. However, we remain committed to overcoming these hurdles to ensure the legacy of Izmir’s Jewish heritage is preserved and celebrated.

    NYJTG: Can you provide some insight into why these synagogues are situated near each other and why they are configured with connecting passages? Additionally, could you clarify which synagogues are primarily used for religious services and which serve as centers for social and cultural activities? Lastly, what are some shared characteristics among these synagogues?

    Nesim Bencoya: The proximity of these synagogues is rooted in the historical context of the port and commercial area of Izmir. Businessmen likely preferred to settle in this area due to its proximity to the port and customs, leading them to purchase land and build their homes here. Consequently, individuals of means in this area were able to donate land for the construction of synagogues. To illustrate, the land for La Senyora synagogue was generously donated to the community in 1664 by a benevolent widow named Lea. On the other hand, the Algazi synagogue owes its creation to the initiative of the influential Algazi family, who undertook the construction themselves. In contrast, the Algazi synagogue owes its existence to the influential Algazi family, which took the initiative to construct it.

    Among these synagogues, Algazi, Shalom, and Bikur Holim are primarily used for religious services. The other six synagogues have been repurposed for cultural and artistic activities. Bet Hillel serves as a memorial house dedicated to Rabbi Hayim Palacci; the Portugal synagogue functions as a conference center; and Etz Hayim operates as an art gallery and a cultural and artistic hub, as do Talmud Tora and Senyora.

    One shared characteristic among Izmir synagogues is the placement of the teva (bimah) at the center of the main prayer hall. This feature has undergone modifications over time due to various cultural influences. Another distinctive feature is the Ehal, composed of three cupboards, which is present in all Izmir synagogues except for Bet Israel. This architectural similarity may trace its roots back to early synagogues in Spain.

    Mr. Nesim Bencoya, Cultural Heritage Project Manager – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: Could you provide some insights into the historical connection between the Bikur Holim Synagogue basement and its purported use as a Bet Din prison?

    Nesim Bencoya: There is no documented evidence to confirm this as a historical fact. We do know that arrests occurred for various reasons, including drunkenness, theft, treachery, and social unrest within the community, particularly related to issues like the taxation of Kosher wine and meat. The presence of what might be perceived as a prison could be due to its proximity to the Chief Rabbinate, where the Bet Din was located.

    NYJTG: Are you hopeful that some of these synagogues will receive UNESCO recognition soon?

    Nesim Bencoya: I am involved as a consultant on behalf of the Jewish Community with the UNESCO team working towards obtaining UNESCO status for the market area. To achieve this, we are diligently preparing a dossier, and the historic Jewish quarter with its synagogues plays a significant role in this application. I am fully committed to advocating for this cause.

    NYJTG: Is the Gurcesme Jewish Cemetery included in the renovation efforts of the Izmir Project? Could you also elaborate on any other projects you are currently working on?

    Nesim Bencoya: Unfortunately, the historical Gurcesme Jewish Cemetery is not currently part of the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project due to limitations in both financial resources and manpower. However, it has the potential to become a standalone museum. I hope that once we have accomplished our immediate goals, we can seriously consider addressing the cemetery’s preservation and restoration.

    NYJTG: Were there any Jewish schools or yeshivas for boys and girls that existed in the district?

    Nesim Bencoya: Certainly, Izmir had a wealth of Jewish schools and yeshivas, catering to both boys and girls. Some notable institutions included Talmud Tora Yeshiva, Alliance schools, and Bnei Brit schools.

    NYJTG: Are you currently working on producing any documentary films related to the Izmir project?

    Nesim Bencoya: Yes, indeed, we have been actively working on documentary films related to the Izmir project. You can find our latest documentary at this link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccS_N_Koiok&t=383s

    NYJTG: What is your vision for the future of this ongoing project, and how do you foresee its impact on the Izmir economy, particularly in terms of potential international visitors?

    Nesim Bencoya: Thanks to our press coverage and social media efforts, we’ve already witnessed a notable increase in visitor numbers. It’s immensely gratifying to see the positive outcomes of our endeavors. Visitors from various parts of the world, including Mexico, Argentina, the USA, Canada, and European countries, are beginning to explore the cultural riches of Izmir. This influx is crucial for establishing a sustainable visitor center, and I hold a strong belief that we will ultimately succeed in our mission. This project has the potential to contribute significantly to the Izmir economy by attracting international visitors eager to explore our heritage and history.

    NYJTG: As a follow-up, it’s clear that your determination and hard work aim to transform Izmir into a cultural festival center like the Krakow Jewish Festival in Poland. Your main goal is to educate and allow others to experience the unique culture of Sephardic Jews through concerts, exhibitions, plays, and lectures. How has this festival been received, and what role does it play in fostering intercultural dialogue and breaking down cultural prejudices?

    Nesim Bencoya: The festival was incredibly well-received. We are now approaching our fourth edition, and it has gained wide acceptance among both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. The festival serves as a powerful platform for intercultural dialogue, allowing us to express our Jewish identity and culture. When people can get to know us, cultural prejudices tend to dissolve. Despite the serious undertones, the festival is also a lot of fun.

    NYJTG: How can our readers contribute directly or indirectly to the restoration and conservation of this project?


    Nesim Bencoya: Your support is greatly appreciated, no matter how big or small. We have established a fund in collaboration with the American Sephardi Federation, and donations are tax-deductible. Here is a link where you can make contributions: [Insert Donation Link Here]

    NYJTG: Thank you for generously sharing your time and providing us with valuable information. We greatly appreciate it, and we’re sure our readers will too.

    For more information:

    To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or go to https://www.tga.gov.tr/about-us/.

    Fly Turkish Airlines: https://www.turkishairlines.com/

    Ela Turizm: Historical Religious Tours: https://www.elaturizm.com.tr/index.aspx

    Story and photography by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com

    The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA).

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