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Turkey Restores Great Synagogue of Edirne

April 1, 2015

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”  (Psalm 137:4)

Even as relations between Turkey and Israel continue to cool, and Turkey’s Jewish population fades due to anti-Semitism, Turkey has restored and re-opened the Great Synagogue of Edirne. 

“Buildings might be protected but the people who visit them are subjected to regular hate speech and threats,” said Louis Fishman, an expert on Turkish affairs at Brooklyn College in New York.  (Reuters)

The synagogue had been closed for decades.  Built in 1903 by a sultan’s decree to serve some 20,000 people, it was modeled after the Great Synagogue in Vienna, which was later destroyed by the Nazis.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 200,000 Jews living in Turkey. Many of whom immigrated to Israel since the formation of the state in 1948.  (Times of Israel) 

The Great Synagogue of Edirne

The Great Synagogue of Edirne before renovation (Photo by Yabanci)

The $2.5 million government project restores the synagogue’s lead-clad domes, delapitated roof, and its magnificent interior, including original flooring in preparation for the edifice’s reopening last week.  (Reuters)

The synagogue, however, has opened to a congregation of one.  Rifat Mitrani, the last living Jew in the western Turkey town of Edirne.

“Only I am left.  It happens slowly, becoming the last one,” said Mitrani, 65, whose family had lived in the community for 500 years.  (JPost)

Mitrani says that he recalls studying Hebrew in the synagogue’s gardens as a young boy and sending the Torah off to Istanbul in the 1970s when the Jewish community shrank to its last three families.  It was in 1975 that he unlocked its doors and brushed away cobwebs in order to marry his wife Sara.

After 27 years of closure and deterioration, it was proclaimed a historical site in 2010, not that Turkey expects it to be used to serve the Jewish community of one in Edirne.

“Our intention is to keep that building as a house of worship to serve all visitors,” said Adnan Ertem, the director general of the General Directorate of Foundation, which is responsible for the restoration project.

Last week’s opening ceremony was attended by nearly 100 international dignitaries along with 500 members of the country’s Jewish community.

The first service following its restoration was led by Rabbi David Azuz, who also led the last prayer service held there in 1983 at the time of its final closing.  (Arutz 7)

At the opening ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, “This is of great importance in terms of showing how far religious freedoms have come in our country.”

An official press release by PM Arinc’s office states the restored synagogue is the largest in the Balkans and third largest in Europe, so it is expected to attract tourism.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The project reflects a relaxation of curbs on religious minorities under the present government of President Tayyip Erdogan; however, it takes place as a spike in anti-Semitism within the predominantly Muslim society has caused the country’s Jewish community to shrink by more than a third during the last 25 years.

Most of Turkey’s Jews descend from Jews who fled Spain’s 15th century Spanish Inquisition.  They now are forced to live in fortified communities with their schools and synagogues protected by security tunnels and shielded with steel barriers against bombs.  (JPost)

Last summer’s “Operation Protective Edge” conflict and the ensuing violence on the Temple Mount late last year brought anti-Semitic sentiments in Turkey to a peak.

The Governor of Edirne, Dursan Sahin, reacted to these clashes last November, “I say this with a huge hatred inside me … the synagogue here will be registered only as a museum, and there will be no exhibition inside it.”  (JPost)

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc responded by saying that the governor acted emotionally and made a mistake. “We condemn the atrocities against the Aksa Mosque, but we cannot look at the Jews here with an evil eye,” he said.

One brave liberal group in Turkey called the Young Civilians issued a press release demanding the governor’s resignation and rushed to the synagogue to place placards that read, “They [Jews] are our people,” “This synagogue was here when [the state of] Israel did not exist,” and “This is Turkey’s synagogue, not Israel’s.”  (Gatestone Institute)

“But after I uproot them, I will again have compassion and will bring each of them back to their own inheritance and their own country.”  (Jeremiah 12:15)

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