Jewish life grows in North Cyprus

"Here, you see this increased desire to search out spirituality."

cyprus jews 248.88 (photo credit: Rabbi Chaim Azimov)
cyprus jews 248.88
(photo credit: Rabbi Chaim Azimov)
Days after the Mumbai terror attacks last November that left over 170 people dead and included a brutal assault on the city's Chabad House, a Turkish Cypriot police commander arrived at the home of Chabad Rabbi Chaim Azimov in the North Cyprus town of Girne. "He told me that what happened in Mumbai would never happen here," Azimov told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "And I believe him - they respect religion very much here." By "here," Azimov meant the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, the northern part of this Mediterranean island that was divided between Greek Cypriots and their Turkish counterparts in 1974 after years of unrest and a bloody conflict that left scores of civilians dead and wounded. The Turkish side, which is officially recognized only by Turkey, continues to face international embargoes that have slowed development and thinned prospects for growth, while animosity between the Turks and Greeks on the island continues to this day. But Azimov has no desire to delve into the delicate political situation here. Instead, the 26-year-old rabbi and father of two wants to do his job, which is to assist the more than 100 Jews who have moved to the Turkish side of the island in recent years - as well as the thousands of Israeli tourists who come here every year - with any and all things Jewish. While there is no "indigenous" Turkish Cypriot Jewish community - Jewish refugees sent to Cyprus during the British Mandate in Palestine likely built a synagogue here, but Azimov doesn't know where it stood, and a cemetery where many of those Jews are buried is inside a closed military zone - more and more Jews from abroad are coming to North Cyprus. "This area is just starting to open up," Azimov said. "And as it does, there will be more Jews here. Most of the development in North Cyprus is being done by Israeli firms, and some of the developers are here all week before they go back to Israel for the weekend. Others stay longer, and they come with their families." Right now, Azimov explained, most of the Jews in North Cyprus are looking for a minimal connection, "like matzot or gefilte fish on Pessah." "But it's our job to be here for all of them," he said. Shabbat meals at the center are indicative of that attitude, with observant and less-observant Jews all hunkered down at the table together, and Azimov refusing to miss a beat when one of them answers his cellphone during the meal. Azimov knows very well the challenges of promoting Judaism on an internationally-isolated resort island - but, he said, he looks only at the positive. "The idea that Israelis come closer to Judaism when they're abroad is absolutely true here," Azimov said. "Jews who never went to the synagogue at home come to my synagogue. Here, you see this increased desire to search out spirituality." Part of that search, Azimov explained, is possibly due to the lack of spirituality in other spheres of life on the island. Casinos make up a large part of the Turkish Cypriot economy, and Hebrew can be heard inside any number of them on a given day or night. But after days at the roulette table, more than a handful of tourists get a hankering for a Shabbat service, or some homemade chicken soup. "We have all kinds of people who come here," Azimov said. "Some are nightclub owners, and others are tourists who come to play the games, but the policy of Chabad has always been to stay away from labels and look for that inner diamond that's found within every Jew. At the Chabad House, our doors are always open, and I think that's what people are looking for." As for the local Turkish Cypriots, Azimov said he had never had a problem with anyone - even in his trademark black hat and long, black coat, a contrast to the usual island dress of a swimsuit and tank top. "I think that people say, 'Look, here's a rabbi who respects his beliefs and holds true to them,'" Azimov said. "We've even had a few Turkish [Cypriots] come to the Chabad House and ask for blessings."