Reclaiming the Izmir synagogues

'Living Jewish museum' will preserve unique remnants of a golden age.

izmir synagogue 248 88 (photo credit: )
izmir synagogue 248 88
(photo credit: )
Only a few hundred Jews live in Izmir, with the number who actively participate in the community numbering in the low double digits. But these numbers do not reflect the rich history of the community, which once boasted 34 synagogues, famed scholars and wealthy merchants. Composed mostly of refugees from the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, the Izmir Jewish community has shrunk through emigration to Israel and Istanbul. Of those 34 synagogues, just 13 remain, half of them lying in ruin, with their ceilings broken and their sacred artifacts lost. But now, in cooperation with the Turkish government, the Izmir municipality and the local Jewish community, a group of donors and academics from Israel are working to restore the largest of the collapsed synagogue complexes. They hope to fashion a "living Jewish museum" on the spot that will teach the local Muslim population and the international academic community about Izmir's Jewish past. Led by the Mordechai Kiryati Foundation, a Tel Avivbased fund for educational projects, the Izmir Project seeks to restore what is left of Izmir Jewry before the buildings are reclaimed by the city and lost to the Jewish world. It marks the first step in a larger project of cataloguing abandoned synagogues and restoring Jewish heritage sites worldwide, which is being run by the Zalman Shazar Center in Jerusalem and the Avichai Foundation. The Izmir site was first mapped for the project by a 2002 delegation of the Shazar Center led by Dr. Doron Bar, head of Land of Israel studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Together with the Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbalah Research at Bar-Ilan University and other institutions, the Israeli coalition is racing to preserve some of the most beautiful architectural artifacts of Jewish history. The surviving synagogues are clustered in the Judiera, the ancient Jewish section of Izmir. "They are hidden behind walls, in the alleyways of the colorful shuk and along tended gardens, or with modest doors opening onto teeming streets," relates a video available on YouTube that was prepared by the international project. The synagogues are covered in brilliant colors and designs, with chandeliers and dark wooden benches. Those that survive are "an unmatched testament to Jewish wealth and Jewish architecture from the Spanish Golden Age." Also remaining from the lost community of Izmir is a remarkable collection of manuscripts and halachic texts, Torah covers and holy vessels that were saved by the community and are currently being housed in a small room in the city's Jewish hospital. The hospital itself was donated to the municipality because the community could not maintain it. The Jewish sites of Izmir have been declared an international site of cultural and archeological significance by UNESCO. The new project will focus on a cluster of five connected synagogues, with the central one having lost its roof in recent decades. This complex will be transformed into a massive museum and cultural center in collaboration with local academic institutions. With a new glass ceiling and coffeehouse, the complex will include "a Jewish education center about Ladino and Sephardi Jewry in Izmir" - over 90% of Turkey's Jews are Sephardi - "that will run activities, classes and programs, courses for history students from abroad and for academics who are researching these communities and their heritage," says Chanan Ziderman, director of development for the international project, which is formally titled "The Izmir Project: a Journey and a Dialogue between Cultures." "The community doesn't have the people or the resources to lead this, so someone from outside has to do it," he explains. Without outside help, he predicts, the buildings will be gone in 15 years. The local community has already invested some $50,000 in restoration efforts, including painting the synagogues, but the final complex and museum will cost millions. In coordination with the local Jewish community, the Izmir municipality, the Turkish embassy in Israel and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, preparations are expected to be concluded in mid-2010. Just last week, the municipality examined architectural plans for the site. Fundraising for the project is also going forward at breakneck speed, as Izmir Project planners turn to European Union funds specializing in heritage preservation and to wealthy Jewish donors and foundations. The Jewish groups hope to turn the site into a regular target for Israeli educational tourism. "The Turks hope this will turn into a real tourist site. Meanwhile, Israeli Jews, are increasingly turning to 'Jewish content travel,'" according to Ziderman. "They are thirsting not only for fun and clubs, but for a Jewish experience. Why do we only send kids to death camps in Auschwitz, but not to sites where Jewish folklore comes alive, where our cultural treasures can be experienced?" Meanwhile, the site should also become a center for intercultural dialogue, said Ziderman. The Muslim majority of Izmir, "which has never desecrated the synagogues, even when they lay in ruin," will use the new center "to learn how the Jews of Izmir lived their lives in their midst in past years." The video notes that the Izmir community had survived over 400 years, "a cultural pearl that lasted through wars, an earthquake and political change." The synagogues are a "living witness to a glorious Jewish past on Turkey's Aegean coast." Perhaps 100,000 Israelis trace their origins to the Turkish Jewish community. If the academics and philanthropists behind the Izmir Project have their way, their heritage, a small part of the larger story of the Jewish people, will not be lost.