In first, Turkish Jews light public menorah
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In first, Turkish Jews light public menorah

Historic candle-lighting in Istanbul, on eighth night of Jewish festival of lights, attended by chief rabbi, government representatives

A menorah in Istanbul on December 13, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
A menorah in Istanbul on December 13, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)

For the first time in the history of modern Turkey, a public Hanukkah lighting ceremony was held Sunday night in Istanbul.

The event was organized by the municipality, and attended by the Turkish chief rabbi and members of the Jewish community, according to Turkey’s Jewish Şalom newspaper.

Government representatives were also present at the candle-lighting, which coincided with the eighth and final night of the Jewish Festival of Lights.

A video of the ceremony, held outside the scenic Ortakoy Mosque on the European side of the Bosphorus, showed the eight-branched candelabra set to be lit as the Muslim call to pray rang out. Pictures from the event posted on social media showed Turkish girls in headscarves standing beside the Jewish holiday lamp.

Last week, in a Hanukkah message, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “our Jewish citizens are an indispensable part of our society.”

“With these thoughts I wish peace, happiness and well-being to all Jews on the occasion of Hanukkah,” Erdogan said on December 7, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

Despite a rich history under the Ottomans — rising to prominence as ministers, traders and buccaneers — and active involvement in public life in the early Turkish Republic, Turkish Jews no longer contribute significantly to the country’s political or cultural life. In 1948 Turkey was home to about 80,000 Jews; three years later nearly 40% had left.

Officially, 17,300 Jews live in Turkey today, the vast majority in Istanbul, making it the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. A decade earlier, it was closer to 20,000.

Meanwhile, class sizes in Jewish kindergartens are shrinking, the birthrate is dropping, young Jewish Turks are emigrating, and the community is aging.

Hard statistics concerning the emigration of young Jews, however, are difficult to come by. The official figure, for example, doesn’t account for the rising number of high school graduates who have left for opportunities abroad.

Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.

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