My driver turned onto a nondescript street in Istanbul Turkey and stopped. It took a few minutes to see that amongst the colorful fruit shops and bakeries was a grey stone building that sat unceremoniously on this narrow street. The Neve Shalom Synagogue which opened in 1951, had wrought iron gates featuring large Stars of David but unless you knew that this was you destination, as it was mine, it could easily have gone unnoticed.
Although I had arranged for the interview, before allowing me through the large doorway I was asked for my passport which I had luckily brought with me. My guide and translator Ayhon, was also asked for his identification papers.
As we waited outside, a small group of Americans who had gathered, were also waiting to enter. It was the day before Yom Kippur and they had intended to attend services at this Sephardic synagogue that evening and the next day. Even after being given the okay to enter, large TV monitors and detection instruments scrutinized us while a guard searched handbags. But once in the actual synagogue, the non-English speaking ‘shamash’, Moishe, a man of about 65, wearing a ‘kippa’ over his greying hair, was forthcoming and talked about the tragic incident in 1986 that made this synagogue an unexpected international news headliner.
The Orthodox ‘shul’, Aragon Synagogue, the largest in Turkey, was once the place of prayer for the Jews who had migrated from Spain in the 15th century. By the end of the 19th century, a Jewish primary school had been built on this site and by 1960 was re-designed to provide better access to the street. Today there are payers on Shabbat only overseen by the one rabbi and currently weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and funerals are still held.
Inside the 700 wood seat hall there are the predictable stain-glass windows and high dome, a bema and a ‘chupah’ which is a brass arch located towards the back of the room. The balconies are built from carved wood and reinforced concrete.
There are ten Sephardic and one Azkenazy synagogues in Istanbul where there are still approxmiately 17,000 Jews. One could never opine on why Neve Shalom Synagogue encountered that catastrophic attack by two terrorists killing themselves and 23 worshippers.
Moishe points out the bullet hole in the wooden seat then takes me to the bema where the bomb exploded leaving the marble in ruins. Although the damage was wide spread, restoration was completed in only eight months, made possible by donations from the community and visitors. So that this devastation should be remembered, a gold color metal, probably brass but couldn’t be translated, outlines the damaged wall which had been demolished. Under a rug, Moishe shows me the now discolored but restored marble which had also been turned into debris.
Since the holy holiday prevented a lengthy tour, Moishe led us out but not before showing us a plaque which had the names of the 23 members who had been massacred on that Friday evening, over a decade ago.