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Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Synagogue in Istanbul rebuilds after successive attacks

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The interior of Neve Shalom [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Judging by its graceful name, Neve Shalom, Istanbul’s biggest synagogue and spiritual heart of Turkey’s venerable Jewish community, is an oasis of peace.

Neve Shalom, however, has not known peace since 1986, when it was subjected to the first of three terrorist attacks, two of which were devastating in their effect and impact.

 After each brutal and heartless assault, Neve Shalom, located in Istanbul’s historic and colourful Beyoglu quarter, licked its grievous wounds, rebuilt and returned from the dead.

Situated on a drab narrow street of modest light-fixture stores and lying in the shadow of one of Istanbul’s iconic landmarks, the Galata Tower, the synagogue was the object of aggression on Sept. 6, 1986, March 1, 1992, and Nov. 16, 2003.

The first attack, attributed to the radical Abu Nidal Palestinian group and claiming the lives of 21 Jews, including two refugees from Iran, was the work of a pair of Arabs firing submachine guns and throwing hand grenades.

The first such assault on Turkish Jews since the creation of Turkey’s secular republic in 1923, it sent shock waves through the tight-knit community.

In the second incident, gunmen affiliated with Hezbollah threw hand grenades at the synagogue, injuring a Jewish passerby.

Eleven years later, in the most serious attacks of their kind, Neve Shalom and its sister shul, Bet Israel, in the upscale Sisi district, were simultaneously targeted by a Turkish extremist group calling itself the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front.

In this car-bomb attack – which caused extensive property damage, left a huge crater in the street and was roundly denounced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – 23 people were killed, including Muslims and Jews, and 255 were wounded. Among the injured were Isak Haleva, Turkey’ chief rabbi, and his son, Yosef, who suffered serious facial wounds and required eye surgery.

A Neve Shalom employee who prefers to remain anonymous happened to be in the synagogue on that fateful morning in 2003, and was slightly injured by shrapnel.

“A bar mitzvah was in session,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Windows were shattered by the blast. Smoke filled the sanctuary.”

Sami Herman, the current president of the Jewish community, claims the last attack was aimed not only at Jews but at Turkey itself.

Silvyo Ovadya, who was then the community’s president, agrees with Herman’s assessment.

“No doubt the initial purpose of these bombings was killing our people and inflicting pain on us and world Jewry,” he told the JTA news agency a year after Neve Shalom was reopened in a solemn ceremony. But the bombings were also an attempt to “damage the peaceful social fabric of Turkish society and upset and derail Turkey,” he added.

Thanks to financial assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the U.S.-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Neve Shalom was reconstructed.

Its resurrection notwithstanding, the bombings had a chilling effect on congregants and left a trail of trauma, said Ivo Vedat Molinas, the chief editor of the community’s newspaper, Salom.

Sami Kohen, one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists, concurs. “The bombings set off a lot of concern and anxiety, but no panic.”

Nor did they prompt considerable number of Jews to leave Turkey, he observed.

Since then, security has been tightened considerably at Neve Shalom, which was built on the site of a Jewish primary school and whose first service took place on March 25, 1951.

Today, fortified walls protect the synagogue building, and visitors cannot come and go as they please, being forced to pass through a metal detector and two heavy steel doors before reaching the interior.

The bare lobby brings back bitter memories.

The stylized Star of David, which was riddled with shrapnel in 2003, now hangs inside on a wall as a painful reminder that terrorism is random and can strike at any moment.

Two plaques with the inscribed names of the Jewish and Muslim victims from 1986 and 2003 stare down balefully at visitors.

 I jotted down some names: David Behar, Aser Ergun, Daniel Daryo Baruh, Eliezer Hara, Moiz Saul, Yako Matalon, Isak Gerson, Bensiyon Levi, Israel Yoel Ulcer, Yona Romano, Bulent Bostannoglu, Mehmet Erus and Murat Sahin.

A fancy chandelier in a hallway, I learned, was contributed by the Israeli government. The chandelier, ominously yet inspirationally enough, was salvaged from the wreckage of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires struck by Arab terrorists on March 17, 1992, a bombing that killed 29 Israelis and Argentinian citizens.

These are the sole tangible reminders that tragedy has befallen Neve Shalom once too often. Otherwise, the synagogue, open only on Saturday mornings and for High Holidays, cultural events, weddings and bar mitzvahs, seems normal in appearance.

But in Istanbul, a city that has borne the brunt of innumerable terrorist attacks since the 1970s, appearances can indeed be deceiving.

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