It is the land of Choron, the birthplace of the Jewish people, where Avrohom Avinu lived and Yaakov Avinu married and raised the Shivtei Kah. It’s where the teivah rested after the yearlong mabul and where Antiochus of Chanukah infamy led his Evil Empire. It served as a refuge for Tanna’im escaping Roman persecution and for Spanish Jews escaping the expulsion. The Beis Yosef was written here, and it is in this land that Rav Shlomo Molcho was inspired to convert. The biblical cities of Sefarad, Ashkenaz, and Tzorfas — later transposed to Spain, Germany, and France — are within its borders.
Turkey, which today hosts a small Jewish community, mostly centered in Istanbul, is grappling with its worst earthquake in a century. The series of tremors toppled thousands of buildings and killed at least 36,000 people in both Turkey and neighboring Syria. The Jewish community was largely spared the quake’s effects, though the president of Antakya and his wife were killed. Their bodies were extracted from the rubble on Friday by a team of nearly 500 sent from Israel. Two shuls were damaged. The surviving members of the community were relocated to the Jewish community in Istanbul.
The earthquake, whose epicenter was on Turkey’s southeastern edge, near the border with Syria, likely means the end of the 2,500-year-old communities in the area, Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Chabad shaliach to Istanbul, told the Yated sadly.
“The fact that the Jewish community there has been affected is of course very devastating,” Rabbi Chitrik, who spent the week directing relief supplies to the hard-hit region, said. “Until the city will be rebuilt…” his voice trailed off. “The elderly people who make up the community, I’m not sure they are going to be around anymore. I’m not sure that they should; they can’t get back there. That is why it is so difficult.”
Turkey has long been the undeveloped land of antiquity, the treasure chest of history that for some reason remains off the list of explorers and pilgrims. Mount Ararat where the teivah lay is in its far east, with the village of Choron south of that. A well is gated off outside the ancient hamlet, which village elders claim to be where Yaakov met Rochel.
Choron today has a population of 8,500 who live about 20 miles away from its ancient namesake. A nondescript sign reading “Harran” heralds the beating heart of global antiquity. The names Ibrahim and Sarah are abundant, and the beehive-shaped replicas of the houses that Avohom and Yaakov likely saw are still standing. The ruins of the ancient University of Harran — the town’s local spelling — are still visible; it is the first founded under Islamic rule and it was here that the atom was first observed.
And in a bit of biblical coincidence, the village’s mayor told the Yated in an interview a year ago that an underground cave in the area is where Yisro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law, lived. The earthquake happened in the week of Parshas Yisro.
Mehmet Özyavuz, the mayor’s aide, told the Yated that three Choron residents had died in the disaster.
“It was terrible,” Özyavuz said. “It was 4:17 a.m. when we were sleeping. It was like the end of world. I thought everything was ended.”
Although the media reported extensively about a 2,000-year-old castle destroyed in the quake, Özyavuz said that even older structures in Choron were damaged.
“Many of the beehive houses are ruined,” he said. “Also, some of the arches at the old university collapsed. Many houses are damaged.”
Local lore has it that biblical Choronites lived in those beehive houses. Although they were destroyed a thousand years ago, they were subsequently rebuilt to look exactly as they did before. The university, too, was destroyed 800 years ago; it was not rebuilt but its distinctive arch towered proudly over the village and drew tourists.
When Rabbi Chitrik visited Antakya — Antioch in the Gemara — a year and a half ago, he met the last 14 Jews remaining from a kehillah that, thousands of years ago, was the jewel of the Torah world. Antioch was the capital city of the Seleucid Empire, whose emperor’s antics gave us Chanukah. Antiochus was the generic name for those kings, and it was from here that Antioches Epiphanes IV rode with his elephants to put down the Judean revolt.
One of the last Jews there was Azur Cenudioglu, whose family has been living there since the days of antiquity. “We have been here for 2,300 years,” Cenedioglu could be heard telling Rabbi Chitrik in a video.” There was no minyan so Azur would listen live to a shul in Yerushalayim, muttering “chazak ubaruch” to his iPhone as the baal korei finished the leining.
“I’m not that religious,” Azur explained apologetically, “but I try to keep whatever I can — I pray three times a day, keep Shabbos, put on tefillin, say Tehillim every day, keep kosher.”
“I gave him a hug and told him, ‘We need more nonreligious people like you in the world,’” Rabbi Chitrik said.
Cenedioglu escaped the quake, but his brother and sister-in-law, Saul and Fortuna Cenedioglu, did not. Saul had been the community’s president. Rabbi Chitrik raced over as soon as the earthquake hit to ensure the elderly members of the tiny community have what they need. He removed the sifrei Torah from the damaged shul and arranged for shipments of kosher food and medical supplies.
“When I arrived in Antakya, the situation was terrible,” he said. “I’m not sure if Antakya is the city that was the hardest hit, but from a Jewish perspective, definitely. It has the most devastating result because the only place in the area where there is a Jewish community and Jewish people is the city of Antakya. It has a very ancient Jewish community and Jews have been there since the time of the nes Chanukah, since the Syrian-Greek times. The Jewish community there is mentioned in the Gemara, that the Tanna’im and Amora’im visited there. The Medrash states that Rabi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel and many others were there. The community has been there for thousands of years without interruption.”
Rabbi Chitrik, an American and Israeli, has been rov of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Turkey since 2003, and three years ago became the founding chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States. He lays claim to being the only maggid shiur in the world to deliver a daily shiur in Ladino, the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish.
He said that his home city of Istanbul was not affected since it is at the other end of the country.
“The Jewish community in Istanbul was not directly affected by the event. Of course, we all have relatives in Antakya. I’ve been very much involved — I came with a group of the Jewish community to Antakya in order to save and to get the Jews of Antakya out. Sifrei Torah and people were brought from Antakya to our house and to the old age home of the Jewish community.”
“But the Jewish community of Istanbul was not directly affected by the earthquake. However, we have sent over a truckload of mehadrin meat and chicken to the 450-strong Israeli force who have been incredible. They’ve opened a field hospital and have saved lives — literally.”
“There are three shuls around where the earthquake hit. This is a synagogue in Gaziantep, in Kilis, and in Antakya. Gaziantep and Kilis do not have Jews living there — the shul in Kilis has some damage and the one in Gaziantep is okay. The shul in Antakya was damaged; we took out the sifrei Torah and brought them to safety.”
The ancient kehillah of Antakya survived Antiochus by 2,500 years, but last week’s earthquake ended it.
“It is very sad that the Jewish presence in that city has come to a sudden interruption,” Rabbi Chitrik said.
Letter from Rav Gershon Edelstein in light of the recent earthquakes and tragedies
To our Jewish brethren:
In recent days, the world has experienced multiple earthquakes, a phenomenon whose purpose is to awaken the Jewish people, as Chazal tell us, “Calamities come to the world only for the Jews.
” There has also been an increase in suffering and terrible tragedies, especially with the murders of pure soul
s who never tasted sin, may Hashem avenge their blood. It therefore behooves us to amass zechuyos and to daven from the depths of our hearts for mercy and for the injured to be healed.
We are not privy to Hashem’s calculations, but we are obligated to awaken ourselves at this time to make an accounting of our deeds and to mend our ways. Every person among us is aware of his own personal faults. In particular, we must improve our middos in our dealings with our fellow men. Every individual should set aside time every day to learn mussar, even if it is only for a few minutes, since this is known to prom
ote improvement in all the areas where it is required, and it also helps a person experience a life of contentment and joy.
May it be Hashem’s Will that we will soon experience His salvation.