Turkeys new head rabbi weighs tradition against a volatile future

ISTANBUL — Most rabbis have only their immediate predecessors' shoes to fill, but the ones Rabbi Isak Haleva has stepped into are significantly bigger.

As the new chief rabbi of Turkey, Haleva takes over a 500-year-old position, one that dates back to when the Ottoman sultan welcomed to his empire Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

The historical weight of his position is something Haleva can't ignore. On the wall are the portraits of five centuries worth of bearded and turbaned Turkish chief rabbis gazing down upon him.

Haleva was installed as the Turkish Jewish community's chief rabbi last December in an ornate ceremony held at Istanbul's main synagogue, Neve Shalom.

Turkey's head rabbi is known as the Hahambashi, a combination of the Turkish word for "chief" and the Hebrew word for "wise man." Haleva replaces the late Rabbi David Asseo, who served as the country's chief rabbi for more than 40 years until his death last year at the age of 88. Haleva, 63, was Asseo's deputy for seven years.

As the new Hahambashi, Haleva takes over during what he describes as a particularly challenging time for Turkish Jewry, a community with a storied history but a small present-day population. Following decades of emigration, mostly to Israel, Turkey's Jews now number around 25,000, mostly centered in Istanbul, with a smaller community in Izmir.

While the title of Hahambashi is a very old one, Haleva's appointment is something of a first in that starting with him, the office will no longer be a lifetime appointment, but instead limited to a seven-year term.

During an interview in his spacious Istanbul office, located in a renovated building in the heart of a historic neighborhood that used to be home to most of the city's Jews, Haleva explained some of the challenges he and the Turkish Jewish community face. Although the community is close-knit, Haleva said one of the main tasks facing him is to reach out the younger generation, many of whom are in danger of losing their connection to the community.

"Our most important challenge is the future generation and its lack of knowledge," Haleva said, speaking in fluent and rapidly delivered Sephardi-accented Hebrew, the product of years of study at the Porat Yosef yeshiva in Israel, a center for Sephardi learning. "The Hagaddah talks about four sons, but now we are dealing with a fifth son — one who is completely disconnected from everything. This is something we have to deal with. Even the bad son makes trouble, but he is still within the framework of the community."

In response to this challenge, Haleva said, the organized Turkish Jewish community has created a number of initiatives aimed at young adults, including the launching of an educational Web site, offering day trips for singles and opening a meeting spot in one of Istanbul's Jewish neighborhoods which offers classes and activities for young Jews.

"We're trying to set it up the way they want things," said Haleva, who has a trim, gray goatee and is dressed in a long black gown with a wide satin purple stripe running down the front. "We are sowing the seeds. My main mission today is to focus on education, and that education will influence other aspects, including family life."

Haleva knows about the influence education can have on Jewish life.

As a 7-year-old, he came with his father to Istanbul from Edirne — a city near Turkey's western border with Bulgaria and Greece — to study in a Jewish school. By the time Haleva was a teenager, he had done so well in his studies that his teachers decided to send him to yeshiva in Israel so that he could learn to become a rabbi.

According to people who know him, Haleva was a prankster as a youth, and he still exudes a lighthearted and down-to-earth manner, illustrating his points with folksy Hebrew and Turkish sayings.

It's a style that seems appropriate for the Turkish Jewish community.

"In our community you don't have Orthodox, non-Orthodox, religious, secular," Haleva, who has four sons, one of them a rabbi in Istanbul, said. "If I tell someone to come to synagogue, it's my problem that they come; it's their problem how they get there."

Adds Haleva: "This is something that is hard for Ashkenazi Jews to understand. With Ashkenazim, if someone is religious they are religious and if they are not, they are not. We have something different. A Jew is a Jew, and we don't go to extremes on either side. To be a fanatic, even a righteous one, is not a good thing. We try to find a middle way — a little fire, a little ice."

As the new Hahambashi, Haleva came into office right after the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey, which were won in a landslide by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a party with roots in Islamist politics. Although there were some initial concerns over what the AKP's victory might mean for Turkey's Jewish community, Haleva said he does not share those concerns.

"Believe me, I'm not worried about the new government," said Haleva, who teaches classes on Jewish thought and texts to Islamic theology students at an Istanbul university. "I have very good relations with them and I think they understand us a lot better than the previous government.

"Islam and Judaism have a lot of parallels," Haleva continued. "The Muslims have always been the older brother of the Jews. The real Islam was the older brother of Yitzhak, of Israel," Haleva said, referring to the biblical forefather Isaac.

"There hasn't been a problem between Islam and the Jews in Turkey. That's an important thing."