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Rabbis forge special bond in Islamic world

Istanbul-based Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States connects Jewish communities in some 20 predominantly Muslim countries and regions across Africa, Asia and Europe, in an effort to enable them to sustain their faith and thrive in their homelands.
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik (L).

A rabbi in Iran asks for advice about a religious divorce in his community; a rabbi in Egypt inquires about the well-being of the Jewish community in Tunis after a disturbance outside their synagogue; three rabbis from Kazakhstan, Turkey and Egypt send a selfie from their meeting at a conference on kosher certification. “The messages can be quite random,” Rabbi Mendy Chitrik of Istanbul remarked as he scrolled through the chat group of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS) recently. “But the rabbis finally have a platform where they can consult each other.”

Around 100,000 Jews live in Muslim countries around the world, according to the organization, many of them in isolated pockets and with little access to resources. Until a couple of years ago, some communities barely knew of each other. It was only at the inaugural summit of ARIS last year, for example, that the Chief Rabbi of Iran was introduced to the rabbi of a Jewish community in neighboring Azerbaijan.

Today, the ARIS brings together more than 50 rabbis in the Islamic world, connecting Jewish communities in close to 20 predominantly Muslim countries and regions across Africa, Asia and Europe in an effort to enable them to sustain their faith and thrive in their homelands. Despite having started out on the brink of the pandemic, the initiative has quickly gained traction among Jewish communities in Islamic countries and won support from governments.

“We said, let’s make an alliance, we could help each other,” Chitrik told Al-Monitor about his initial meeting in December 2019 with rabbis from Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Nigeria, when ARIS was conceived. “We're all in Muslim countries, we have a lot of things in common, and we could help each other in ways that rabbinical organizations from Europe and America cannot.”

The alliance connects rabbis from a diverse range of Jewish communities, including Sephardi Jews, whose ancestors hailed from the Iberian peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East, and Ashkenazi Jews, who are descended from communities in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Chabad rabbis, who are members of a movement working to support Jewish religious life around the world.

Chitrik, who was confirmed as chairman of ARIS at the inaugural summit in Istanbul in December 2021, is the rabbi of Istanbul’s Ashkenazi community and a member of Chabad. Born 45 years ago in Israel to American parents of German and Russian descent, he has been living and working as a rabbi in Turkey for over 20 years.

“As an organization, we are trying to support the ongoing work of rabbis,” Chitrik said of ARIS. “We focus on the rabbis to give every individual rabbi support for what he does in his country.”

So far, this has included assisting the Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates in building a kosher certification program; helping the last Jew of Afghanistan evacuate after the fall of Kabul last year; supporting the restoration of Jewish heritage sites in Egypt; building a mikvah, a ritual bath, for a community in Dubai; and helping a rabbi in Northern Cyprus lobby authorities for permission to build a synagogue for the 200 Jews who presently have to crowd into his home to pray.

“And when there are other Jewish religious issues, we try to help find the answer, sit together, try to help each other to find the resources, discuss matters of Jewish law,” Chitrik said. “It's a multifaceted organization, it’s rabbinical, it’s advocacy and all these things.”

Coming together as rabbis in the Islamic world has also facilitated contacts with authorities in their home countries, the rabbis have found. “First, because it has created an address,” Chitrik explained. “When people see that there's an organization of rabbis which is based in Muslim countries, they feel much more comfortable to call up and say, for example, there's a (Jewish) cemetery here. Can you guys come down to check it out; can you try to find a way of fixing it?”

Such calls have come in from several places, including Pakistan, Chitrik said. “It's much easier for them to call a rabbi living in Turkey or the Emirates or any other Muslim country than to call a rabbi in Europe or a rabbi in America or definitely not a rabbi in Israel,” he said. “Because it's less sensitive, it's less threatening.”

A further raison d’etre for the organization is that rabbis in Islamic countries have some concerns in common that are not shared by rabbis in Europe or America, Chitrik said. “As rabbis in the Muslim world, we understand the cultural sensitivities” of Muslim societies, he said. Those sensitivities are not necessarily negative. “Look at what is happening in Europe, where so many countries have issues with kosher slaughter,” Chitrik said. “We don't have such issues in the Muslim world at all.”

The greatest impact ARIS has had, in the opinion of its chairman and co-founder, is in its outreach to the wider world, raising global awareness of Jewish life in Islamic countries. “Definitely I would say that our most important — our significant success has been to bring to the attention of the world that there are 100,000 Jews in the Muslim world,” Chitrik said.

That number is well down from a century ago when a million Jews still lived in Islamic countries. Many moved to Israel after the creation of the state in 1948, while others left Algeria for France. Today, four Islamic countries in particular still have significant Jewish populations: Turkey and Iran around 12,000 to 15,000 each, by the communities’ own estimates, while Azerbaijan is home to around 20,000 Jews and Kazakhstan to 15,000 to 20,000, though exact figures are difficult to come by. Smaller Jewish communities represented by their rabbis in ARIS are located in Albania, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Uzbekistan as well as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in Russia, Kosovo and Northern Cyprus.

Jewish communities have deep historical roots in some Islamic countries. In Turkey, for example, Romaniote Jews can trace their history back 2,700 years to the Roman Empire, while Mizrahi Jews have also been in Anatolia since biblical times. Today, Sephardi Jews constitute the majority of Turkey’s Jewish population over a smaller community of Ashkenazis.

In other Islamic countries, communities have sprung up more recently, as in the United Arab Emirates, where Jewish life has begun to flourish since the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab countries, including the UAE, two years ago. Dubai now offers half a dozen kosher restaurants as well as daily Jewish prayer groups, thanks to the efforts of an energetic young rabbi and the support of the government. And though the Emirates do not have an indigenous Jewish population, “when you have a synagogue and kosher facilities and a Jewish school, it’s a whole different story,” Chitrik said. “It invites other people to come and seek the opportunities.”

As in the UAE, ARIS endeavors to interface with governments of host countries to foster a hospitable environment for Jewish life. Turkey for one has taken the rabbis up on that bid. When ARIS met in Istanbul for its first summit last year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a plane to bring the rabbis to his palace in Ankara for a kosher dinner and a two-hour chat.

The outreach to sometimes authoritarian governments may have its critics, Chitrik conceded, pointing out that ARIS is a voluntary group that does not speak for every Jew. “Yes, I could understand that some people have issues with it, that they want to be able to live their life in a more accepting society,” he said. “But we understand, living in this region, that that's something that takes time.”

Jews had survived in the region for centuries with “a constant weight on their shoulders,” Chitrik said. “It's a certain challenge to try to learn how to maneuver it. At the same time, we are thankful for what we have, and we try to work for a brighter future.”

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