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Earthquake shatters tiny Jewish community in Turkey's Antakya

Antakya was once home to a thriving Jewish community, but after this week's earthquakes, the few Jews who still lived there are unlikely to return.
Destruction in Antakya, Turkey, is seen in this screen grab from a video take Feb. 6, 2023.

As of Wednesday morning, the president of the small Jewish community in Antakya, Saul Cenudioglu, and his wife Fortuna are still missing. Their house was severely damaged during the first of the two earthquakes that struck southeastern Turkey on Monday. The other members of the small Antakya Jewish community — some 25 people in all — survived the earthquake.

Interviewed on Wednesday afternoon by Israel's public broadcaster KAN, the couple's daughter Rachel pleaded with Israeli authorities to send a rescue team to Antakya. So far, Israeli rescue delegations are setting up in Adana and Gaziantep.

A delegation from the Jewish community of Istanbul arrived to Antakya shortly after the earthquakes. Ashkenazi Rabbi of Istanbul Mendel Chitrik, who also serves as chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, headed the delegation. Roaming the streets of city, the delegation managed to locate most of the community members, mostly elderly, and brought them back with them to Istanbul.

While in Antakya, Rabbi Chitrik managed to enter into the town's old synagogue, which survived the earthquake but suffered severe cracks in its walls. The rabbi removed the ancient torah scrolls that were stored there and took them to a safe site.

Most Turkish Jews, estimated at 15,000, live in Istanbul, with a small community in Izmir. Antakya’s Jewish community is one of the oldest in the south of Turkey, and was established some 2,500 years ago by Jews originating from Aleppo in Syria. The torah scrolls of the Antakya synagogue are at least 400 years old. Much like the Jews in other Turkish towns, most of Antakya's left the city in the 1970s, when a wave of political violence swept over the country. Until two decades ago, some Jews lived in communities in other parts of southern Turkey, such as Adana and Iskenderun, but for the past few years, Antakya had remained the last functioning community.

The Conference of European Rabbis, which includes rabbis from Turkey, is closely following rescue efforts in the south of the country. The organization confirmed to Al-Monitor that the Antakya synagogue has indeed been damaged. One of the group’s members is Rabbi Yitzhak Peres, who serves the Istanbul community. Peres has been in contact with the Turkish authorities since the earthquakes struck.

"The Turkish Jewish community is fully mobilized for the missing people and for the injured in the earthquakes. We have halted all our community activities in Istanbul, focusing on prayers for those injured and for finding the people missing. We bless all those who came from Israel and from other parts of the world to participate in rescue efforts. This is a true mission of grace," Peres told Al-Monitor.

Jews of Antakya fear that with the damage suffered by their city and most members leaving, community life there will never be restored.

President of the Turkish Jewish Community Ishak Ibrahimzade tweeted Monday, “The end of a 2,500-year-old love story.”

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