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Behind the Headlines: New Jewish School is Front Line in War on Assimiliation in Turkey

In a city of about 12 million Muslims, the 22,000 Jews of Istanbul say their toughest enemy is assimilation, and they have declared war.

Their ammunition is a new Jewish school with top academic standards and state- of-art facilities, community education leaders told a visiting group of board members from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee here last week.

So far, $4 million has been invested and more funds are slated to be raised for the school, which the leaders call “a shield against assimilation.”

Jewish leaders in Istanbul admit to a rate of intermarriage of about 10 to 15 percent, but outside experts say the rate may be twice that.

Jews here are concerned about intermarriage and dwindling numbers, in part because religious communities here enjoy official government recognition as minorities entitled to special rights only if they number at least 15,000 members.

While there are no official figures available, the community estimates there are 25,000 Jews in Turkey today.

The new Jewish school, scheduled to open in September for 750 students, will operate with a $1.4 million initial annual budget and will gradually serve 1,000 students, from primary through high school grades.

The Jewish educators say the principal aim in building the new school is to attract back into the Jewish educational system the students who have left over the years to attend more competitive non-Jewish school.

“It is the ultimate, biggest, most important project this community has ever undertaken,” Beti Delevi, a member of the school board, told the JDC delegation. “It is our pride. Therefore we have to be successful.”

The Jews of Istanbul are financially self-sufficient and are not seeking Diaspora funding, per se, explained Avi Alkas, the vice president of the community’s executive council.

But they need and welcome technical assistance in their ambitious undertaking, in areas such as library construction, computers, Hebrew language learning and teacher training, the said.

For years, the community has been getting professional help in education from the Jewish Agency-World Zionist Organization’s Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education. The Joint Authority provides teachers, Jewish studies curricula, guidance on youth activities and programs in Israel for Turkish youth.

More recently the JDC has stepped in to lend its technical help. With the Joint Authority and the JDC, the community is now planning Jewish camps on the three nearby islands where the vast majority of Istanbul’s Jews spend their summers. The camps are scheduled to begin operating this summer.

“The Turkish Jewish community has placed Jewish education very high on the communal agenda because it views it as being key to Jewish continuity,” said David Harman, director-general of the Joint Authority in Jerusalem.

The new school will replace the elementary and junior high schools run by Istanbul’s Jews for nearly 80 years. They currently offer the secular 25-hour curriculum mandated by the nation’s Ministry of Education, supplemented by three to five hours weekly of instruction in Hebrew language and Jewish history and culture.

Tuition is paid by students who can afford it, while the community subsidizes those who cannot.

While the quality of education at the Jewish schools used to be high, the community leaders say it has declined in recent decades, prompting many parents to send their children to other, non-Jewish private schools.

Ninety-five percent of Jewish students in Istanbul go to university, which the leaders describe as a prerequisite to success in Turkey. The non-Jewish, “foreign” schools in the city enjoy a better reputation than the Jewish high school for preparing students to compete for entrance into a good university, they say.

Although the educators concede the new schools will not increase the amount of Jewish education now offered, they hope the quality of the program will attract more Jewish students who might otherwise not receive a Jewish education.

“While assimilation of the Istanbul Jewish community hasn’t (increased) at the same rate as in most Western countries, there is still an alarming growth in intermarriages,” said Delevi.

“In this context, the presence of a Jewish school of high standards which would attract not only the children of conservative families, but also those of modern liberal families, who are more inclined to assimilate, gains particular importance.”

The new school is located in a “prestigious residential district around which a considerable percentage of the Jewish community lives,” said Delevi. She explained that the need for the school stemmed in part from the migration of the bulk of the Jewish community away from the area around the existing schools to the “newer, more fashionable districts in Istanbul.”

But, more important, the new school was a response to “the gradual decline in the level of education and academic standards of the student body and the inevitable loss of faith in the schools.” This resulted in the need for heavy subsides and in dwindling enrollment, she said.

“We wanted to change the (school’s) image and compete with the foreign schools,” said Hayim Hason, a member of the board of education and general secretary of the community’s Talmud Torah, the community’s extracurricular Hebrew school, which will run the islands’ summer camps.

“For that, we needed a good building and (the best) academic program” added Hason. He said the new school was the inspiration of Bernar Nahum a successful 80-year-old local businessman, himself a graduate of the Istanbul Jewish schools.

A board of trustees of about 30 business leaders govern the school’s funding. At least 10 percent of the student body will be given scholarships.

In addition to classrooms, the new campus will house two libraries, science and computer labs, an auditorium, a kosher kitchen, and indoor and outdoor recreation areas, Delevi said.

In the high school, the Education Ministry’s curriculum will be supplemented by Jewish studies, computer studies and intensive English, which will be the language of instruction for math and science, she said.

An emphasis is being placed on teacher training, recruitment and evaluation, she said.

Delevi said the stakes in the school are high. “If it succeeds, it will prove there is a viable, credible alternative to the Turkish system. If it fails, I believe the Turkish Jewish community will never undertake such a big project in the future.”

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