David Asseo, the chief rabbi of Turkey who embodied the country’s Jewish community during his 41 years of service, died at 88 on Sunday.
A native of Istanbul and lifelong contributor to the Turkish Jewish community, he was an important advocate for interfaith relations in predominantly Muslim Turkey.
“Rabbi Asseo was a Jewish leader of colossal dimensions who successfully balanced numerous and sometimes difficult aspects of Jewish leadership,” said Steve Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “He will be sorely missed.”
Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said he was “deeply saddened” by Asseo’s death, while Prime Minister of Turkey Bulent Ecevit said Asseo “was a fine clergyman who always defended interreligious understanding and served for the peoples’ happiness.”
Elected chief rabbi of Turkey in 1961, Asseo’s career as a leader wove through both the academic and congregational side of the rabbinate.
His positions before he became chief rabbi included director of a rabbinical seminary in Haskoy, which he helped establish, and rabbi of the Haydarpasa congregation outside of Istanbul. He also served on the country’s Beit Din, or rabbinical court.
Asseo represented the Jewish community in meetings with presidents, prime ministers, ministers, political party leaders and local government representatives and spoke Hebrew, French, Italian, Greek and Ladino, a language derived from Spanish that is spoken by many of Turkey’s 20,000 Jews — many of whose ancestors first came to Turkey during the Spanish Inquisition.
After terrorists killed 22 people in an attack on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue in 1986, Leon Levy, honorary president of the American Sephardi Federation, attended the funeral service for the victims in Istanbul.
“There was an outpouring of religious leaders in different garbs and costumes, generals and ministers. It was a phenomenal experience, especially in 1986 when Jews did not get the sort of respect” they do today,” said Levy.
“Because of his presence, Jews received admiration,” Levy said.
“He took great pride in the fact he was able to maintain Jewish community unity,” said Linda Levi, assistant executive vice president for the JDC. “He was dignified, human and friendly. When he entered a room he had a way of making everyone feel comfortable.”
Asseo’s leadership assumed new importance recently because Turkey is in a period of political and economic turmoil, and recent unpublicized attacks on the Jewish community in Istanbul have fueled some fear of underground anti-Semitic Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey, which is a secular state.
But Levy downplayed the problems, saying “if ever a country reflected the democracy and freedom we have in the U.S., Turkey is the one.”
Such words echoed Asseo’s own respect for his native land. In 1997, he wrote, “Throughout the years that I have served as chief rabbi in the Turkish Republic, I can state without hesitation that all religions have been practiced in our country freely and unhindered.”
Isak Haleva, a former deputy chief rabbi who Levi said was “groomed” by Asseo, will serve as chief rabbi until Jewish community members formally vote.
Asseo is survived by two daughters and two grandsons.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.