May 14, 2009

Women Ensure Jewish Education for the Next Generation in Southern Turkey

Ami Bergman, JDC's Country Director for Turkey and Egypt will join us on Tuesday, May 19 for the JDC Ambassadors Circle Global Symposium to share his insights into this vibrant Jewish community as well as JDC's work in Turkey.

This year, the Jewish community of Izmir celebrates a very special milestone: the 10-year anniversary of its Sunday School. Though the birth of the Sunday School was bittersweet—it was launched to fill a gap left by the forced closure of the community’s beloved, long-running Talmud Torah Jewish Day School due to low enrollment and changes in the standards of government-enforced education—with guidance from JDC, the program itself has brought Jewish knowledge and a surge in women volunteers as teachers.

“When the Talmud Torah closed, we were very sad,” explains Sunday School founder Sara Pardo, who is warmly defined as “mother” and “older sister” to the community’s 1,500 Jews. “The closing of a Jewish school is like the closing of an era. It was a tragedy.”

But Sarah turned tragedy into action to ensure Jewish education for Izmir’s children. She organized a group of mothers to create a new school that would pass on the traditions and the heritage of Izmir’s ancient Jewish community.

It was the Izmir community’s executive committee that appointed Sara to “do something with the children,” she recalls. “Those were their exact words: ‘Do something!’ But I was so naive then, I had no idea what we could do.”

With no available space in any of Izmir’s one-room synagogues, Sara and her newly recruited group of young mothers and housewives found an apartment that could host the fledgling school.
“Many people in the community rejected this idea at first; they were concerned that we didn’t know anything about teaching,” Sara says. “And they were right, we didn’t! But all the time I was reading books and trying to learn everything myself.”

After the school survived one year, Sara and her 10 women volunteers received some much needed support from Dina, a Turkish Jew living in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“Dina came from the United States with two suitcases full of books and stayed with us a full week, teaching the women from morning until night. She taught us how to teach,” Sara explained.

One of Sara’s early teaching protégés, Ester Cen, remembers what it was like learning enough about Judaism to pass it on to her students. “Those were exciting days, but frightening also because we realized we would be responsible for teaching the kids everything they needed to know about Judaism. But this project that Sara started was not just about educating children; she trained a generation of women who would in turn be able to educate generations of children.”
The Turkish women visited Dina’s Cherry Hill home and her synagogue, Beth Shalom, where they witnessed first hand the inner workings of a successful Sunday School.

Simone Alaluf recalls the important lessons each woman gleaned from the visit. “It was like a dream,” she says. “It’s not like we were kids; we were grown women having this amazing experience. We saw how organized they were and we learned lots of new ideas from them. We tried to get as much information as we could, but we were not professionals; we were just volunteers.”

The women returned to Izmir inspired and motivated to turn their humble beginnings into an institution—a lasting legacy. Sara happily reports that even the community members who originally opposed the idea eventually sent their children and praised the Sunday School’s success. With Jewish education, curriculum, and professional development support from a JDC Jewish Service Corps volunteer over the past number of years, the school has become the backbone of the community.

Though the Jewish community in Izmir has slowly begun to shrink in numbers, especially as Jewish young adults leave for Istanbul and elsewhere to attend university, after 10 years the volunteer teachers still lead classes for the children each Sunday for two hours. “Sunday School is a symbol of our Jewishness here in Turkey,” Sara shares. “If we close it, we are finished. This is the place for the children, and as long as there are children in this community, we will continue with it.”

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