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Life and Death in Istanbul

Life and Death in Istanbul

First-person account of the devastating synagogue bombings in Turkey.

by Yossi K.

Yossi K., age 37, is a prominent businessman and member of the Jewish community in Istanbul, Turkey. He was at the Beth Israel Synagogue on Shabbat morning, November 15, 2003, when truck bombs exploded there and at a nearby synagogue, killing 23 people and wounding more than 300.

In this exclusive, Yossi, married and the father of two, describes the events.

* * *

I've been attending Shabbat morning services at Beth Israel for the past 15 years. This week was a special dedication ceremony of the newly renovated hall, and the shul was packed with people -- including the chief rabbi of Turkey and all the community leaders.

The back of the building (which was actually the front of the synagogue) was made up of two huge, beautiful stained glass walls that had been installed only a few weeks before. That's where the terrorists planted the bomb, realizing that this was a soft target.

I usually sit in the first few rows, but this time since it was so crowded I sat in the back. It was probably the first time in 15 years that I sat in the back. And because of that I was farther from the explosion and was saved from injury or death.

Toward the end of the Torah reading, we suddenly heard a loud noise, followed by a tremendous quake, and then debris was flying everywhere. In that first instant, I had a frozen picture in my mind of everything happening, like the Big Bang.

I always had in the back of my mind that something terrible might happen, with these glass walls abutting a narrow street. But of course I was not thinking about it at that moment. But then when the bomb went off, before I was even conscious of what was happening, I know viscerally that the moment had come and we'd been hit.

After the bomb went off, the room filled with a cloud of thick smoke. People were running in all directions, afraid of further explosions. I checked myself and was covered with blood. I bent down, covering myself in my tallit, and prayed, "Shema Yisrael."

The gas line had ruptured and could ignite at any moment, exploding the entire block.

I saw that one of the interior walls was collapsing, so I ran to hold it up so that people would be able to pass. Then I went to the front and noticed gray plumes of natural gas gushing out, where the gas line had ruptured. I knew it could ignite at any moment, exploding the entire block of buildings. I quickly opened the Holy Ark and took out some of the Torah scrolls.

Then I heard our chazan calling my name: "Yossi! Yossi! Please help get me out of here…" His leg was shattered and he could not move. At the same time other people were yelling, "Evacuate immediately!" because of the danger of the natural gas exploding.

I had to make an instantaneous decision: Do I stay to help or run out to save my own life? There was no way that I could leave the chazan there. My mind flashed back to seven years ago when I was in a terrible auto accident. My head and limbs were so badly injured that when the ambulance came, they took my friend but left me there, thinking I was dead.

When the doctor finally arrived, he realized that my lung had deflated and was filled with blood. He told me I could die at any second and he would have to perform an emergency procedure right there. It was then that I experienced how a person's deeds are calculated in Heaven. Everything is recorded on a balance sheet, the good and the bad; nothing is hidden and there is no longer any time for excuses. So I made a vow then to always choose to do good, and to be ready to rise to the challenge whenever it will come, because in life, the opportunity to do the right thing, something truly meaningful, happens suddenly and without warning.

So as I heard the chazan calling out to me, I was not afraid of death. I knew that "doing the right thing" was even more important than surviving this attack. Some things are more important than life itself.

As the chazan cried out for help, I realized that God was sending me to save him.

When I had my accident, I prayed that God should send me someone to save me. It was only by a miracle that I survived. So standing there in the synagogue, as the chazan cried out for help, I realized that God was sending me to save him.

I sensed that the chazan knew that, too, and I felt the chazan's faith in God depended on me. I could not disappoint him; I could not cause him to think that God would abandon him at that time. So I grabbed a few people and we moved the chazan to safety.

I don't know who did these bombings, but I don't believe it was Turkish Muslims. Turks are very friendly and sympathetic toward the Jews and we have no anti-Semitic incidents. The Turks are not Arabs. They are peaceful Muslims, and the government is politically secular. Turkey has strong military, diplomatic and economic ties with Israel, and in 1948 Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the Jewish state.

But the Istanbul Jewish community has had other difficulties the last few years. In 1986, Palestinian gunmen killed 22 worshipers during Shabbat services, and in 1992 Hizbullah bombed a synagogue. In addition, assimilation is on the rise, poverty is increasing, and our community of 20,000 Jews is dwindling.

To counteract these difficulties I believe it's crucial to bring more intensive Jewish education to our community. I would like the Jewish community to emphasize more of the spiritual side, the connection with God, and less of the material. We are losing our spiritual identity, both as individuals and as a community. I think these killings force each and every Jew to answer the following question: Why be Jewish?

This is an existential question and it is exploding in our faces.

Please pray for the recovery of those wounded in the attacks.

November 16, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Anonymous, December 22, 2003 12:00 AM

how do we help? where send donations?

a few people have asked me how to help the families of the victims of the bombing--also for re-building the shuls.

(16) Esterina, November 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Istanbul's bombing hits close to my roots

My husband returned from shul on shabbat hearing abouting the devastation from our gentile neighbors.He did not want to tell me since my roots are from Turkey and Salonicka Greece. I felt like my family was targetted just as previously my parents were taken to Auschwitz from Salonicka Greece. Our sister city Istanbul is now grieving of their Sephardim of Past.

(15) Manfred Thaller, November 24, 2003 12:00 AM

I pray for the victims of terrorism

Not just anybody could have done what you did yossi. You are truly a hero.

(14) Joel Katzman, November 18, 2003 12:00 AM

The "Life and Death in Instabul", by Yossi was both shocking and inspirational. Everybody, should know about Yossi's heroism, his strong desire to perform a mitzvah, and his faith. He is an inspiration to me and should be to all Jews. We are facing a very difficult phase in our history, not unlike times not so long ago. Yossi can be a light showing us how to workthrough this darkness.

(13) Sara Rigler, November 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Beautiful, inspiring article

The image of Yossi in a bombed-out synagogue filled with leaking gas choosing to do the right thing, even at the risk of his life, is a powerful lesson which will stay with me a long time. May the Almighty send him many more years in good health to inspire his community.

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