Meet the Istanbul-based rabbi behind the evacuation of Afghanistan's 'last Jew'
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik took an active role in evacuating Zebulun Simantov, who arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 17 after Turkey granted him a visa
An Istanbul-based rabbi who explores Turkey’s Jewish heritage through his travels across the country gained new distinction last week for helping to evacuate to safety, along with Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, the man known as Afghanistan’s last Jew.
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik is chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS), a group that works to connect and support the activities of rabbis serving Jewish communities in predominantly Muslim countries.
Born in Israel, Chitrik has been living in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, since 2003, and he took an active role in evacuating Zebulun Simantov, who arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 17 after Turkey granted him a visa.
The 44-year-old rabbi, who is fluent in Turkish, is a supervisor for kosher food by profession, checking if companies abide by the requirements of Jewish law, similar to Muslim halal standards.
Two years ago he was elected chairman of ARIS, which brings together 45 rabbis in 14 predominantly Muslim countries, including Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Kosovo, and many others.
“We also try to help isolated Jews who live in various places,” Chitrik, wearing a kippah (yarmulke) and fringe tassel (tzitzit), told Anadolu Agency.
“It's much easier to help a Jew in Afghanistan or Lebanon or in Libya when it’s an organization (helping them) which is based in Muslim countries than to start sending them Jewish materials from New York or Brussels,” he explained during an interview at Istanbul’s historic Tofre Begadim (Schneider) Synagogue, a building which today is used as an art gallery.
So the group was in touch with Simantov, 62, “providing him with his Jewish needs,” Chitrik said.
When the Taliban rapidly swept in and took over Kabul this August, “we were worried” about Simantov, he said, adding that he had a long history with the Taliban, and in the past was even briefly arrested and later released.
‘Turkey has a history of saving people’
In the beginning Simantov “was quite comfortable staying in Afghanistan,” a country which once had a significant Jewish community, mostly in the Herat province on the Iranian border where he was born before moving to the capital Kabul, Chitrik said.
“So, when the Taliban came, first he said he wants to stay. But as things changed, and he became a little bit stressed, saying that flights are stopping, he got worried, so he asked to be evacuated.”
Although Chitrik was not an active part of his evacuation from Afghanistan, he was updated about Simantov’s situation and when he was in a neighboring country for some time, there were safety concerns, he said.
That is when Chitrik acted to help Simantov get a transit visa from Turkey, where he is now waiting to move on to his final destination.
“Turkey has a history of saving people,” Chitrik said. “From the Jews of Hungary in 1350. The Jews of Spain in 1492, and to the professors who were expelled from Germany in the 1930s and many others,” he said, adding that his own grandmother came through Turkey in 1936 when they fled Soviet Russia.
Turkey has had Jewish communities since ancient times, and many expelled Spanish and Portuguese Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Istanbul in particular still retains a Jewish community. Turkey is also known for taking in rescued Jews during World War II.
Religious divorce via Zoom
Chitrik said that he does not want to speak on behalf of Simantov but added: “He was given a term visa in transit and hopefully he will move on to his final destination.”
“I believe he wants to go to the United States, where he has some business dealings,” he said.
“My involvement is (in) saving his life. I am happy and proud that Turkey saved his life,” he added. “He in coming here was saving (himself), getting himself out of danger.”
“He is happy being rescued and not to have threats to his life,” said Chitrik, but after decades living there “of course he feels a connection to Kabul.”
“And he definitely misses his friends and his people around him and his home.”
“To be a lonely Jewish person in Kabul is not easy, takes a certain character,” he added. “And that definitely reflects on his actions,” he said, adding he also took care of Simantov’s religious divorce from his wife to save her as well.
“I said that we also have to save the life of his wife,” Chitrik said. “So I said that we will be able to try my best to help him. But before that, he had to release his wife from 20 years of marriage.”
“And he agreed, and together with other leading rabbinical authorities (we) were able to take care of that. Maybe one of the only times in the world or hidden Jewish history that a religious divorce was given through Zoom” involving rabbis in both Istanbul and Australia, with Simantov taking part near Afghanistan, said Chitrik.
Trips to Anatolia, the Turkish heartland
Chitrik is quite active on the internet, with over 6,100 followers on Twitter, especially when he began sharing his experience with Turkey’s Jewish heritage on social media.
As a kosher food inspector, he inspects various food manufacturing facilities across Turkey. These include “all types of foods which are exported from Turkey to other countries, to the US, Israel, Europe,” he said.
“Many of the kosher laws are very similar, or cover also vegetarian and halal,” he said, explaining that Turkey is a major supplier of the certificate. “Now, there are about 400 or 500 factories in Turkey which have kosher certifications.”
In 2020, due to coronavirus, he decided to drive across Turkey instead of taking a flight, as he usually does.
This time he took one of his eight sons, Eli, who was 19 at the time. “Last year we traveled through six or seven thousand kilometers, all over Turkey and visited many old synagogues of cemeteries, visited people who remembered Jewish neighbors.”
This year, he took it as a “project,” he said. “I'm a person who loves history, and I love to teach it to my kids.”
So, this year he and his other son Chaim went on a second tour, traveling some 8,500 kilometers, and decided to share it on Twitter.
“First of all, (there is) breathtaking scenery that you can see in Turkey,” he said.
“When I started sharing, I saw that people want to know not just the sights, but what stands behind the sights,” he explained. “Why are synagogues this way? And what’s the difference between the Jews of Kilis (eastern Turkey) and the Jews of Izmir (Aegean Turkey)?”
“Every place is different. Every place has its own uniqueness,” he explained.
Emotional highlights across Anatolia
According to Chitrik, there were many emotional highlights of his trip to Anatolia, the Turkish heartland.
“Kilis is a border community between Syria and Turkey,” he noted. “Today Kilis is a city that has 75% Syrian refugees and only 25% Turkish citizens.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has taken in some 4 million Syrians, more than any country in the world.
“Until the 1960s,” he explained, Kilis “was a home for a very significant Jewish community and recently, two years ago, the Turkish government refurbished the old synagogue of Kilis, (but) nobody knows about it.”
In recent years the Turkish government has stepped up efforts to restore and open old churches and synagogues, including many places of worship that have had their doors shut for over a century.
When the Chitriks were in Kilis, they were talking with the locals and were told that during Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan – in which they fast from sunup to sundown – the Jews in Kilis did not eat in public out of respect.
And the locals also told them how their “mother used to go on Saturdays to light the fire and electricity in the houses of their Jewish neighbors,” as for some Jews, doing so themselves would break laws against work on the Sabbath.
He also mentions the western Turkish province of Manisa, where he spent the whole day with Turkish imams.
“Just imagine a rabbi and imagine an imam walking around all day looking for cemeteries, Jewish synagogues, and things like that.”
“We are all part of this mosaic of people,” he said.
Another highlight of his travel was Harran (also Haran or Charan), a place mentioned in the biblical book of Genesis and surveyed millennia later by T.E. Lawrence, in the eastern Turkish province of Sanliurfa.
It “was extremely, extremely emotional for me when I was in Harran,” he said. “It's a place where all of us, Jews, Muslims, Christians, that is where we come from.”
He explained that he felt like “the ground is talking to me.”
Asked if he had faced any discrimination on the road in Turkey, he said: “Absolutely zero.”
Another memory comes from when he was in the Cermik district of eastern Turkey’s Diyarbakir province and wanted to light the fire at a bakery to bake kosher bread.
“I ate kosher, I am a rabbi,” he said.
That day he lit the fire at the bakery and put the first bread in the oven, sitting with locals around a table and chatting as they explained where the Jewish cemetery is located.
“Turkey is such a beautiful place. But we have to let the world know of its spirit of inclusiveness,” he said.
“The fact that I'm here and like anybody else … living our Jewish life to the fullest extent. (That is) something that needs to be told.”