Turks elect their chief rabbi


Rabbi Isak Haleva has been re-elected Chief Rabbi of Turkey for a seven-year term under a unique system which allows Jewish men and women over the age of 18 to choose their religious leader.

Rabbi Haleva, 69, received 4,268 votes while his rival, 45-year-old Ilhan Eli Levy, an Istanbul-born rabbi currently living in Jerusalem, got only 343 votes.

Polling stations operated in synagogues in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Adana, Bursa and other cities where smaller Jewish communities exist. There was a higher turnout this time than in previous elections.

The system of direct voting by all members of the community instead of an appointment by the beth din was first introduced by the government in 2002. Under the new system, which is enshrined in law, the Jewish religious leader is considered the official representative of Turkish Jews to the government.

This election raised considerable interest after Rabbi Levy announced his candidacy at the last minute. He is a virtual unknown amongst Turkish Jews, having immigrated to Israel 15 years ago after graduating from university in Istanbul.

The vote against him has been widely interpreted as a vote against imposition of ultra-Orthodox standards from Israel on a traditional, but mostly non-Orthodox, Turkish community.

In recent years there have been several attempts by outside halachic authorities, particularly the Israeli rabbanut, to push local rabbis into enforcing stricter halachic standards, for example in supervision of food at kosher simchah. This Pesach, matzot had to be imported from Israel because the Israeli rabbanut ruled that the matzot produced in Istanbul under the supervision of the Turkish chief rabbinate were not kosher for Passover.

While Rabbi Haleva is strictly Orthodox himself, he is perceived as a more moderate voice by the community.

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