Etz Ahayim Synagogue, whose name translates as “Tree of Life”, is located on Ortaköy’s main street close to the coast. Since this was a common name for synagogues during the Byzantine and Ottoman times, it is difficult to determine the exact date of the synagogue’s founding.
A decree from the 17th century was preserved, which holds the permission for the restoration of the synagogue. During a major fire in 1703, the synagogue was badly damaged and subsequently rebuilt. In 1914, during Yom Kippur celebrations, the synagogue was totally destroyed by another fire. Only the two marble columns with Corinthian capitals, which are now in the garden of the synagogue, and the Torah Ark remained intact.
Today’s synagogue was rebuilt on the site of the neighboring religious school (Midrash). In 1915, master Eliyahu ben Yitzak Kamhi added a monumental entrance gate with a gabled arch supported by two columns. In the 1970s, the patron Viktoria Aruz donated a new marble Torah shrine in memory of her late relatives. The precious content of the previous Torah shrine is exhibited close to the main entrance. Today, the Etz Ahayim Synagogue is used by both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in two different parts of the building. For security reasons, the house of prayer – like all Istanbul synagogues – had to be rebuilt after terrorist attacks on the Neve Shalom synagogue in 2003. During the renovation, prayer services were held in the homes of community members. In the entrance area of the synagogue, these families are honored with photos.
The Ortaköy synagogue is of great importance in Jewish history: Rabbi Naftali Ben Isaac Katz, one of the most famous European Cabbalist from the 18th century, stopped here on his way from Russia to Jerusalem and founded the religious school of Ortaköy (Midrash). He succumbed to a serious illness. Pilgrims from all over the world come to visit his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Ortaköy.
The Etz Ahayim Synagogue has been registered for official protection under the Monument Protection Act since November 27, 1960 and is used today by both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities.