İzmir, historically Smyrna is located on the seaport of Western Anatolia,on the coast of the Aegean sea. The first traces of a Jewish presence dating from as early as the era of Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BC, have been encountered in Izmir. As stated in the New Testament, there were Jews living in Izmir and in the Aegean region at the time of Saint Paul, but very few of them accepted to convert to Christianity. Greek inscriptions dating from the 2nd and 3rd century, discovered in recent excavations, refer to the fact that Jews were authorized to sanction people who were not respectful to their community. Another archeological evidence found is a woman described as the “Mother of the Synagogue”. A nice depiction of a menorah similar to the one represented on the Triumphal Arch of the Roman Emperor Titus in Rome appears on a seal discovered in the proximity of İzmir.
Nevertheless, in the Middle Ages we observe a decline in the Jewish population of Izmir to the point that it became too sparse even to constitute a community. Testimonies of Sephardi Jews arriving in Smyrna during the 16th century suggest the existence of a local small Romaniot Jewish community. The first Jews arrived in Izmir in the 1530s, following their expulsion by the Ottomans from Belgrade, Serbia, in 1521, and Buda, Hungary, in 1524. Gravestones with Jewish motifs dating from 1540 and 1565 and found in Izmir indicate a Jewish presence in the city during the 16th century. The noted historian Galante claims that he had discovered a tombstone bearing the date 5325 (1565) in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Bahri Baba.
When Izmir started becoming a commercial center at the time of Sultan Ahmed I, following the arrival of the Sephardic Jews in the 16th century, the Jewish population of Izmir began to increase as a result of immigrations from neighbouring towns such as Manisa and Tire and also of newcomers from Thessaloniki and even Istanbul. In 1620 there were already six synagogues in Izmir, and in 1625 the population started forming a community. . The development of the Jewish community of Izmir started in the early 17th century corresponding with the increased economic status of the city as a major transit seaport, especially for the commerce with Anatolia and the countries beyond the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, Izmir was included into the Sanjak (province) of Sigala, one of the most prosperous in the empire. The new Jewish settlers came mainly from among Sephardi refugees, although the great majority arrived in Izmir after first settling in other cities in the Ottoman Empire. A major group of settlers came from Istanbul; they were joined by Jewish immigrants from small Jewish communities in Western Anatolia as well as from Crete, Corfu, Janina (now in Greece), Ankara, and especially Salonika. Etz Hayim, Portugal, and Gerush, were among the first congregations to have been established in Izmir in the early 17th century.
Rabbi Yitzhak Meir HaLevy (d.1634) of Constantinople was the first rabbi in Izmir in 1606. The 1620s saw the influx of many new Jewish settlers from Salonika. Rabbi Joseph Escapa of Salonika (d.1662) was appointed the first rabbi of the Salonikan Jews, in c1620. After 1631, there was in Izmir a chief rabbi over all local congregations, whose number grew to six by 1644. They were mostly of Sephardi origin, but the city also had a small Ashkenazi congregation. Following the death of R.Y. Meir HaLevy in 1634, another rabbi from Salonika, Azariah Joshua Ashkenazi (d.1647), came to Izmir and was elected a colleague to Rabbi J. Escapa, the chief rabbi. Following a bitter controversy that arose between the two rabbis, the community split into two factions, each supporting one rabbi. The dispute reflected differences in the way Salonikan Jews interpreted and practiced certain Jewish traditions concerning dietary laws, mourning practices, the counting of the Omer, ritual slaughter and Tisha Be-Av, among others, as opposed by the traditions of the immigrants from Istanbul.
It was only after the death of Rabbi A.J. Ashkenazi in 1647 and the intervention of the chief rabbi in Constantinople that all congregations in Izmir once again recognized Rabbi Escapa’s authority. Rabbi Escapa’s achievements were pursued by a series of distinguished rabbis including Rabbi Aaron Lapapa (d.1667), Rabbi Solomon Algazi, and Rabbi Hayim Benveniste (1603-1673) that helped transform the Jewish community into a major Jewish center of the 17th century. Its significance became evident in the important halakhic studies composed by local rabbis, especially Knesset Ha-Gedolah (“Great Assembly”), a commentary by Rabbi Hayim Benveniste on the Shulkhan Aruch, and the ethics treatise Shevet Musar (“Staff of Reproof”) by Rabbi Eliyah HaKohen (d.1729) of Izmir.
The community comprised many affluent members that supported large yeshivot and Jewish schools. It also excelled as a center of Jewish learning: the prestige of its religious leaders having been recognized by many other Jewish communities in Anatolia, a Hebrew printing press established in 1657 and several celebrated physicians contributed to the fame of the Izmir community. Izmir was the birthplace of Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1676), the false messiah who received the support of large sections of the Jewish people all over the Diaspora.
A student of Rabbi Joseph Escapa, Shabbetai Zvi traveled to a number of Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire. His return to Izmir in September 1665 caused a great furor in the community when a majority of the local Jews converted to his teachings – ma’aminim (“believers”) in the Shabbatean terminology. They included Rabbi Hayim Benveniste, one of the chief rabbis of Izmir. The opponents of Shabbetai Zvi grouped around Rabbi Aaron Lapapa, the other chief rabbi, who was subsequently expulsed from Izmir leaving Rabbi Benveniste the sole chief rabbi of the city.
Throughout the four months of Shabbetai Zvi’s sojourn in Izmir during the fall of 1665, the city became a centre of Messianic enthusiasm counting at least 150 “prophets”, with the regular economic activities interrupted by a succession of festive days of dancing and processions intermingled with days of collective penitence. Whoever opposed the Shabbatean movement was persecuted and some had to flee the city, as did Solomon Algazi, himself an important scholar and renowned kabbalist, who was forced to take refuge in the nearby community of Magnesia. Following Shabbetai Zvi’s apostasy, it took some time for the Jewish community of Izmir to settle down the virulent conflicts brought about by the false messiah.
As may be gathered from various travelogues and, after 1835, from local papers and yearbooks, the Jewish population of Izmir showed an erratic development during the next four centuries. Marked decreases in population occurred after the great fires of 1743, 1772 and 1841, the terrible earthquakes of 1688, 1778 and 1850, which destroyed many synagogues and ravaged whole neighbourhoods, and the epidemics of plague and cholera which eradicated large segments of the population.
Izmir counted some 50 synagogues and midrash at the turn of the 20th century. But economic stagnations between 1908 and 1920 induced over 30.000 Jews to leave Izmir for the United States and South America. As a result of emigrations to Israel after 1948, the population decreased to approximately 2.500. Today, there about 1.700 Jews living in İzmir. The current religious life of the Izmir community is concentrated mainly around two synagogues: the Bet Israel synagogue and Shaar Hashamaym, a new synagogue located in the modern district of Alsancak that also houses the offices of the local rabbinate and community. The cultural activities are promoted by the Liga benevolent association established in 1909
Source: Naim A.Güleryüz – Barnai Jacob (The Sabbatean movement in Smyrna, the social background)