Deep in the heart of Central Asia stands the city of Samarkand, the legendary crossroads on the trade routes of old between East and West.
The Jewish community here is in a state of transition. Like most of the Jewish communities in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, it is changing as a result of the profound political repercussions caused by the fall of the Soviet Union. One result is that many Jews are choosing to emigrate to Israel.
Some 12,000 Jews live in Samarkand, which has a total population of about 250,000. The one-time capital of Tamerlane the Great’s medieval empire, it is now the Uzbeki republic’s second largest city after Tashkent, the capital.
The Jewish community is composed mainly of Bukharians, the so-called mountain Jews, a dark-skinned people who have lived in the area for generations. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they are engaged in the process of redefining themselves as a community.
The fall of communism brought the Jews here to a new starting point. The previous Jewish leaders, those who were also active members of the Communist Party, are no longer accepted by the community. But a new leadership has not yet emerged.
In the meantime, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been quite active in the area, providing religious books published in Russian and parcels of food for the needy, and helping local synagogues organize committees to tackle the problems confronting the community.
JDC REPRESENTATIVE BRINGS FOOD TO NEEDY
The JDC’s representative in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan is Israel Szyf, an elderly religious man who has spent the past 22 years helping remote Jewish communities throughout the world.
His primary focus here recently has been on providing support to the needy. Szyf works closely with local charity committees, which help some 200 people in Tashkent and Samarkand who cannot support themselves.
“In Samarkand, just before Passover, I personally visited families and gave them the food parcels. Had it not been for our help, they would have starved,” said Szyf. Each parcel contained sugar, flour, oil, nuts and other basic goods.
In addition to providing community organizations with much-needed office equipment, such as Xerox machines and audiovisual equipment, the JDC also gives monthly financial support to the local Jewish centers here and in Tashkent.
Szyf does not feel that his efforts at establishing community life are in conflict with the work of the Jewish Agency, which is helping Jews in the area make aliyah.
“It is in our interest that the local Jewish communities operate, so that the Jewish Agency will have the infrastructure within which to work. It has always been my belief that if I set up a Jewish school in a community, the parents of the children will have stronger motivation to make aliyah,” says Szyf.
The relatively stable current political situation in Uzbekistan, he feels, has taken away the urgency of making aliyah.
“Unless there are pogroms,” he says, “there will be no mass exodus. It will be a trickle of an aliyah.”
A visit to the Jewish youth club of Samarkand, however, makes it clear that aliyah is on the minds of many here.
“We do not feel any anti-Semitism, but our country is there, not here,” said Reuven Pasilov, 23. “When we say ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ we mean it.”
They meet in the club twice a week, spending hours studying Jewish tradition and the history of the Jewish people. They sing Hebrew songs, they learn the language. The younger children study at a school operated by the Lubavitch Hasidim and headed by Rabbi Emmanuel Shimonov. There are 13 teachers and 250 students.
Shimonov thinks big. He is no longer satisfied with the school’s temporary headquarters and is working to build a new school with capital provided jointly by the Israeli and Uzbeki governments.
He is confident that his plan will work out because, he believes, the Uzbekis are eager to develop cordial relations with Israel. They, like many in the Third World, believe that the shortest route to Washington is through Jerusalem.