MOSCOW (Aug. 12)
Jewish officials, government leaders and foreign diplomats gathered in Kazakhstan last week to attend the ground-breaking ceremony for a new synagogue and community center in the former Soviet republic.
“In a sense, it’s the birth of the Jewish community” in Kazakhstan, said Yeshaya Cohen, an emissary of the Lubavitch movement who serves as Kazakhstan’s chief rabbi.
“Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was not possible to practice Judaism openly. Now we are constructing a building devoted to prayer, learning and the celebration of being Jewish,” he said.
More than 800 people attended last week’s ceremony to witness the cornerstone- laying.
The new center, being built in the Kazakh capital of Almaty under the sponsorship of the Lubavitch movement, will be named the Beis Menachem Center in honor of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The center will house a synagogue, library, museum, social hall, classrooms, a kosher kitchen and a mikvah, or ritual bath.
Among those singing and dancing to Jewish songs at the festive ceremony were Jewish veterans of World War II.
“The new center is a very big deal for us Jews, a very big deal for the whole city,” said former World War II pilot Ishak Edelman. “This whole affair has restored our pride in being Jewish.”
The establishment of the Jewish center “is a sign that Kazakhstan is becoming a land of safety for the Jewish people,” said Gulsha Tanirbergenova, the country’s Minister of Education.
Historical records show that the first known Jewish community — including 48 soldiers who had completed their service in the Czarist army — settled in Kazakhstan in the 1880s.
In the century since then, Jews gathered in private houses for services.
Located in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is the second largest republic in the former Soviet Union. The country’s Jewish community numbers about 32,000, with some 7,000 Jews living in Almaty.
For many of the Jews in Kazakhstan, Beis Menachem represents a historic triumph.
During the Stalinist era, thousands of Soviet Jews were exiled to Kazakhstan for, among other things, practicing religion.
In addition, many Jews of Eastern Europe fled to Kazakhstan during the Holocaust.
Hundreds of those Jews, who died in exile, are buried in a cemetery a few blocks from where the new community center will stand.
A stone from the cemetery grounds was used in the cornerstone-laying ceremony.
Among the Jews sent into exile was Levi Yitzhak Schneerson, the father of the late Lubavitcher rebbe.
Removed from his post as chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, Schneerson was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1939.
Five years later, he passed away in Almaty. His grave has since become a pilgrimage site for many Jews.
Alexander Baron, the lay leader of the Jewish community in Kazakhstan, says that many Soviet Jews moved to Kazakhstan after the war because it was easier to find economic prosperity in remote outlying regions.
Construction costs for the project are expected to be some $2.25 million.
The synagogue is expected to be completed within seven months, with the community center to be finished in another two years.