ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Oct. 30)
In the shadow of the Tian Shan mountain range near the Chinese border lies the silent gravesite of Rabbi Levy Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Just a short distance away, the ground is being prepared to build this former Soviet republic’s first Jewish center.
It will serve the descendants of those who, like Levy Yitzchak Schneerson, were sent to this Central Asian region from across the former Soviet Union.
“This is the first time in history that a Jewish center is being built in Kazakhstan,” says Yeshiya Cohen, chief rabbi of Kazakhstan. “It’s a big step. We’ve come to a time of democracy.”
In August, the community held a ground-breaking ceremony for the new synagogue at a site graced by a backdrop of snow-covered mountains.
Completion of the center’s first building, at a cost of $250,000, is scheduled for June 1997.
Along with a new synagogue, the community is planning a library, soup kitchen and mikvah.
A second facility, featuring a sports hall and school, is also planned.
Nearly 8,000 Jews now live in Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim country that was the second largest republic in the former Soviet Union. About 6,000 members of the community live here in the capital.
Almaty’s Jewish community is today based in a tiny building on the city’s outskirts that served as the country’s only official synagogue throughout the Soviet period.
About 50 worshipers now attend Sabbath services, with another 15 elderly men coming daily for morning services and lunch.
Unlike communities in the ancient Central Asian cities of Bukhara and Khiva that can document hundreds of years of Jewish life, Almaty’s Jewish community traces its origins back a little more than a century.
Founded 130 years ago as a Russian outpost, Almaty, then Verny, saw its first Jews in the form of soldiers who had been drafted into service. Many of them had been baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith, as called for by army tradition.
The 1920s and early 1930s brought a wave of migration, as Soviet leaders brought professionals and bureaucrats to Central Asia to boost industrial production and collectivize farms.
As war loomed over Eastern Europe, thousands of Jews from Ukraine and Poland fled to Central Asia.
Others were exiled to the region — like Rabbi Levy Yitzchak Schneerson, who was taken in 1939 by the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, to Kzyl-Orda, a Kazakh town located west of here.
Five years later, he passed away in Almaty. His grave, now protected by a small concrete shelter covered with the leaves and branches of surrounding trees, is still visited today by members of the Lubavitch movement.
Toward the end of his rule, Stalin furthered his goal of divide and conquer, scattering Jews from communities in the Caucasus across other republics, including Kazakhstan.
“I was sent here in 1950 with my family from Tbilisi,” the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, says Zola, an elderly woman whose gray hair is covered by a brightly colored kerchief.
Seated in the women’s section of the existing synagogue during Shabbat services, she and seven other women originally from the Caucasus discuss current events in an intriguing-sounding language that is neither Russian nor the Turkic Kazakh tongue.
“It’s Aramit,” Zola says of the Persian dialect spoken by many Caucasian and Central Asian Jews.
“Our forefathers brought it when they came from Syria,” she adds before returning to the small window that opens onto the main sanctuary, raising her hands in worship as the Torah is replaced in the ark.
Isaac Eidelman, 73, came to Central Asia in 1930 when his father was sent to Frunze, now known as Bishek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
“I didn’t know anything about the synagogue,” says Eidelman, who until recently was an avowed atheist. “But my grandfather was very religious, and I used to help him put his tallis on.”
Today, he comes to the synagogue every day to pray and learn.
“I need to know my roots, my heritage,” he says, adding that it was wonderful that “we’ll soon have a real synagogue.”
Almaty’s current synagogue has been home for Isaac Eldster, 77, for half a century.
Originally from the Polish town of Chelm, he was relocated during the early months of World War II and crossed paths several times with Rabbi Levy Yitzchak Schneerson during his exile.
“We had to do everything secretly,” Eldster says, recalling how he managed to buy bricks while an employee of the railroad in order to build the matzah oven for the synagogue.
But after all the difficult years, the days of secrecy are finally over, says the republic’s chief rabbi.
“People here should be proud of who they are,” Cohen says.
Although Jews make up less than 1 percent of the city’s population, the local media have begun to pay attention.
A 30-minute program on the Jewish High Holidays was broadcast several times prior to Rosh Hashanah on Radio Kazakhstan, and the ground-breaking for the new Jewish center was covered in television and newspaper reports.
When the new synagogue is completed, Cohen hopes, it will serve the needs of the community from the cradle to the grave.
“It’s not enough to give people something spiritual. You give them something physical, too, and it will all come together,” he says.