ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Nov. 3)
Some passers-by looked bewildered late last month as a group of bearded men in black hats got off a bus in this former Soviet republic.
Those are “Jewish muftis,” one local explained to his friends.
The curbside attention was just some of the publicity showered on an international gathering of rabbis in this predominantly Muslim republic in Central Asia.
All major television channels and newspapers provided extensive coverage of the founding conference of the Rabbinical Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. That wasn’t surprising, since the rabbis also met with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The opening of the congress, which drew 20 Orthodox rabbis, represented more than the formation of just another Jewish group in the former Soviet Union, where Jewish organizations have proliferated in recent years.
An international Jewish-Muslim dialogue also was launched at the meeting.
Alexander Mashkevich, 48, a local industrialist and financier who sponsored the rabbinical visit, believes Kazakhstan has the potential to become a center of international Jewish-Muslim dialogue.
“Kazakhstan is a unique example of cooperation and peaceful coexistence between various people and religions,” he said.
Up to 20,000 Jews live in Kazakhstan, out of a total population of 15 million people.
Kazakhstan has one of the most liberal religious freedom laws in the former Soviet Union and provides state funding to minority schools and newspapers. The Jewish community hardly needs to be on the recipient list, however, because of Mashkevich’s deep pockets.
A tycoon with interests in mining, banking and mass media, Mashkevich emerged a few years ago as one of the most generous donors for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.
Surrounded by rabbis he invited to Almaty, Mashkevich announced the creation of the rabbinical council.
The EAJC parent organization was set up six months ago as part of the World Jewish Congress. The group represents Jewish communities from 28 nations in the Far East, the Pacific region, Australia and the former Soviet Union.
Mashkevich, the group’s president and major donor, is believed already to have spent $1 million on its activities.
The location for the rabbinical conference reflected Mashkevich’s personal priorities, but the visiting rabbis — who came from the former Soviet Union, England, France, Australia and Israel, among other countries — also felt it was important to hold the meeting in a Muslim country.
Some of the rabbis said the meeting had the potential to improve tense relations between world Jewry and Islam.
“Centers of anti-Semitism have moved from the Christian nations to the Muslim ones,” said Rabbi Sha’ar Yishuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa, who attended the two-day conference.
The central event was a two-hour meeting between the visiting rabbis and five leading Kazakh Muslim clerics. The Jewish participants saw the meeting as a launching pad for ongoing dialogue.
The Muslim clerics addressed the issue of terrorism, and appeared willing to talk about the two religions’ common historic roots and the possibility of peaceful coexistence.
“We share so much in common with the Jewish people that we should be careful not to divide people along religious lines,” Murat-Haji Mynbaev, dean of the Islamic University of Kazakhstan, told the gathering, in front of Kazakh TV crews.
Yet the imams avoided a direct response when the rabbis asked their opinion of Palestinian terrorism.
The rabbis said the meeting would be a success if the Muslim leaders engaged in meaningful follow-up.
“It’s not so important what” the imams “say in a meeting with us. What matters is what they will be saying when they are back in their congregations,” Cohen said.
Rabbi Aba Dunner, the Britain-based secretary-general of the European Conference of Rabbis, was cautiously optimistic about the future of such interfaith endeavors.
“What we have to do is to cultivate people like those who were in the meeting with us,” he said.
Mashkevich, who grew up in the neighboring former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, which also is Muslim, said the meeting was just the beginning of a long process.
“We have to start the dialogue somewhere,” he said. “First it’s very important to show the entire world that there is no conflict between the Jewish and Muslim worldviews.”
Kazakhstan’s geopolitical circumstances and Nazarbayev’s close personal ties to many world Muslim leaders afford Kazakhstan extraordinary access to the world of Islam.
But the newly established rabbinical association sees its agenda as transcending politics.
Yeshaya Cohen, the chief rabbi of Kazakhstan, who was elected president of the Rabbinical Council, said the group would coordinate the search for rabbis to serve in local congregations and could help raise funds for member communities.
Officials said the group also wants to start a Jewish summer camp in Kazakhstan for children in the group’s region, which covers a vast area from Central Asia to Australia.
Absent from the meeting was a large group of Lubavitch rabbis that work in the former Soviet Union under the auspices of the Federation of the Jewish Communities of the C.I.S. Most of the rabbis in the former Soviet republics are emissaries of the Chabad Lubavitch organization.
On the eve of the conference, Lubavitch authorities in Russia, Ukraine, Western Europe and Israel urged their rabbis not to participate.
A spokesman for the Chabad-sponsored Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia told JTA that the organization’s opposition was based on the fact that Cohen, a former Lubavitch emissary in Kazakhstan, had refused to obey a rabbinical court’s decision to vacate his post.
Following the Kazakhstan event, the rabbinical delegation had planned to meet with Israeli President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem. But the meeting was canceled, reportedly because of pressure from Chabad Lubavitch and its major benefactor in the former Soviet Union, Israeli diamond merchant Lev Levayev.
Some observers, in fact, say the situation reflects a power struggle between Levayev and Mashkevich, who are believed to be the two biggest sponsors of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.