Across the Former Soviet Union Tajik Synagogue May Be Torn Down to Make Way for a Presidential Place

Despite efforts to save Tajikistan’s only synagogue from demolition, the 100-year-old shul in the Central Asian country’s capital most likely will be torn down by summer’s end. But the Jewish community in the city of Dushanbe may get land for a new one.

“I’m not losing my hope that the authorities change their mind,” Abe Dovid Gurevich, the Tashkent-based chief Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to the nations of Central Asia, told JTA in an interview.

Over the last several weeks, Gurevich has visited Tajikistan in an effort to persuade local authorities not to destroy the shul in Dushanbe.

But during his most recent visit, he said he also inspected several land plots that Dushanbe officials may allocate to the Jewish community to build a new shul.

“We have found a good plot, but I still hope the old synagogue can be saved,” he said.

This week, Gurevich, who lives in neighboring Uzbekistan, met with Makhmadsaid Ubaidulaev, who c! ombines his post as the head of the Tajikistan Parliament with the title of the mayor of Dushanbe.

Gurevich said the meeting mostly focused on giving the Jewish community a new plot of land, rather than on saving the old shul. If the land is allocated to the community, it will be up to the Jewish community to find money for a new building.

For the Dushanbe community, which has no more than 500 Jews — most of them elderly, many of then poor — funding a new building or renting a new facility will be a big challenge.

“This is a small community,” Gurevich said. “There is no one in the community who knows the aleph bet, and they pray using Russian transliterations in their Siddurim,” he says, referring to the Hebrew alphabet and prayer books, respectively.

Last month, the city authorities ordered the local Jewish community to vacate the synagogue by the end of July to clear the site for a new presidential palace and park. The community’s leader asked that the ! synagogue be allowed to stay and be included in the new architectural complex.

“The authorities could meet the Jews halfway and not demolish Tajikistan’s only synagogue,” Mikhail Abdurakhmanov said.

But city authorities responded that the synagogue had little historic value and would not be included in the reconstruction plan.

Some of the officials allegedly said that according to official statistics Dushanbe is now only home to some 200 Jews, and their numbers are steadily decreasing.

Dushanbe’s Jewish population is only a fraction of the once-numerous community, which was made up of indigenous Bukharan Jews and a large number of World War II refugees, Ashkenazi Jews from European parts of the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s, most Jews left for Russia, Israel and the United States during a civil war between rival local clans that struggled for power following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Jewish representatives declined to comment on whether anti-Semitism was to blame for the demolition plan.

But the U.S. ambassador ! to Tajikistan ruled out anti-Jewish bias as a cause for the decision.

In a statement released last month, Richard Hoagland said that U.S. diplomats were convinced that “any question of anti-Semitism is not involved,” and they praised city officials for offering a relocation plan for the synagogue.

But Gurevich said some in Dushanbe told him that Tajik officials decided to move ahead with the demolition plan because they “find it unpleasant that a synagogue should stand alongside” the new presidential complex. Furthermore, local officials have indicated that by law the synagogue formally belongs to the city, which nationalized it some 50 years ago.

Like other states in the region, Tajikistan, a predominantly Muslim state, has traditionally been known for its good relations with the local Jewish community.

City officials said they were ready to compromise with the Jewish community.

But the leading donor of Jewish life in the region called on Tajikistan’s pr! esident to scrap the demolition plan.

“We understand your wish to erect a building complex in the city’s center, which would include the Palace of Nations and a park zone. However, there are some cases in history when different modern buildings are combined with religious institutions to bring out the particular color and harmony in the city’s architecture,” Lev Levayev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union and head of the World Congress of Bukharan Jews, wrote Tajikistan president Emomali Rakhmonov last week.

“Additionally, pulling down this old Jewish synagogue would result in a negative echo not only among the international Jewish community, but also in the mass media,” Levayev warned Rakhmonov.

NEXT STORY