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New Chabad Center Aims to Ease Transition for Central Asian Emigres

As a slender violinist with flowing black hair played “Oseh Shalom” to an audience peppered with at least a dozen long-bearded rabbis, Bukharian Jews in this capital city ushered in a new era.

Their cause for celebration: Unlike many of those from Central Asia who came to Austria more than 25 years ago, immigrants to the country now have a new center to help them find their way.

On Feb. 18, Chabad opened a $6.05 million facility in Vienna aimed at serving their needs.

“The House of the Future,” as the center has been dubbed, is expected to cater mainly to Bukharian Jews from Central Asia with whom Chabad is already deeply involved.

“The main purpose of the center is to provide help with integration,” said Rabbi Jacob Biderman, chairman of the extensive Chabad organization in Austria. “Yes, this is initiated by Chabad and there will be a chance for Jewish classes, but job skills, language skills and adult education are the focus.”

The five-story building, which features a polished, 19th century facade, is across the street from the Lauder Chabad School for kindergarten through 12th grade.

It represents a natural extension of ties with Chabad for a large portion of the community, and also the general vitality of the Bukharians, who have managed to retain their traditions and a high level of observance as immigrants.

Shlomo Ustoniazov, a businessman in his 50s and artist from Uzbekistan who has lived in Vienna for several decades, said the center “is an expression of unity of the Bukharian community.”

“We are developing, we have our own identity, but we are also part of the Kultusgemeinde,” he said, referring in German to the Jewish Community of Vienna, an umbrella organization.

Estimates put the Bukharian population at 3,000 to 4,000 of the approximate 10,000 Jews in Vienna.

The center will offer activities for seniors, job training, women’s programs and a youth club. It also will be available to other immigrant groups such as Turks, according to Biderman.

Many Jews who came to Vienna from the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s on their way to Israel said they felt unwelcome in Austria. Bukharians in particular, with their large families and mostly lacking higher education, seemed backward to the integrated Ashkenazim.

Tamar Yusupov, a Bukharian Jew who hosted the center’s opening ceremony and an active member of Chabad, said she didn’t want future immigrants to feel the way she did when she arrived, “not speaking the language, not having any friends, not having a home.”

Bukharians over the decades have become successful businesspeople. Although they have become more integrated within the Jewish community and Vienna at large, many continue to feel comfortable with Chabad’s Chasidic approach to Judaism.

Integration has slowed, and Biderman said that some 20 to 60 new families from the former Soviet Union each year seek out education for their children at the Lauder Chabad School. He estimated that of the school’s some 410 students, 60 percent are Bukharian.

Many Bukharians say Chabad was the first to recognize that preserving their mostly Sephardi identity, and not looking askance at traditions such as marriage in the late teens, was vital to having them feel comfortable in their new home.

“It is true that when they first began arriving, the Jewish community of Vienna did not understand their need for separate traditions, but that is all in the past,” Austria’s chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, said in an interview last December.

Chabad has been particularly successful at attracting financing for its projects in Vienna that cater to Jews from the former Soviet Union. “The House of the Future,” for instance, received city and state funding.

The center features a Hebrew inscription, Beit haLevy Chabad, in honor of a key donor for the project, Lev Leviev, who was on hand for the opening ceremonies. Leviev, a Bukharian billionaire from Uzbekistan now living in Israel, is a major funder of Chabad in Austria and the former Soviet Union.

He was among 300 people at the center’s opening, along with city and state officials. The crowd was mostly Bukharian, but there were also large numbers of Georgian and Caucasus Jews.

Oleg Sivan, 31, from the Republic of Dagestan, said, “It is great what Chabad does; it brings us all together. There are some minor differences between us, but that is normal.”

Not everyone was happy with the new center.

The president of the Vienna Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, said at the center’s opening that it would duplicate existing community programs, detract from an existing Sephardi center that receives community funding and siphon potential government money from the community.

His criticism reflects a history of tense competition between the community and Chabad, although they have cooperated often as well.

“It’s the same story over and over with Chabad,” he said. “They sell it to the Austrian government officials as an open center for integration to get funding, but it’s all about Chabad.”

Biderman strongly denied the accusations, saying he had worked with all elements of the Jewish community to gain support and approval for the project.

“The people on our board are also on the board of the Sephardi center, so there is no competition,” he said, adding that the center was open to all immigrants.

Ustoniazov, one of the board members to whom Biderman referred, said the suggestion of competition was outrageous.

“It is absurd to even think that we would duplicate activities or do anything to split the community,” he said.

The Sephardi center, which opened in 1989, also was a Chabad-led effort but under the auspices of the Jewish Community of Vienna. The center, in the historically Jewish Second District, caters to the Georgian and Bukharian Jewish congregations. It has two synagogues and facilities for gatherings and study.

More recently the Bukharians have split into three congregations — one oriented toward Chabad and two non-Chabad.

Two organizations represent the Bukharians: the Bukharian World Congress, with links to Chabad, and the non-Chabad Association of Bukharian Jews in Austria. Biderman said they were working together to set aside their differences and form one group.

Signaling that unity approach, the head of the Association of Bukharians Jews in Austria, Uri Gilkarov, attended the center’s opening, and Biderman said he was seeking his input on programming.

Natalia Usopov, 29, and Marina Aminov, 31, who were celebrating the opening of “The House of the Future,” seemed to embody the mood among some of the Bukharian guests.

Aminov, an Uzbek native asked about the differences between the Bukharian groups, said: “That’s for the husbands to worry about. We just say ‘Shalom.’ “

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