MOSCOW (JTA) – Tajikistan’s only synagogue has been reduced to a pile of rubble, leaving the small cluster of Bukharan Jews in the Central Asian nation in bureaucratic limbo.
After four years of threats from officials and counter-proposals from the community, the city government of Dushanbe, the nation’s capital, finished demolishing the one-story shul last month to make way for a new presidential palace and national park.
“Right now, the community has practically no place at all,” Chief Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmov told JTA. “Everyone is praying in their own home,” he said of the community, estimated at about 350, with 200 actively participating in Jewish life.
There are conflicting reports over whether new land has been designated for a new synagogue. Abdurakhmov said the community has been given no guarantee of a new plot of land and no promise of compensation.
But Lev Levayev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities and head of the World Congress of Bukharan Jews, told the Interfax news agency that a new plot of land has been set aside for the shul. He said that construction would begin soon with funding by the Chabad-led federation, the Bukharan congress and private donors.
Levayev, who visited the city as the final wall of the 100-year-old synagogue fell, spoke with Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov about the synagogue.
“The removal of a synagogue is a very subtle and delicate question that we will discuss with the president at the end of September,” Levayev said.
A spokesman for the Moscow center for Bukharan Jews said he could not elaborate on the continuing discussions between the Tajik government and Levayev.
Despite Levayev’s promises that “there will be no problems with funding,” local leaders – distressed by the years-long battle with the city administration – are more circumspect about the future.
Levayev’s itinerary did not include a visit with Abdurakhmov, who said he first heard about the plans for a new synagogue through a local newspaper that he doesn’t trust. The Tajik media is tightly controlled by the government, with few independent sources of information.
Abdurakhmov said he hasn’t been able to confirm the existence of the new plot and hasn’t spoken with anyone from the federation about a new synagogue.
The federation, an umbrella group that has built most of the new synagogues in the former Soviet Union, including those in Central Asia, normally does not undertake such projects for communities with fewer than 1,000 members.
The nearest Chabad rabbi is based in neighboring Uzbekistan.
The community is mostly descended from Persian-speaking Bukharan Jews who have lived in Central Asia for centuries, Abdurakhmov said.
The eviction and demolition has halted not only prayer services but also a food aid program to feed infirm and poor Jews.
The top local official responsible for citizens’ rights did not respond to requests for an interview. But the official, Yusuf Salimov, told a religious rights monitoring group, Forum 18, that the community had yet to exhaust its legal options seeking compensation. “Let them write to us about it,” he said of the group.
In 2004, city authorities rejected a proposal to overhaul the synagogue and make it part of the park complex.
After negotiations, the city offered a plot of land in a remote area to build a new complex; local leaders said the location was impractical for the aging and dwindling community.
The eviction order remained, and the community challenged it in court, seeking compensation along with a new plot of land, which they had no success of securing without Levayev’s backing.
The first wave of demolition came in February 2006, when city authorities leveled a mikveh, or ritual bath, a classroom and kosher butchery.
In April, a district administrative court ruled that the demolition would go forward and that the community was not eligible for a new plot of land under the law.
That court upheld a previous ruling ordering the community to vacate the synagogue by May 28, when a city engineer showed up with a bulldozer to begin the demolition, Abdurakhmov said.