Forging Ties Between Bukharian Jews, Muslims — Slowly — In Queens


When a group of Bukharian Jews and representatives of a mosque in Queens held a Muslim-Jewish health fair earlier this month, more than 100 local Muslims turned out for the afternoon of free blood tests, eye exams and other procedures, as well as brief comments by religious, community and elected leaders.

But the event, hosted by the Jamaica Muslim Center, drew only 15 members of the borough’s Bukharian-Jewish community and not a soul from the congregation of Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov, one of the day’s key speakers.

The rabbi, spiritual leader of the Kehilath Sephardim Bukharian Jewish Center in Kew Garden Hills, said several factors may have been in play, including concern over two developments far removed from central Queens: the flotilla affair in the Middl e East and fierce opposition to the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero. Opponents of what local tabloids have mistakenly dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” include many Russian-speaking Jews, the rabbi noted.

He also conjectured that the event’s very location, at a local mosque rather than a building unrelated to either community, may have served as a deterrent.

“If it took place in our shul, I doubt that very many Muslims would have come,” Rabbi Nisanov said. “Both congregations are in very secluded areas,” off of any main boulevard or street and on blocks that are largely Jewish or largely Muslim.

The lack of a strong Jewish presence at the health fair may provide fuel to critics of Muslim-Jewish dialogue who contend that many such events fail to involve the rank-and-file members of either community and are, therefore, ineffective. So, too, would the fact that the idea for the health fair came not from local leaders, but from the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a pioneer in promoting ties between American Jewry and other groups.

“We’re doing our piece to push this forward,” said Walter Ruby, the foundation’s Muslim-Jewish relations program officer, referring to cooperation between the two communities. “But real people have to make the choice to participate in this process, and it isn’t always an easy calculation [for them]. We’re pushing this effort in a challenging environment.”

Nevertheless, Ruby, a contributor to The Jewish Week, sees this cup as much more full than it is empty.

“That the leadership of the Bukharian community chose to cosponsor this event with the Jamaica Muslim Center and encouraged Jewish doctors to participate” demonstrates their wisdom and redounds to their credit, Ruby said. “I’d even use the word inspiring.”

The health fair also drew local elected officials, including Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn /Queens) and state Assembly members David Weprin and Rory Lancman, both Democrats of Queens, all of whom spoke about the effort in glowing terms.

Weiner said news of the event should be on the “front page” of local newspapers, illustrating that people of different backgrounds can and do come together, while Weprin said the fair illustrates the need for more such forums in the future.

Sponsored by the mosque and the Congress of Bukharian Jews of the United States and Canada, the event also united more than a dozen Jewish and Muslim doctors, each of whom offered free, basic tests at tables throughout the room.

Regina Smolyak, an ophthalmologist with offices in Brooklyn and Queens, said the mix of people who attended the fair resembles those she sees in her own practice. Among her patients are Russian Jews, Bukharian Jews, Pakistanis, Indians and Poles, said Smolyak, a native of St. Petersburg. Many of those who lined up behind her table at the health fair were Muslim women, who, she explained, felt more comfortable seeing a female doctor than they would a man.

“For me,” Smolyak said, “the difference in religious background is irrelevant. I see them not as people of a certain background, but as human beings.” They came to her seeking help, she added, and “serving them is gratifying, especially if they’re from an underserved community.”

Junnun Choudhury, an attending psychiatrist at the Queens Hospital Center and general secretary of the mosque, said that view conforms to the profession’s own set of ethics. “Our duty,” he added, “is to help humanity” — not any particular segment of it.

The idea for holding such an event came to the foundation’s leaders after they learned that free health fairs are fairly common at American mosques, Ruby said. Many of their members are immigrants, many of whom lack health insurance. At the Jamaica Muslim Center, a mosque serving mostly Bengladeshi immigrants and others from South Asia, leaders organize two or three health fairs a year.

The center’s spiritual leader, Imam Shamsi Ali, may have had those factors in mind when, during a program at the start of the fair, he said religion is all about services. One type involves “serving our Lord,” while the other involves “serving human beings,” and, in the imam’s mind, both are interconnected.

The imam didn’t mention the flotilla incident, which took place only a week before the health fair. But at least one leader of the mosque, Khwaja Mizan Hussan, said events in the Mideast gave the fair’s organizers, both Jewish and Muslim, a degree of pause.

“To be honest, there was a feeling of, ‘What is going to happen to this now,’” said Hussan, a past president of the center and a member of its executive committee. “This did put us on the brakes.”

Hussan also acknowledged that members of both communities involved in the fair “were concerned about what happens in the Mideast. But we don’t live there,” he added. “We’re living in the United States.”

Events in the Mideast are also behind the reticence of many American Jews when it comes to participating in joint projects with Muslims, said Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean College in New Jersey. Concerned over those events, he added, many Jews “question the motivation and sincerity behind the Muslim engagement.”

That caution is shared by many Russian-speaking Jews, said Sam Kliger, director of the Russian division of the American Jewish Committee. But Bukharian Jews, about 15 percent of New York’s entire Russian-Jewish population and about 35,000 strong in Queens, “have a more favorable view of the Muslim community” than the Ashkenazi population, Kliger said.

“They lived among Muslims for centuries, and they understand their community’s culture, mentality and behavior,” said Kliger, 61, a native of Moscow who has studied attitudes among Russian-speaking immigrants, including Bukharan Jews.

Kliger believes most Bukharian Jews would describe relations with their former Muslim neighbors as “anywhere from tolerable to good” — a view often based on the experiences of parents and grandparents. The region consists of the Central Asian countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kygyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Bukharan Jews “who are close to 30 or in their 30s probably hold the same view,” said Imanuel Rybakov, a professor of Bukharan-Jewish history and culture at Queens College and president of the Bukharian Jewish Youth Association.

Although Muslim-Jewish relations differed at different times, said Rybakov, a native of Uzbekistan, “anti-Semitism in Central Asia was always much lower than it was in Moscow.” In many cases, Rybakov said, the warm relations between Jews and Muslims in Bukharia have carried over to New York, where Bukharian-Jewish business owners have hired Muslims from the same region, often as waiters.

Still, the relationship between the Bukharian community and the Jamaica Muslim Center is new, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of FFEU, and new relationships take time to build. “The initial step is often difficult because of the fear and mistrust that has developed between both communities.”

The rabbi’s foundation pairs together synagogues and mosques throughout the country in an annual “Weekend of Twinning,” Rabbi Schneier noted, and a recent study of those twinnings found that 70 percent of the partners “continue to meet on an ongoing basis.” The participants in last year’s weekend included the Queens Bukharan community and the Jamaica Muslim Center, which came together for a forum in the mosque.

Leaders of both communities are now discussing the possibility of organizing a cultural festival in the fall, Ruby said, an idea that came from Rafael Nektalov, editor of the Bukharian Times. Ruby said he’d also encourage both communities to engage in a social-action project, such as helping the homeless or working in a soup kitchen, a model that has proven successful elsewhere.

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