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Across the Former Soviet Union Kazakh Jewry’s Diversity Stems from History of Exile and Refuge

November 4, 2002
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For Nazilya Biniyaminova, the best word to describe the atmosphere at her school is diversity.

“Just imagine: We speak six different languages between ourselves,” said the 10th-grader at Almaty’s Or Avner-Gershuni Jewish day school.

A native of Azerbaijan, Biniyaminova speaks Judeo-Persian, the language of the “Mountain Jews” of the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — as do some other students.

While most students speak Russian to each other, many also communicate in their native languages — Kazakh, the Judeo-Tajik language of Bukharan Jews, Georgian or Ukrainian.

Coming from various backgrounds — many are from mixed Jewish-Russian or Jewish-Kazakh families — the students are the face of Kazakh Jewry today.

Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan — whose 15 million people belong to more than 100 ethnic groups — has been promoting religious diversity as the nation’s leadership opens to the West.

As citizens of Kazakhstan freed themselves from the country’s Communist past, they also began to rediscover their cultural and religious roots.

A decade later, Jews — especially those with mixed heritage — continue to join the community.

Rabbi Me’er Sheyner, a young Lubavitch emissary, started the Or Avner-Gershuni School four years ago with just 37 students.

“People kept joking that we would have to bring Jews from Israel to fill the school,” recalled Sheyner, who serves as chairman of the Association of Religious Congregations of Kazakhstan, an umbrella organization for groups affiliated with the worldwide Lubavitch movement.

Today the school has 152 students, aged 6 to 17.

Another day school opened in September in the city of Karaganda in eastern Kazakhstan.

“We are trying to give people some taste of Judaism,” Sheyner said. “Most Jews here know so little about their heritage that they seem to have no reason to love or respect Jewish tradition.”

Kazakhstan was the second-largest republic in the former Soviet Union. Ethnic Kazakhs, who make up about 60 percent of the population, are Asian Muslim descended from Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes that were ruled by the Mongols from the 13th century until the Russian conquest in the 18th and 19th centuries.

After independence, many non-Kazakhs — including Jews — saw their career opportunities shrinking as Kazakhs were unofficially favored over minorities.

Economic hardship forced thousands of Jews to leave the country. Hundreds still leave each year for the United States, Germany or Israel.

Yet there is a sense in the Jewish community that its fledgling market economy and religious freedom make Kazakhstan a place to build the future.

Alexander Stepantsov, also a 10th-grader at Or Avner-Gershuni, wants to study medicine.

“I would probably stay here or go to Israel. It depends on where I find a better school,” he said.

“As long as you can make a decent living here, there is no reason to go elsewhere,” said Alexander Butsenik, 25, a computer professional.

Butsenik spoke in the yard of the Almaty synagogue, the primary address for local Jews to socialize. Butsenik said he comes to the synagogue at least once a week, less for the service than to meet friends.

On a recent weekday evening, five elderly women gathered near the synagogue and listened as one read a letter she had received from her daughter, who moved to Israel 11 years ago.

“She writes that she and the family are doing fine, but they miss Almaty and want to come visit,” explained the woman, who gave her name as Nina Iosifovna.

Synagogues, the most visible symbol of Jewish revival, are being built in all major cities. Plans are underway to erect synagogues in twelve major regional centers — none of which, aside from Almaty, ever had a Jewish house of prayer. Until recently, in fact, Kazakhstan had just one permanent minyan.

The synagogue construction project is the brainchild of local tycoon Alexander Mashkevich, president of the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan.

Estimates of the country’s Jewish community range from 7,000 to 20,000 people. Most live in Almaty, the largest city and, until 1997, the capital.

Kazakh Jews have a relatively short history: Few Jewish families can trace their roots here more than three generations back.

Small groups of Bukharan Jews from neighboring Uzbekistan settled here centuries ago, but historical records show that the first known Jewish community — including 48 soldiers who had completed their service in the czar’s army — settled in Kazakhstan some 120 years ago.

In 1882 the first synagogue was established in Verniy, as Almaty was known then.

“Most of us in Kazakhstan suffered the same fate,” said Adolf Artsishevsky, 65, editor of the Jewish magazine Shalom. “Few people, both Jews and non-Jews, came here on their own.”

Artsishevsky’s own grandparents were exiled to Kazakhstan from Ukraine in the 1930s as part of the Stalinist repression.

One of his grandfathers perished in Karlag, a large labor camp in eastern Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s endless steppes, bordered by snow-capped mountains in the south, also offered safe harbor to many Jews from who fled Ukraine and Belarus during the Holocaust.

Hundreds of those who fled or were exiled to Kazakhstan are buried in the Jewish section of an Almaty cemetery.

Among them is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Removed from his post as rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, Schneerson was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1939 and died five years later in Almaty. His grave has become a pilgrimage site for many Jews.

Many Soviet Jews moved to Kazakhstan after the Holocaust because it was easier to find economic prosperity in remote regions. Some came in the 1950s and 1960s, when extensive agricultural development of the region’s virgin land made Kazakhstan — until then known for its mineral riches — into one of the Soviet Union’s leading grain producers.

The country is huge — four times the size of Texas — and sparsely populated, complicating the work of Jewish organizations.

“What is unique about Kazakhstan is its size. This definitely has an impact on our work,” said Alexander Baron, president of the Mitsva association, an umbrella group for Jewish cultural and welfare centers in Kazakhstan.

His organization, which receives funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and local sponsors, runs activities in towns and villages across Kazakhstan.

In the last few years, Mitsva has opened twelve major centers in provincial capitals, enabling communities in most parts of the country to run programs. The nearest center to the main office is a 10-hour drive from Almaty.

The organization runs soup kitchens and medical programs for the elderly and needy, as well as a variety of projects that promote Jewish culture. “You have to be very resourceful to build a program that reaches out to all the outlying areas,” Baron said.

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