Bukharan Jews breathe life into Austrian Jewry

Community represents about a third of country’s 8,000 Jews.

February 17, 2012 03:02
3 minute read.
Chanan Babacsayv.

Chanan Babacsayv 390. (photo credit: Alexandra Hahlweg)


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VIENNA – His heart is in Israel. But his feet are firmly planted in Austria.

Chanan Babacsayv, the Jerusalem-born vice president of Austria’s Bukharan Jewish community, wants to give a shot in the arm to the small but growing group.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, he said the Bukharan Jewish community has grown from 20 to 30 families in the 1970s to 2,500 members of the roughly 8,000-strong Austrian Jewry.

Bukharan Jews have their origin in the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Israel has the most Bukharan Jews today, followed by the United States and then Europe.

Babacsayv, who was born in 1977, left for Austria with his family as a young boy.

Though his first language is Hebrew, he speaks fluent, accent-free German. “My spiritual home is Israel” but “I accept Austria as my home,” he said.

Babacsayv, who is over 180- cm. (6-feet) tall and is capable of slam dunking on the basketball court, is part of a younger generation of Austrian Jewish leaders. He along with the 48-year-old Oskar Deutsch, who is slated to become the next president of Austria’s Jewish community, plan to continue to increase the membership of a community that once numbered 200,000 before Austrian Nazis destroyed Jewish life. Dr. Ariel Muzicant, the long-standing head of the country’s Jewish community, on Wednesday announced that he was retiring from the post. Muzicant was born in Haifa in 1952 and is one of Continental Europe’s most dynamic Jewish leaders. Babacsayv and the Bukharan Jewish faction have aligned themselves with Deutsch, who has been a vice president under Muzicant for 12 years.

Babacsayv works in real estate. He advocates education and openness to help breakdown stereotypes and clichés about Jews in Austria.

He stresses that getting on your high horse is not the best way to change non-Jews’ attitudes.

Given that there is little interaction between Austrian Jews and non-Jews, Babacsayv urges personal contact and proactive meeting to foster a better understanding of Judaism and Jewish life.

Babacsayv also seeks to strengthen the feelings of unity within the complex mosaic of Austrian Jewry. The community is made up of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews from Central Asia, Georgia, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Israel.

The first Sephardi synagogue since the destruction of Austrian Jewry during World War II was built in 1990. There is a Sephardi center in Vienna and the fivestory building contains prayer rooms for the Georgian Jewish community and the Central Asian groups.

Babacsayv is a deputy representative for youth programs in the community. On Thursday, 15 young Austrian Jews traveled to Israel to participate in a two-week Birthright program.

When asked about Austrian anti-Semitism, he said that after Israel Navy commandos seized the Turkish blockaderunner Mavi Marmara in 2010, there was “a wave of anti-Semitism.” Babacsayv cited examples of taxi drivers not picking up rabbis, attacks on Jewish businesses, and a one-sided anti-Israel press.

He also attributed the sizable outbreak of anti-Semitism to segments of the Muslim community. An estimated 500,000 Muslims live a country with a population of a little over 8 million.

Babacsayv criticized the Vienna City Council for rebuking Israel within 24 hours of the vessel’s seizure.

The council members failed to “get the facts,” he said.

Omar al-Rawi, a Muslim city councilman from the Social Democratic party, spearheaded the anti-Israel resolution. He spoke at a pro- Hamas rally in Vienna after the Israel Navy raid.

In contrast to Germany’s working through its Nazi history, “one feels a sense of lip service” in Austria, Babacsayv said.

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