Chabad house in Kazakhstan 'navigating a spiritual desert'

An inside look at a remote Jewish community.

kazakhstan jews 248.88 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin )
kazakhstan jews 248.88
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin )
Filled with the chatter of young children and the smells and tastes of a Jewish home, Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Kubalkin's household presents a welcoming scene. It is easy to forget that I am in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, home to one of the world's most remote Jewish communities. Kubalkin is quick to invite me for a meal. His home is upstairs from the only synagogue in town. Astana is a city of grand and meticulously planned modern buildings, part of the new face of energy-driven economic prosperity the central Asian republic would like to show the world. Like much of the city, the synagogue is only a few years old - built through the donation of Eurasia Jewish Congress President and wealthy businessman Alexander Machkevich. The nature of Kazakhstan's Jewish community begins to become apparent when Kubalkin tackles what seems to be a simple question. How many Jews live in in the country? "It's hard to pin down a number," he says. While he believes that somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews live in Kazakhstan, the decades of Soviet-enforced atheism, anti-Semitism, assimilation and intermarriage mean that few of Astana's Jews are connected to their roots, he says. Many Jews who have been disconnected from their identity experience a reawakening when they enter the synagogue, Kubalkin says, like the elderly Polish Holocaust survivor who fled to Kazakhstan and assumed a non-Jewish identity for decades. "Suddenly, he came to the synagogue and began to pray," Kubalkin recounts. A woman who had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother reacted in shock after she learned she was not halachically Jewish, Kubalkin says. "Her father was exiled by the communist authorities for being Jewish, and her non-Jewish mother was also sent away for good measure. She suffered because of anti-Semitism her whole life," he says. After coming to Astana's synagogue and contacting Kubalkin, the woman was shaken to the core when she learned that she was not considered Jewish. "What could I tell her? Should I have lied?" Kubalkin asks. Seeking to alleviate her distress, Kubalkin dispatched a woman from the community to "calm her down." Kubalkin welcomes non-Jews into the synagogue to take part in certain activities like Purim celebrations, but does not involve them as full members of the community. "I don't have enough children to start a school," he says. Instead, online courses, in which teachers in Israel communicate with children from tiny Jewish communities around the world over the Internet, have been set up to get around the problem. Four of Kubalkin's children sit in front of the computer screen, taking part in such a lesson. "Kazakhstan's Jewish community is made up of exiles from Russia, refugees, and former prisoners and communists. The refugees already left. Many who remain are very alienated and ignorant of Judaism. This is a spiritual desert," Kubalkin says. While the government of Kazakhstan is highly tolerant of minority religions, the lack of Jewish spirituality in this land presents "highs and lows," Kublakin concedes. "We see ourselves as soldiers, working under all conditions. We're very happy to be delegates of the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson]," he adds. Kubalkin says many people with no Jewish background have requested to convert to Judaism. "We test them, to see how serious they are. If they are serious, we send them to [Chabad centers] in Moscow or the Ukraine," he said. On our way out of the synagogue, we pass a large white rock perched on a round table, taken from the vicinity of the Western Wall. For Kubalkin, the rock represents his mission in Kazakhstan - to create a small Jewish spiritual outpost in a faraway land.