Jewish and proud in provincial Kazakhstan

A community claws back from near extinction.

Kostanai synagogue 248 88 (photo credit: Haviv Rettig Gur)
Kostanai synagogue 248 88
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig Gur)
Living on the far edge of the Jewish world can be difficult. Small communities eke out a barebones existence consisting of little more than a Friday night service or a club of Jewish friends. Without education, synagogues, kosher food or a connection with the huge Jewish civilizations in Israel and the US, there is little future in these shattered bits and pieces of a long-gone Jewish civilization. In that dismal context, it was a moving experience to witness the dedication of Kazakhstan's sixth synagogue last week amid talk of a "rebirth" of Jewish communal life in the vast Central Asian country. Built in Kostanai, a provincial capital with 223,600 people in the country's north, the new synagogue and community center are the gift of the country's energetic Jewish billionaire Alexander Mashkevich, a minerals and mining tycoon and president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. "I think a strong Diaspora is important," Mashkevich told The Jerusalem Post last week. "A strong Israel and a strong Diaspora is a perfect combination for the Jewish people. Each one is stronger because it has the other." Population figures for remnant Jewish communities are often the product of wishful thinking rather than statistical record. Estimates for Kazakhstan range from 10,000 to 40,000 Jews. Yet neither a ceremony in an Astana synagogue attended by President Shimon Peres nor a dedication ceremony in Kostanai visited by Israeli Religious Services Minister Ya'acov Margi and Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger were attended by more than perhaps 80 local Jews. Indeed, the synagogues could not have held larger crowds. However many Jews there may be in technical terms, the number of those who know or care that they are Jews is far lower. In Kostanai, which already hosts a mosque, two Orthodox churches and a Catholic church, the synagogue will serve a Jewish community that is clawing its way back from near extinction due to Soviet forced atheism and emigration. "We didn't have a community, just a branch of Hesed [the national communal charity for Kazakh Jews] where Jews would gather Friday night," explained 78-year-old Jean Lazarevich. Lazarevich, whose two brothers live in Israel, was effusive in his gratitude to Mashkevich. If they met, "I'd thank him that we finally have a synagogue," he said. Indeed, the "rebirth" seems to be thanks almost entirely to Mashkevich, who also funded the construction of the large synagogue in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Is the philanthropist worried, the Post asked, that Kazakhstan's is a community living on the precarious handouts of a single donor - him - for its new synagogues and organization? "I'd like to get more members of the community involved," he admits. Though he insists his commitment is total - the synagogues are dedicated to his late mother, Rachel Yoffe, and "my tzedaka protected me from the financial crisis" - he acknowledges that he is not invincible. Without him, would Kazakh Jewry implode, a fate faced by other small communities in the former Soviet Union as wealthy donors suffer in the recession? "No. People, regular people, are beginning to give to the synagogue and to Jewish culture," he says. "That makes me very happy. It's a big mitzva to motivate other people to give money. After all these thousands of years, Jewish life won't stop. There will always be new Jews who will appear and donate to the community," he insists. Kazakhstan is a vast, empty, landlocked country. At 2.7 million square kilometers, it is the ninth-largest state in the world, bigger than than Western Europe. But with just 16.4 million residents, it is 222nd in population density. That immense sprawl contains some 150 recognized national minorities. Whereas Islam and Christianity function in the country as religious traditions shared across multiple nationalities, the Jews are an officially-recognized nationality all their own. And they are fascinating to other Kazakhs. The dedication of Beit Rachel in Kostanai saw Kazakh journalists who trekked from the far reaches of the country filming at the gate and scribbling during the speeches of the local governor and the Israeli guests. The Jews, too, identify as a nation, and insist to their guests that Mashkevich's optimism about the community's future is well-founded. At the dedication of Kostanai's Beit Rachel, the crowd was mostly middle-aged men and women who were clearly unused to traditional Jewish head-coverings. But mixed into the crowd were old men who understood Yiddish and a few children and teenagers who seemed excited about being part of a larger Jewish people. Yaroslava, 17, said she had perhaps 20 local friends her age who identify as Jews. They are proud of being Jewish. "It's cool. Members of my nation are famous in every country and town," she says. She plans to make aliya when she turns 18, but believes proud Jews will always remain in Kazakhstan. Igor Fomenko, age two, doesn't yet have plans for the future. But he seemed to have a wonderful time dancing to the songs of the Israeli boys choir flown in for the occasion. His young mother, watching him with delight, plans to return to the synagogue.