The Bukharans are coming

100 members of the Bukharan Jewish community of New York are making aliya with their rabbi. If the 'pioneer' group succeeds, thousands more may follow.

bukharan jews 88 298 (photo credit: Gal Beckerman)
bukharan jews 88 298
(photo credit: Gal Beckerman)
100 members of the Bukharan Jewish community of New York are making aliya with their rabbi this summer. If the 'pioneer' group succeeds, thousands more may follow. As many as 60,000 Bukharan Jews live in Queens. 'If there is peace in Israel, 70 percent of Bukharans will leave here and go there,' said community leader Aron Aronov. 'No question.' 'Unity is the most important thing for us. As long as we go together we can help each other survive the bad days and rejoice with one another on the good days.' - Mark Akbashev, 29 A giant map of Israel covered the wall behind Rabbi Michael Borochov as he sat last week in his office at Beit Gavriel, a Bukharan-Jewish community center in Forest Hills, Queens. A thick blanket of snow covered the ground outside, but it was Israel that was on his mind, both as an inspiration and as a burdensome responsibility. He's going to be making aliya in July. And he's bringing 100 Bukharan Jews from his congregation with him. The move was Borochov's idea, but it sheds light on a tightly knit community that is almost uniquely suited for this type of communal action. It's not out of character for the Bukharans, who survived as they did for over 2,000 years in an isolated enclave in Central Asia with intact traditional practices and values. The return to Israel always had a central place in their faith. This has remained true in spite of the fact that the Bukharan Jewish community that lives in Queens - numbering between 50,000 and 60,000 - has settled into a relatively comfortable existence since first arriving in the late 1980s. There is evidence everywhere that they have made large swathes of Forest Hills and Rego Park their own. The commercial strip of 108th Street, known locally as "Bukharan Broadway," is filled with kosher restaurants like Shalom where the smell of cumin, paprika and grilled lamb waft out onto the sidewalk. Large multi-story community centers and synagogues abound, including a new one to be dedicated in March and funded by the Bukharan Jewish philanthropist Lev Leviev, which will house the organization over which he presides, the Bukharan Jewish Congress. The younger generation, usually the weakest link in any community's effort to keep tradition alive, has also made efforts to keep the community as tight as possible. One example has been, a Web site started by a group of young Bukharans that now has 950 registered members and has become a hub of information about cultural events, as well as as a place for young Bukharan Jews to meet each other. SITTING IN his office and stroking his long, silky black beard, Michael Borochov said he is proud of his own contribution to the community's development, transforming within 10 years a 100-family congregation based in Lefrak City, a major housing project in Queens, into one that, he said, has over 800 families today. This project has been his "baby," he said, and one of the hardest decisions he has had to make was leaving it all behind. "But I knew," said Borochov, "that the community needs to see the example of their rabbi going before them. Immigration is never easy. When we left the Soviet Union, it was out of fear, we were scared. But now everyone is comfortable. For everyone, leaving is a risk. I'll show them that I can take the risk also." Borochov contacted Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency's Aliya Department in North America, eight months ago with the idea and the Jewish Agency quickly came into the community to meet with the interested families. So far, according to Landsberg, 28 families have said they want to sign up and 12 have begun the process of applying for aliya. Borochov is confident that out of these, at least 20 families will make up the first group of what he calls "pioneers." With an average of five people per family, he figures about 100 people will be coming with him. Over the past half-year, Borochov has taken two groups of families on pilot trips to look for the city they would live in once in Israel. This past November they settled on Ramat Beit Shemesh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Initially, Borochov said, the group had looked at settlements within the West Bank - more for economic than ideological reasons - but the tumultuous scenes during the disengagement from Gaza last August made many families wary of moving to towns they might eventually have to evacuate. The Jewish Agency has promised both individual and collective aide to the group and another organization, Nefesh B'Nefesh, whose mission is to facilitate North American aliya, has pledged additional funds. The majority of families making up this initial group are young, the children of Bukharan immigrants who came to Queens when the Soviet Union fell. The list of jobs they have is varied, including a nurse, computer technician, and a barber. Now grown up and acculturated, they have come to the conclusion that America is not where they should be. They want to go to Israel, all for strongly Zionist reasons. IN SOME families this has created conflict. Ronnie Vinnikov, the Jewish Agency's main emissary to New York's Russian Jewish community and someone who has worked closely with the Bukharan group, said that some members of the group have needed to go up against the wishes of their families in order to leave. "Suddenly the parents are forced to wonder if they made a bad decision by bringing the kids here," Vinnikov said. "When the parents came to America it was for the good of the children; they thought they were bringing them to the best place. Now their children tell them no, this isn't the place for me." Mark Akbashev, 29, a business manager and a student at Yeshiva University, will be leaving in the first group with his wife and two children. His parents and his wife's parents will be staying in Queens. Many people ask him why he would want to leave America where he has found success, he said. He answers simply that he is investing in his children's future by taking them to their land. His paternal grandfather, he notes, spent two years to get from Central Asia to Jerusalem just to gather some earth and bring it back. All he has to do, though, is take an 11-hour flight. What finally helped Akbashev decide to make the move he had been contemplating for years was the idea of going as part of a group of families he has gotten to know through Borochov's congregation. "Unity," Akbashev said, "is the most important thing for us. As long as we go together we can help each other survive the bad days and rejoice with one another on the good days." This seems to be key to making this experiment work for the Bukharan Jews of New York. After all, the tool that Bukharans used to survive for so long, cut off from all other Jewish communities, was their sense of unity. Ultimately, said Aron Aronov, the unofficial mayor of the Queens Bukharan Jews and a liaison to the Russian-speaking community for the New York Association for New Americans, that's what will help the summer's pioneers pull through. An energetic man in his late 60s with bushy gray eyebrows who wears his plaid shirts buttoned up to the top, Aronov is trying single-handedly to keep Bukharan culture alive through a museum he has put together with his own money. Standing amidst multi-colored silks, paintings of bearded Bukharan rabbis, and rows of silver jewelry and golden yarmulkes, Aronov gave his verdict on whether a mass emigration of Bukharan Jews to Israel would be successful: "If there is peace in Israel, 70 percent of Bukharans will leave here and go there. No question." Bukharan Jews are a fundamentally traditional people, Aronov said, calling his own community the "Jewish Taliban." If the Soviets couldn't stop them from being Jewish, America won't either, he said. And if they want to go to Israel, they will. The most important element is solidarity. "Most Bukharans," Aronov said, "if you offered them all the money in the world and a palace in Finland, they would ask you only one question: Do any Bukharans live there?"