Perry Teicher with Yana Batyrshina, Tashkent Hillel director.
I squeezed my way between two Uzbek Jewish students on the bench. We were sitting around a table in the Hillel common room, about to start Shabbat evening services. Ten Uzbek Jews, one Kazakh fellow traveler, and I. Like many Hillel services, the minyan had an eclectic mix of students. One or two had never been to a service before and one spoke Hebrew fluently - all of them had only connected with their Jewish identity within the past few years. I realized very quickly I came from a much different Jewish background than everyone surrounding me.
My first experience with the Central Asia Jewish community was during Peace Corps Pre-Service Training in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2007. Training lasted three months, including over the High Holidays. This would be my first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur apart from “my” community, whether in my hometown or at the University of Michigan. Fortunately, Kazakhstan has a moderately-sized Jewish community, the Peace Corps was open to the idea, our training town was only 45 minutes from Almaty, and my Russian was theoretically understandable…
At the time, I thought that my first Central Asian High Holidays would also be my last interaction with the Jewish community in that part of the world. But within two months, I had already attended a Chanukah dinner in Aktobe, a city 43-hours across the country where I moved for my Peace Corps service. A little over a year later, I helped groups of Tufts and New York University Hillel students participate in JDC-sponsored short-term-service trips to Kazakhstan. And then I participated in kabbalat Shabbat at Tashkent Hillel.
Through these experiences I gained a deeper perspective on what it means to be Jewish in Kazakhstan: rediscovery, learning, and community support. Like the majority of the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, young Jews have been rediscovering their Judaism only within the past two decades. The young Jews who I met clearly care about their Jewish identity, but have challenges in finding ways to express it. Although Tashkent is the capital of a country with one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world -- from Bukhara -- the Uzbek Jewish community is largely working from scratch in trying to rebuild Jewish identity among the youth, largely due to the Soviet anti-religion legacy and post-independence government isolation.
Hillel is at the forefront of the effort to create a vibrant Jewish life in Uzbekistan and its neighbors. Their rented building in the university district of Tashkent is generally packed. Students come to Hillel, I was told by one of the students, because it is one of the rare places in the country that encourages critical thinking. In a society where freedom of expression is severely limited and identifying oneself as Jewish can have a great deal of stigma, those who embrace the culture of Jewish exploration should be listened to, encouraged, supported, and applauded.
Formerly a student member of Hillel International Board of Directors