From Upstream to Mainstream: The Story of New York’s Bukharian Jewish Community
In the late afternoon, on 70th Avenue in Forest Hills, New York, one often sees young men stream to the Bukharian Jewish Community Center’s shul for Mincha. Young Bukharian women in mitpachot dot the streets. As do numerous kosher Bukharian-owned eateries and kosher caterers offering full menus of Bukharian cuisine with its dominant pilafs and lepyoshka (a type of bread).
The Bukharian Jewish community, now numbering around 60,000 within Queens and a ten-mile radius beyond it, comprises 17% of the Jewish population of the borough (Jewish Community of New York: 2011 Geographic Profile). Some sixty Bukharian shuls have sprung up in various neighborhoods; two of the largest – Beit Gavriel and Kehilat Sephardim of Ahavat Achim – are OU-member shuls. No question, the Bukharian Jewish community has come of age.
The absorption of the Bukharian Jews in the United States during the past forty years is remarkable in that it has meant a spiritual rejuvenation for many, as well as resettlement. “It’s rare that a Jewish tribe returns to its roots in the U.S. Although what happened to the Bukharian community in New York is similar to what happened in modern Israel with the repatriation of the Yemenite, Bene Israel, Syrian and Ethiopian communities,” points out Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov of Congregation Kehilat Sephardim Bukharian Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills.
Who Are They?
Although archeological evidence of a Jewish presence in Central Asia dates back to the 5th century, the Silk Road fostered the development of Jewish trading settlements. Jews in Central Asia experienced periodic persecution from Islamic rulers, but were generally protected. The Jews in the region were influenced by Sephardic leaders who traveled from Turkey and the Land of Israel, though the original Jewish residents may have been Ashkenazim.
Although Jews of the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan may have had differing cultures in previous centuries, they are currently referred to as Bukharian Jews. The term generally includes Jews from all of the Muslim areas of Central Asia. Their customs and religious traditions were rigorously maintained in the main Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, and Kokandin, Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, and in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek where Jews formed sizable percentages of the population. Ashkenazi Jews only began to settle in these areas after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Despite generations of communist rule, the ruthless systemic eradication of Jewish observance and identity was not present in these distant tribal lands, far from main communist centers and strategic border positions. Nonetheless, most Bukharian Jewish families lost members to the massive conscription when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II. Jewish communities were especially targeted for untrained troops to fight the invading Nazi troops. The Soviet Victory Day is a day commemorated by Bukharian Jews not as a joyous holiday, but as a day of remembrance for fallen family members cut down in their youth.
Life was not easy during the last century, but the Jews were able to maintain their traditions. “We had rabbis and religious practitioners who could perform brissim as well as shechitah, and maintain Jewish life. Smicha was privately granted to more learned members and Kabbalah was taught to the worthy; there were no yeshivot. Despite the lack of Jewish schools, the population maintained a strong connection to mesorah,” says Rabbi Barukh Babaev, Chief Rabbi for the Bukharian Jews of the USA and Canada, an affiliate of the international Congress of Bukharian Jews. Bukhari, a Tajik-Persian dialect which incorporates some Hebrew words, was the language that they spoke although in later years the Russian language began to dominate.
The first wave of Bukharian Jewish emigration to the United States began in the late 1980s. Those who came then were more educated, had held professional positions in their country of origin and were fairly traditional in practice. Many came by way of Israel and settled in eastern cities where they had relatives. Some were drawn to settle in Queens, which already had a small Afghani-Jewish community, a culture that was familiar. Apartment buildings and projects offered affordable housing, recalls Rabbi Avrohom Hecht. The 108th Street strip of Forest Hills was soon dotted with kosher butchers, stores, and restaurants where Russian and Bukhari were the lingua franca.
The second wave of Bukharian Jews was much larger, arriving in the 90s alongside tens of thousands of secular Soviet Jews. 40,000 Bukharian Jews settled in and near Queens. The Jewish resettlement organizations provided these refugees with access to English classes, retraining, and social services.
During the first influx, a group of committed lay leaders from several neighborhoods formed the Children’s Torah Foundation. Classes for Soviet newcomers were arranged in Yeshiva of Central Queens, Ezra Academy, Hebrew Academy of Queens, Bais Yaakov of Queens, Dov Revel and Torah Academy for Girls of Far Rockaway. This group led by Yossi Hoch, Itzi Laub, Dov Wolowitz, Shiu Reichmann, and Yisroel Bloom eventually consolidated the classes under the name Torah Academy of Queens, an elementary school and then Torah Academy High School. They sent young activists to walk through the apartment buildings to sign kids up.
“My husband went to over 100 homes to talk to parents. My role was to plan bus routes to include potential kids so that their parents could more easily be convinced to send their kids,” recalls Rochelle Hecht, wife of Rabbi Avrohom Hecht of Kew Gardens. Soon after Shaarei Zion and Ohr Haim were established.
Existing day schools and yeshivas raised money to set up infrastructure to support the newcomers whose parents thirsted to give their children an authentic Jewish education now that they were free to do so.
When the second wave of Bukharian Jews arrived, five Bukharian congregations existed. They were soon joined by young activists and Bukharian rabbis who had received some training in Israeli yeshivot. In humid basements and decaying shuls in Corona, Lefrak City, Briarwood, Forest Hills, and beyond, these pioneers established minyanim as well as after-school programs to offer these immigrant children homework assistance, programming, and recreational activities all in a Jewish atmosphere. Rabbi Nachum Kaziev of Ohr Natan was one of the first to open a food pantry and to develop social services programs to assist these newly arrived immigrants. With great personal sacrifice, young leaders worked with and for their compatriots who were struggling to put food on the table, keep their children from the violence of the public schools, and to actualize the American immigrant dream.
Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, a veteran outreach activist, played a pivotal role. His familiarity with the community, its needs, and its old and new leadership originated in his earlier work founding Torah Academy (later called Binat Chaim). He educated UJA-Federation, Met Council and foundations about the acute needs of Bukharian Jews. He is responsible for program dollars that supported community outreach specialists who connected Queens Bukharian Jews to the citywide Jewish general and boutique nonprofits that deal with special needs children, immigration problems, patient needs, and burial needs. He and I also worked with emergent leadership to develop relationships with politicians, government agencies, and organizations that could assist.
Meanwhile, impassioned Bukharian young men and women attending kiruv programs and Torah institutions took action. They were supported by young teachers and mashpiim who advocated for them and supported them in mainstream institutions. They volunteered for Queens Tomchei Shabbos, opened food pantries, hosted kids on Shabbos in their apartments, and went to register them in school. They supplemented their own Torah education with lectures and adult education and went on to teach in schools and supplemental classes for adults and kids. Rebbetzin Ora (formerly Olga) Nisanov, a student at Beer Hagolah Institutes and then Shevach High School in Queens was one of these idealistic leaders. Her husband Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov was another. He became rav of Kehilat Sephardim Bukharian Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills at 19. “The Rosh Yeshivah of Chaim Berlin knew that the community needed another shul and he gave his support,” she says.
It is now almost twenty years since my position as Met Council’s Director of Community Services. In that role I supervised outreach caseworkers for this community and coordinated with other UJA-Federation agencies to assist them. I now frequent this borough while working for a Forest Hills-based company and am staggered by the changes.
Many young couples are raising observant families with children in yeshivot and actively participate in communal Jewish life. The women tend to be professionals and their husbands are generally businessmen. Many young women who are religious today, attended Machon Academy for Girls, the upper girls school of Binat Chaim, and other schools where they were profoundly influenced by their teachers. Their education was supplemented by innovative programs run by Rabbi Hecht during their college and post college years to help them navigate the secular world as observant confident professionals.
It was understood that pre-marriage education was vital for this community for multiple reasons. Old gender roles and unhealthy patterns needed to be replaced. Training in contemporary relationship models was necessary and together with the assistance of the Shalom Task Force, Beit Shalom was formed to promote healthy family relationships, organize training for community rabbis, chosson and kallah teachers. It also provided a way for rabbis to ensure that halachic concerns for marriage could be checked, recalls Dr. Sarah Chana Silverman, Director of Program Development for Shalom Task Force. A central marriage registry was formed. Lack of understanding of American Jewish denominations, the Soviet mentality of circumventing rules, and lack of extensive rabbinic training all contribute to ongoing concerns about identity matters in this community.
In 2004, Rebbetzin Adina Ribacoff and her husband Rabbi Refael Ribacoff, an accountant and attorney by training and a Jewish educator by choice, who now lead the Sephardic Congregation of Hewlett, developed the Table for Two program for marriage enrichment. Its format, a romantic dinner for two and interactive communication activities, has become a program model. She is now a therapist and parenting educator in several venues. “I felt the need to give back to the community in the same way I was given to with love and inspiration. Now we have a tremendous amount of nachat watching ‘our couples’ get married and build beautiful frumhomes,” she says.
Parenting in today’s world without contemporary models is a challenge that the new leadership addresses systemically. Young parents who became religious through a teacher or Torah classes don’t know how to raise frumchildren, notes Sari Aminov, principal of Ohr Chana Girls School. She and her husband, Rabbi Nir Aminov, the first Bukharian musmach of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim (Rabbinical Seminary of America), have formed a young kehillah in Kew Gardens, centered around a yeshiva and kollel. The shul recently acquired one of the community’s iconic institutions, the Persian Shaarei Tova shul. It’s a tangible symbol of the change in the neighborhood whose Jewish character was threatened in the late nineties.
Connecting the generations is a challenge present on many levels. Religious observance may be one difference. Some younger families are much more religious than their parents. In other families, children in public schools are losing their connection to tradition even while they may have religious grandparents. College and the work environment introduce young people to people of other faiths and nationalities and intermarriage is now a real threat to this community for the first time. Traditional methods of parenting clash with the 21st century independence of young women who don’t want to be restricted to home and hearth.
With the coming of age of the community, several positive trends emerged. Community members have bought homes in Forest Hills, Jamaica Estates, Kew Gardens Hills and Briarwood and contribute to the overall stabilization of the Jewish population of Queens which has been threatened by exodus to the New Jersey suburbs and the Five Towns. While many members of the first wave of Bukharian immigrants made their way to Great Neck once they prospered, today’s affluent members tend to occupy stately homes in Forest Hills and Fresh Meadows. Most young marrieds stay in the borough’s neighborhoods; however, some have begun to migrate to the suburbs and establish satellite communities. Middle age and older community members tend to remain in the apartment buildings of Forest Hills.
Shmuel Yusupov is a young advertising executive who is raising a family in Fresh Meadows. He is a graduate of Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun. “I am comfortable in Ashkenazi and Bukharian Jewish worlds and frequently introduce many individuals from each community to one another, both in business and in community affairs. Our kids go to school together at Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens and we are part of the establishment in Jewish Queens.”
The earlier politics of the older leaders has given way to more unity among the younger leaders and rabbis. In our conversations, they gave credit to other organizations and currently work together on community matters. They collaborate with other Jewish organizations, both local and national, to get kids into Jewish schools and send them to kiruv camps.
Led by Rabbis Yaniv and Ilan Meirov, Chazaq has recently emerged as a leading organization. It has played a role in the establishment of a bais din, led by Rabbi Yitzchak Yisraeli, an non-Bukharian Israeli posek who studied under Harav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l. Professional dayanim and rabbis are currently being trained for the community in Beit Gavriel, Ohel Simcha, Beit Efraim, and the Bukharian Jewish Community Center.
The Bukharian Jewish Community Center runs a panoply of community programs from its building on 70th Avenue. For decades the center, currently led by Rabbi Barukh Babaev has served as a nerve center for classes, social welfare, cultural awareness, and religious observance.
“Collaboration with Ashkenazi communities and organizations in Queens on a formal basis is a very important value,” says Rabbi Babaev. “Our community needs to contribute as well.” He points to the annual Shabbos Hatzolah to benefit the volunteer emergency ambulance corps as a recent development. So is the elimination of private Bukharian hashgachot in the community and formal inclusion of Bukharian minhag in the standards of the Queens Vaad.
Rabbi Asher Schreier, rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, agrees. He recently led the establishment of an eiruv in his community which is largely Bukharian Jewish. “All of the rabbis of the non-Ashkenazi and Bukharian shuls were consulted with regard to the halachic issues and joined in the effort.”
“The Ashkenazim helped us when we came. We are all Jews,” says Merik Rubinov of the Bukharian Times. The Rubinovs left Samarkand in 2000 when the last Jews were leaving. His parents were doctors and the family lived comfortably. “We all respected each other and helped each other out, Russian Jews, Georgian Jews and Kavkazi (Mountain Jews from the Caucus). Why shouldn’t it be the same here?”
In March 2018, Hillel in Queens College opened the Meros Center for Bukharian Jewish Research and Identity as an effort to encourage Bukharian students to stay connected to their heritage, religion, and culture. Emet and Chazaq conduct programs targeting Bukharian students as well.
Estimates of children in yeshiva range from 25%-60%. All mainstream yeshivot and remaining kiruv schools include substantial ratios of Bukharian Jewish children. Some are specifically Bukharian and many children are bused to Brooklyn to Beer Hagolah Institutes. A community of Bukharian Jews has sprung up in Starrett City around Beer Hagolah and its affiliated synagogue.
Former Persian Shaare Tova shul in Kew Gardens, now Kehillat Ner Mordechai
These numbers seem like a positive indicator for the future. There are also many public school children who go to Sunday programs and Jewish day camps. Most non-observant children of Bukharian parents have exposure to Jewish living because of observant relatives, leaders agree. Nonetheless, there is a real and present danger of many of them being lost to assimilation. Exposure to tradition is seen as good enough; it sufficed for the older generation in the Former Soviet Union and celebration of Jewish holidays and observance of kashrus is widespread. The assault of American values and a multicultural society without the bulwark of Torah education is unrecognized by many as a threat.
“As families Americanize, it becomes harder and harder to attract them to outreach programs with just food and performances. Outreach personnel have needed to become more strategic and sophisticated in their programming. Social media and entertainment channels are some of the tools. But nothing beats bringing young people into the ruach and spiritual environment of Shabbos,” Rabbi Kaziev says. He currently runs a synagogue in Forest Hills, a synagogue in Briarwood, a food pantry, adult and youth programs, and Druzhba Magazine.
As rabbi of the Congress of Bukharian Jews of the U.S. and Canada, Rabbi Babaev takes responsibility for enclaves of Bukharian Jews beyond greater New York City. Besides regular visits, he participates in monthly Rosh Chodesh parties and shiurim in Cleveland, L.A., San Diego, and Denver where there are no Bukharian kehillot. “The present window we have for outreach will close in ten years,” warns Rabbi Kaziev. “The American melting pot will succeed where decades of communist rule did not wipe out kashrut kavod haTorah, and minhag.”
Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg of Emet Outreach concurs. “The sad reality is that the majority are moving away from Torah and mitzvot in particular during the last decade. It’s very common for Bukharian families to not have Shabbat meals at all or only when relatives come for special occasions. The community is really at a crossroads and it’s very sad to see so many on a path to assimilation. Within the next 10-15 years most of the young people will be moving to affordable housing. The religious ones are moving to the Five Towns. The non-religious ones are moving all over Long Island and will be totally assimilated.”