As a Synagogue Comes Down, a Culture Disappears, Too
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan- Even during Sabbath services on a Saturday in early March, as Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhimov read Hebrew prayers and the faithful followed along using Russian transliterations, the rumble of construction was distracting.
This is a synagogue in its last moments of existence. While the congregants prayed, a bright orange bulldozer growled outside, continuing its work at the synagogue’s edge.
“They could do this anytime,” whispered David Kiselkov, 56. “But of course they choose to do it now.”
The synagogue is the last in Tajikistan, and will soon fall victim to redevelopment and the declining Jewish population in this remote post-Soviet state.
In late February, workers demolished part of the synagogue, including a ritual bath, or mikvah. Only a modest brick building remains, a Star of David on the aluminum door.
The house of worship is making way for a grand presidential palace currently under construction. A columned behemoth topped with a cupola, the garish building will stand on a 130-acre plot of parks and palisades.
Dushanbe, a quiet, verdant capital with a single central boulevard, is slowly changing, struggling to emerge from isolation, state Socialism and civil war.
Lenin’s statue was recently replaced by a towering golden monument to Ismail Samani, a 9th-century Persian shah reborn as a Tajik hero. A sparkling green bank stands next to an imposing Stalinist government building, freshly painted peach.
Judaism’s declining influence in this region can be seen as this synagogue lives out its final days.
About 12,000 Jews left Dushanbe after the Soviet Union’s collapse, encouraged, perhaps, by Islamic nationalism during a bloody civil war, from 1992 to 1997. “If they could fight among themselves like that, as if against a different nation or religion, what might they do to us?” Mr. Abdurakhimov said.
Most of the several hundred remaining Jews are elderly, and nearly all have relatives in Israel, Germany or the United States.
Julian Chilmodina, born in Volgograd, Russia, in 1931, was among many thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who moved to Central Asia during World War II, joining Persian-speaking Bukharian Jews who had settled in the region much earlier.
Now he wants to move to Israel, where his younger brother lives. In a bizarre twist reminiscent of Soviet times, he cannot get a visa, he says, because his official ethnicity is Russian, rather than Jewish.
Mr. Chilmodina says his parents disguised his ethnicity before the start of World War II. “I went to the police station, so that I could register as a Jew, but again my passport came back with me as a Russian,” he said, laughing at the bureaucracy.
While he waits to try to resolve the issue, Mr. Chilmodina attends services every Saturday. In early March, the prayer room was chilly and dimly lighted because the city had shut off most of the electricity the month before.
The city offered an empty plot a few miles away for a new synagogue, but the rabbi said the congregation was too poor to rebuild. Jews have worshiped at this site for generations, and the current structure was built in 1947, according to documents the rabbi has.
Shamsuddin Nuriddinov, head of Dushanbe’s municipal department of religious affairs, said that the Jews did not own the synagogue site and that that he hoped they would build a beautiful new one.
Many congregants, while they support the president’s new development, feel cast aside. “It will be beautiful, like the White House in America,” said Yuri Lukyanov, 30, of the planned palace. “I just wish they would compensate us for what is ours.”
During services, Mr. Lukyanov sat next to the rabbi, and left several times to report to him in hushed tones about the work going on outside.
Mr. Lukyanov’s mother and sister live near Tel Aviv. He plans to emigrate, too, when his younger brother finishes his mandatory military service.
He wants to marry a Jewish woman, but needs to meet one first. “I do not know any observant Jews here my age,” he said.
The synagogue also serves as a community center, where food, medicine and clothing are distributed. Religious holidays were once celebrated in the quiet courtyard, now filled with construction debris.
The United States ambassador, Richard E. Hoagland, said he was certain the land dispute was “not a question of religious freedom, and anti-Semitism is not involved.” A Russian military base was also destroyed for the construction project, along with hospitals, schools and countless residences.
But the Jewish heritage here risks being lost, along with the synagogue.
Anna Ferdman, 101, emigrated from Ukraine to Dushanbe, then known as Stalinobad, in 1945, after her husband, Ivan, died in the war. She regularly went to the synagogue until a recent fall left her bedridden. She has watched the Jewish population dwindle.
“Nobody here speaks Yiddish anymore,” Ms. Ferdman lamented in her home, after proudly singing for guests in Yiddish, the traditional Ashkenazi language. “Gone are the days when you could say ‘Hey! Are you Jewish? Let’s talk!’ ”
The congregation is visibly faltering. The rabbi has not been officially ordained. Rituals are clumsily observed, if at all. During Sabbath services, a red-haired man stood at the wrong time, only to be berated.
“What are you doing?” shouted Mr. Kiselkov. “How many years have you been coming here, and still you do not know when to stand up!”