February 19, 2013

Jewish Renewal in Kazakhstan

Hesed Center with young Kazakh Jews.
by Dov Ben-Shimon

"Yulia" -- dressed in orange
I've just spent the last week in Turkey and Kazakhstan on a JDC Strategic Partnerships/Ambassadors Circle mission and wanted to share something that made a deep impression on me.

At dinner the other night in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I sat with two young leaders of the Jewish community. Michael  and his wife Yelena are very involved with the Almaty community. He is a building contractor and she is a graphic designer. They're both in their early forties and they both volunteer in the Hesed, our federation-supported welfare center. In Almaty the Hesed also functions as a JCC, and they sit on the Board.

Here's the story: Michael grew up knowing he was Jewish. It wasn't a particularly significant part of his life. His mother actually listed their nationality as "Ukrainian" rather than "Jewish" on their internal Soviet passports. She had lived through nasty anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine before the family moved to Kazakhstan, which has a low level of anti-Semitism. When Michael and Yelena married, religion wasn't really an important topic for either of them, and in a country in which there are high levels of intermarriage, he thought nothing of marrying a nice non-Jewish girl like Yelena.

But as their two children started to grow up - they're now 12 and 16 - Michael increasingly felt the need to connect to his Jewish roots, and to get his children involved in their Jewish heritage.

Yelena had no objection; she grew up with no connection to anything religious, and as the children participated more and more, she and Michael also started to get more involved. The Hesed reached out (as many do) to the parents through the children. And since Michael and Yelena's generation grew up with no connection to Jewish knowledge or community, the Hesed became their Jewish home.

After some years, Yelena finally plucked up the courage to tell her parents that her children were now actively involved in the Jewish community, and that she, too, was becoming involved through them and increasingly seeing herself as part of the community. It was at that meeting that she learned, from her mother, that both her parents were actually Jewish, and so was she! "It hadn't been important for them," she said, "and they never knew how to explain it to themselves or to me." It's a very common story in the former Soviet Union, where so many Jews were cut off from Jewish life for some seventy years.

But here's the final part to the story that made it all so worthwhile.

After dinner with Michael and Yelena, I sat in the Hesed and watched as dozens of teenagers talked, sang and led discussions on Jewish identity. There we were, in the middle of Kazakhstan, inspired and moved by their commitment to Jewish life and learning. And in the middle of the performance of "Heyvenu Shalom Aleichem," as I was watching five beautiful young women sing in harmony, another young member of the community leaned over to my seat and said, "do you see the girl in the middle - Yulia? With the red hair and the black-brown sweater? I think you just had dinner with her mom and dad - Michael and Yelena ...."

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