Monday, May 05, 2003

Little Tashkent

Nothing in American Jewish history parallels the experience of Bukharian Jews who have come from the Asiatic republics of the Former Soviet Union, settling mainly in parts of Queens that I prefer to call by the title of this piece. With the exception of the chassidic remnants who arrived after the Holocaust and have remained fervently observant, all Jewish immigrant groups that came to the United States have assimilated, some more rapidly than others. Jews who arrived in the great post-1880 tide of immigration went through several stages of Judaic abandonment, so that their losses were not fully felt until the third or fourth generation.

More recent newcomers, mainly from Russia, Ukraine and also Israel, are assimilating more rapidly then their immigrant predecessors. Russian Jews had little in the way of Jewish identity left when they entered this melting pot, other than the knowledge that they were somehow Jewish, positive feelings toward Israel and an awareness that being Jewish brought significant benefits, in sharp contrast to what it meant to be Jewish under Communist rule.

In addition to their fluency in Hebrew, the ex-Israelis obviously had immeasurably greater Jewish knowledge and awareness. Unfortunately, as yet little is known about how they have fared on these shores, though it seems that they are experiencing substantial assimilation. Unlike the Russians, they have received little communal attention or support, perhaps because there is no special reason for being sympathetic toward them. Their situation would be worse were it not for the Chabad movement, which especially in Florida and California has provided meaningful religious and social services to the Israelis and their families.

When Jews from the FSU’s European heartland poured into the U.S., organized American Jewry reacted quickly to provide assistance, the intense feeling being that it was a sacred obligation to do so and it would be sinful to miss the opportunity. There were special fundraising campaigns, allocations were shifted, new programs were initiated and tons of space in our media provided information on their situation. Something miraculous had happened and we rushed to assist these Jews who were no longer the Jews of silence.

Attention came in the form of direct financial assistance, family services, job training, religious outreach, scholarships and educational opportunities. Day schools around the country opened their doors to Russian children and local Federations helped meet the extra costs. In New York, the Orthodox established yeshivas that catered to Russians, while older schools that specialized in outreach revamped their programs to accommodate the newcomers. It does not demean these efforts to note that we now know that from a Jewish standpoint, the results were disappointing. I once visited an Orthodox high school outside of New York that had 20 Russians in the graduating class. Only one could say that the four years in a decidedly religious environment had had much of an impact on her or her family. As the Talmud teaches, the process of saving lives is always retail, one life at a time. Saving one life is equivalent to saving an entire world.

The Bukharian story is different from that of the European or White Russians. Their sense of community and tradition had survived during Communism, perhaps because they lived in distant Asian republics and did not feel the full force of the Kremlin’s anti-religious measures. While few of the Bukharians were Orthodox in their practices, it was also the case that few had intermarried.

Many still are not observant. For others, there has been a powerful religious revival and in substantial numbers. Its roots are not in conventional outreach but within the Bukharian community, which ensures that what is happening will be more lasting and likely to gain in intensity. I have just visited two Bukharian schools in Queens, one in its second year and the other a bit older. Both were established by Bukharians and are led by respected Rabbis. While several smaller schools serving this community are about to close – and others may follow suit – the new schools are growing. Their strength arises from their being integrated into the Bukharian communal network that includes synagogues, youth activities and family services.

Bukharian families are prone to abuse situations, often arising from the dominant – even authoritarian – role of fathers, some of whom have resorted to violence. Three high school seniors told me two years ago that they were about to get married because that would allow them to escape abuse at home. While progress has been made, more needs to be done.

That may depend on outside support. In the main, Bukharians have been left to fend for themselves, receiving only a fraction of the attention and help that was given to the White Russians, which is remarkable in view of the far greater potential for positive Judaic outcomes. It’s hard to pin down the reasons for the neglect of what is the most widespread return to Judaism phenomenon that American Jewry has seen, whether it is because philanthropists and others who might assist are ignorant of what is going on in Little Tashkent or because Bukharians are not as glamorous a group as the Russians or because those who are usually in the forefront of outreach are committed elsewhere and are not searching for new opportunities to do good.

Orthodox leaders and philanthropists continue to focus on older day schools that have for years engaged in educational outreach. These schools adjust their sights - but not their curriculum or leadership – to serve whatever group is now available for outreach. Now that the Russians cannot provide the numbers that they once did, Bukharian students are being recruited. While these schools are well-intentioned and have devoted personnel, I doubt that this is the way to go.

It’s welcome news that Bukharians are providing for their own schools, including important financial support. Just the same, it is disheartening that few outsiders, with the exception of a small cohort of Queens Jewish leaders, seem to care.