My Personal Connection with Jews in Kazakhstan
The Jewish history of Kazakhstan is a long and somewhat sad one—many ended up there after fleeing from European and Russian persecution. Today, however, the small Jewish communities of Kazakhstan are thriving, with day schools, community centers, and synagogues.
I’ve long had an interest in the Jewish communities of Kazakhstan and have developed a close relationship with Rabbi Shmuel Karnoach, a Chabad emissary living in Astana, the country’s capital (recently renamed Nur-Sultan). I’ve been involved with the Chabad house there and have made contributions toward combating assimilation, covering the costs of kosher food and medicine, and arranging transportation for international Jewish guests.
Not much is known about the first Jews who came to Kazakhstan. Early reports date back to the 17th century, when many Ashkenazi Jews found their way there from Russia. Others from the Pale of Settlement were exiled by Joseph Stalin for practicing Judaism. The Jews who lived in Kazakhstan didn’t build synagogues or hold public services. They kept a low profile and held prayer services in people’s homes.
During World War II, approximately 8,500 Jews fled the fires of Europe and settled in the safety of Kazakhstan. They built communities there, though these steadily declined between 1959 and 1989. The next 15 years saw those communities dwindle further due to massive Jewish emigration to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Jews in Kazakhstan Today
Today, there are several thousand Jews living in the country. Most share many customs similar to those of their Russian neighbors and also speak the same language. Others are Bukharian or Juhuro Mountain Jews. Additionally, there are about 50 Persian-Jewish families who call themselves Lakhloukh and speak Aramaic.
While I have a close relationship with the Jews of Astana, the largest Jewish community in Kazakhstan is in the city of Almaty. There is a Chabad synagogue there named after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, an influential Rabbi and the father of the famed Lubavitcher Rebbe, who is buried in the city’s cemetery. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had been exiled to Kazakhstan from the Ukraine, and many Chabad Jews come to pray at his grave. There are other small communities of Jews in Karaganda, Chimkent, Semiplatinsk, Kokchetav, Dzhambul, Uralsk, Aktyubinsk, and Petropavlovsk.
For a relatively small Jewish population, there are 20 Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Chabad Lubavitch. In total, there are 14 Jewish day schools attended by more than 700 students. The chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan is Rabbi Yeshaya Elazar HaCohen who is also the chair for the Eurasian Rabbinate Council. The capital city of Nur-Sultan (Astana) has its own Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Karnoach, who is deeply involved with Chabad and Jewish life in the city.
The Jewish Agency sponsors youth centers in several cities where Jewish teens can learn about their culture, history, and Hebrew. Chabad operates synagogues, community centers, and schools in addition to programs for food distribution, elderly care, and a children’s summer camp.
Anti-Semitism and Israel Relations
Anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan is rare and contained, thanks to the state’s religious tolerance, dating back to the Ottoman empire. Throughout history, Kazakhstan’s tolerance towards various religions and cultures has made the Jewish community prosper. The Jewish community in Kazakhstan enjoys support and freedom of religion. Judaism is listed by the Kazakh government as one of the “traditional” religions and thus receives government protection. In fact, it is in the government’s best interest to cultivate a good relationship with Jewish communities, both to improve trade and to boost Kazakhstan’s international image.
Kazakhstan’s relationship with Israel is friendly and cooperative. In 2015, Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Agricultural Ministry inaugurated a project to help Kazakhstan develop its irrigation systems. Government representatives from both countries attended the opening ceremony, which took place in Almaty. In 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Kazakhstan and met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Jews in Kazakhstan in the Age of COVID-19
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Jewish population of Kazakhstan has been dwindling due to emigration to Israel. However, the Jews that live there still feel a strong sense of community and cohesion. During COVID-19, Rabbi Yeshaya Elazar HaCohen, Kazakhstan’s chief rabbi, and other religious leaders called for preventative measures, to which the community adhered. Leaders used social media to organize volunteer assistance for the community’s vulnerable members. Religious services and educational instruction moved online to minimize the risk of infection.
All rabbis living in Kazakhstan are immigrants and members of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect, which is headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. Chabad is known for its outreach initiatives in countries around the world. In Kazakhstan, Chabad rabbis perform kosher slaughtering, teach, and lead congregations. While they are technically outsiders, the Jewish communities have embraced them. The closeness of these communities is proving their best defense against the pandemic that’s ravaging the world.