I have written previously about the profound connection between Chabad and Kazakhstan. It is worth noting that much of the special connection, particularly recently, has been due to the importance that the Kazakhstani government places on tolerance and unity. At a time when Europe has been facing a rise in antisemitism, people of all ethnicities in Kazakhstan, by contrast, feel safe and valued—something every Kazakhstani should feel proud of.
Jewish History in Kazakhstan
The modern development of the Jewish community in Kazakhstan is astounding, though the history goes back quite a long way. The first records of Jewish people in Kazakhstan date back to the ancient Silk Road—the route that connected the East to the West in terms of commerce and trade and that was of paramount importance to the political, religious, cultural, and economic connections cultivated for the duration of two millennia (from 200 BCE until the 18th century). Jewish merchants traversing Russia and China through central Asia would stay with the Jewish communities that dotted the wilderness that was then Kazakhstan.
It is believed that the first Jews who arrived were among the original Israelites who were exiled to far-flung parts of the Babylonian empire. They were later joined by more of their brethren, as the ancient Persian Empire grew. In more modern times, a community of Cantonist Jews (men who were conscripted to the Russian army as young boys during the 18th and 19th century for a duration of 25 years) received permission to build a synagogue, as the Czarist monarchy recognized them as a religious community. In addition, in the 20th century, Jews from Iran and then later those from other nationalities, arrived in Russia to escape persecution. However, being that they were not Russian citizens, they were sent to Kazakhstan and mostly settled in Almaty, where they established a warm Jewish community.
Over the years, Kazakhstan had become a melting pot of sorts, where Jews of many nationalities enmeshed to create their own vibrant communities. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Chana Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s parents, also spent a few tumultuous years there, about which I dedicated a previous blog post.
Jewish Kazakhstan Today
It is to these uniquely diverse communities that the first Chabad Shluchim (emissaries) arrived in 1994, only a few short years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. One of their most successful initiatives during that first year was a Jewish day camp for the local Jewish children, many of whom had never been affiliated with any sect of Judaism. This was the first opportunity for these young people to take an active part in their rich tradition and culture. Such activity was revolutionary in a country where openly practicing religion was prohibited only a short while before.
I recently read an article in the weekly Kfar Chabad magazine which explored the warm relationship between Chabad and the Kazakhstani government. The Shluchim themselves are often in awe of how the government prioritizes the wellbeing and ease of its citizens over anything else. For example, most neighboring countries, once gaining their independence from the Soviet Union, reverted to their original ethnic languages, such as Ukrainian, Uzbek, etc., in the spirit of nationalism. However, the Kazakhstani government decided that that since the population is so diverse and most citizens have been using Russian as their official language for so long for in both educational and professional frameworks, they would leave the official language as is. A shift in language would have created a seismic change that would have resulted in barriers and tension between the many cultures and ethnicities that make up modern-day Kazakhstan. A country that believes that the comfort, convenience, and unity of its citizens trumps any political or national aspiration is to be admired.
As a movement that makes its primary goal that of fostering unity and communal goodwill, it is not surprising how Chabad has developed in Kazakhstan and helped the Jewish community flourish. Thanks to good relations with the government together with the movement’s activism, there are over 10 Chabad Shluchim today throughout the country, not only in the bustling cities of Almaty and Nur-Sultan (previously known as Astana) but also in cities such as Pavlodar and Kostanay.
The Warm Relationship Between the Jewish Community and the Kazakhstani Government
There is a warm ongoing relationship between the Chabad Shluchim and the Kazakhstani government, regardless of the political parties in power. It is clear that the Kazakhstani policy of tolerance, peace, and acceptance is not only a party line, but is truly an innate belief and call to action. This outlook extends to the people of Kazakhstan in general, who see Chabad as a non-political entity that strives to enrich Jewish people with Jewish culture and a reacquaintance with ancient traditions—a lofty goal in a country that celebrates diversity and tolerance.
The relationship between the Jewish community and the government is really a model for how things can and should be done. Chabad fits seamlessly into this ideal by assisting families in need, obtaining essential religious items for those who cannot afford them, and promoting a true love for one’s fellow human.