Jews in Kazakhstan have a relatively short history.
While some Bukharian Jews from neighboring Uzbekistan have settled in Kazakhstan, the majority of Kazakh Jews are Ashkenazi,
arriving as Russian army conscripts as early as the 17th century. No synagogues date back to this
period; services were usually held in private homes. Under Communism,
thousands of Jews were exiled by Stalin from the Pale
of Settlement to Kazakhstan for practicing Judaism,
most notably, Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the late Lubavitcher
rebbe, Menachem Mendel
Schneerson. During World War Two, approximately 8,500 Holocaust-fleeing
Jews settled in Kazakhstan.
Beit Rachel Synagogue in Astana
Today, between approximately 3,300 Jews live in Kazakhstan. They are
predominately Russian-speaking and identify with Russian culture. Approximately
2,000 are Bukharian and Tat (Caucasion Mountain Jews). Almaty is the
main Jewish center of the country. Smaller
Jewish communities are spread out across this large country in places such as Karaganda, Chimkent, Astana, Semiplatinsk,
Kokchetav, Dzhambul, Uralsk, Aktyubinsk, Petropavlovsk and several villages.
The Kazakh Jewish community is fairly stable and organized. More than
20 Jewish organizations, both secular and religious, currently work
to improve Jewish religious and cultural life. The Mitzvah Association
(an umbrella organization), Chabad Lubavitch, the Joint Distribution
Committee and Jewish Agency for Israel are among the most visible. In
December 1999, the All-Kazakhstan Jewish Congress was created to unify
the Jewish communities of Kazakhstan. Many government officials, as
well as the U.S. Ambassador attended the founding session.
In 2001, Chabad Lubavitch opened a synagogue and community center to
house all its Jewish programs, including a Jewish day school, distribution
of food packages, elderly care and a summer camp for children. Chabad
also operates a national organization, the Association Jewish Communities
The Joint Distribution Committee's main project in Kazakhstan is Hesed,
a welfare center that also provides medical assistance. It is active
in more than 20 communities throughout the country.
The Jewish Agency
for Israel sponsors a moadon (youth center) in several cities, the
largest in Almaty. It is a popular hangout for Jewish teens and also
teaches Jewish culture, history and Hebrew.
In July 2001, more than 120 children attended the Jewish Agency's summer
seminar in the hills outside Almaty, a 10-day lesson on Israel and Judaism. The campers,
ages 12-17, came from all over Kazakhstan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
While their knowledge of Jewish topics ranged widely, they all shared
a Jewish identity, singing Hebrew songs, baking challot and drawing
pictures of Jerusalem.
Several campers also attend boarding schools in Israel.
Since Kazakhstan's independence in 1991, Jewish education has grown
steadily. There are 14 Jewish day schools spread out over the country,
serving more than 700 students.
While anti-Semitism is not a great
threat, it is still prevalent in Kazakhstan. Jews are occasionally beaten
and harassed because of their identity. In 1997, after Kazakh KGB agents
arrested Leonid Solomin, an independent Jewish labor leader and his
associates, the Kazakh newspapers published a slew of anti-Semitic charges
warning against "Zionists" and "international Jewry." One even called upon the people
to kill Jews.
Kazakh-Israeli relations are warm, and Israel assists Kazakh agricultural
development through its MASAV program, including a five-year Aral Sea
project with the U.S. Agency for International Development. In April
2000, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev led a delegation on an official
visit to Israel, strengthening economic and security cooperation between
the two countries. Kazakhstan also acted on behalf of the 13
Jews accused of spying in Iran. Since 1989, almost 10,000 Kazakh
Jews have moved to Israel.
Conference on Soviet Jewry
Communities of the World
Joint Distribution Committee
Photo of Synagogue courtesy of Embassy of Kazahkstan to the USA & Canada, other photo courtesy of Alden Oreck.