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Kyrgyzstan Virtual Jewish History Tour

[By: Alden Oreck]

Though Jews were present in the Kyrgz region starting in the 4th century, little is definitively known about their presence in Kyrgyzstan before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Today, there are approximately 500 Jews still living in Kyrgyzstan.

- Early History
- Under the Russians
- World War I
- The Soviets
- World War II
- Contemporary Kyrgyzstan
- Jewish Community
- Jewish Tourist Sites

Early History

Very little is known about the Jewish presence in the Kyrgyz territory before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Jews began to settle along the Great Silk Road starting in the 4th century C.E. They were traders who dealt in Aramaic. Archeological evidence shows that at the end of the 6th century C.E., Jewish traders from Khazaria traveled through the region. Bukharan Jews populated the Turkistan region, which encompassed the territory that is modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Their history stretches over 2,000 years in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In the mid 19th century, they took on Sephardic traditions.

Under the Russians

In the mid-19th century, Russia absorbed the region into its vast empire. Ashkenazi Jews settled in the provincial cities of Kyrgyzstan, particularly in Karakol, Bishkek, and Osh. In 1885, only one Jew lived in Karakol, by 1900, there were fifteen and, by 1910 thirty-one resided in the city.

In Osh, Bukharan Jews and Ashkenazic Jews lived in separate communities — Bukharians in the old district and the Ashkenazim in the new, European section along with Russians and Tatars. Bukharians were seen as foreigners and were not as accepted by Kyrgyz society as Ashkenazim were. In 1898, Osh was home to the largest Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan and maintained a separate Jewish cemetery. The majority of Kyrgyz Jews lived in cities after the Russian Empire instituted a policy forbidding Jews to settle in villages. In 1900, the Turkistan regional census stated that 800 Jews lived in Osh and 250 in Bishkek.

Until 1915, Kyrgyzstan had no synagogues. The country's small Jewish community congregated in the homes of local rabbis for services. For Jewish funerals, officials from the hevra kadisha, funeral association, were brought from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The only Jewish cemetery was located in Osh; in Bishkek, the Jews had their own section of the Muslim cemetery.

As there were no Jewish schools in Kyrgyzstan, some Bukharians sent their children to heder in Samarkand. Ashkenazi children went to Russian schools and Jewish traditions were maintained through the family.

World War I

With the start of World War I came an influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. Many of them had been exiled due to membership in oppositional political parties. The treatment of Ashkenazim in Kyrgyzstan was warm.

However, for Bukharians, the war brought severe regulations. A new law on Military Reservists states that all native "non-Slavic local population", which included Sephardi Jews, had to serve the army through manual and technical labor. While wealthy Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz paid the lower class to serve in their place, the Bukharian Jewish leaders deemed this replacement policy unacceptable. In response to the Tsar's military policy, many Kyrgyz rebelled against the treatment of the country's minorities.

In 1916, groups of Jewish war refugees and POWs from the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were sent to Kyrgyzstan to work in coalmines, irrigation projects, factories, and railroad construction.

The Soviets

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought Kyrgyzstan, or Kirghizia, its Russian name, under the new Communist Russian regime. In 1929, the Soviets established a branch of the Militant Atheist-Marxist Association in Kyrgyzstan, set on eradicating religion in the empire. They refused the vote of more than 1,880 priests, rabbis, and mullahs. Despite the anti-religious policy, Jews practiced Judaism in secret. Alexander Volodarsky, an exile of Byelorussia due to his religious beliefs, became the unofficial leader of the Osh Jewish community. He served as shochet and kashrut expert. Due to his efforts, the Jewish community of Osh received a separate Jewish section of the cemetery of Osh until the beginning of World War II.

In 1920, a Jewish institute focused on ending Sephardic illiteracy was established under the leadership of Simon Dimanshtein. The organization founded a number of primary schools and technical colleges for the preservation of Bukharian culture and language-Persian and Uzbek dialects. Learning circles and clubs were also established. From 1920 to 1940, the Soviets published 750 Persian-Jewish language books and one newspaper in Osh, Bishkek, and Dzhalal-Abad.

During the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, a number of Russian Jews moved to Kyrgyzstan to escape persecution.

World War II

During World War II, a wave of more than 20,000 Jewish refugees fled to the country from the Nazi-occupied western regions of the Soviet Union. The majority of these immigrants were Ashkenazim from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. They settled in Kyrgyz cities and villages with relative ease. Those who settled farming communities, however, went through difficult times. They had never been involved in agriculture and were unable to keep up with the local production quotas. Consequently, they frequently made barely enough money to survive. In addition, the locals were suspicious of the Jewish refugees and their western capitalist background. Several Jews were imprisoned for alleged "counterrevolutionary activity" and the "spreading of lies about the bourgeois way of life."

The Jewish Theater Company of Warsaw, which included the famous actress Ida Kaminska (1899-1980), fled from Poland to Kyrgyzstan during the war. They performed in the country until the war ended and then returned to Poland.

World War II had a profound affect on Soviet official policy on the relationship between state and religion due to the intense hardships the Soviet Union suffered. The new Soviet theory was that all forms of religion had an important role in bringing the territories together to present a united front against the Germans. In 1941, the authorities allowed the establishment of a synagogue in Bishkek, then called Frunze. The Jewish community purchased a building in the center of the city and received a Torah scroll from their first rabbi, Y. Levin. The synagogue had a mohel, shochet, hevra kadisha, beth midrash, and mikve. Kosher butchers and bakeries opened nearby. Soon after, synagogues were founded in Osh and Kant.

The Soviet authorities officially recognized the Bishkek Jewish community in 1945. At that point, 70 members attended services at the Bishkek synagogue daily, 200 weekly, and more than 2,500 on high holy days. In later years, the synagogue provided religious services for Sephardim, though separate services continued until the early 1990s.

The community was allowed to celebrate official Jewish holidays and continue Jewish activities until the 1950s, when all religious activities, save High Holiday services, were prohibited. Despite restrictions, the Bishkek, Osh, and Dzhalal-Abad communities managed to secretly raise money, food, and clothes for the needy and the sick, as well as for their respective synagogues.

Contemporary Kyrgyzstan

The Jewish population of Kyrgyzstan has dropped steadily since World War II. By 1979, the community had diminished to 6,900, with 5,700 living in Bishkek. In 1989, it had shrunk to 5,800. Today, there are approximately 2,500 in the country. Continued immigration to Israel is the main cause of the decrease in the Jewish population, combined with economic problems and military conflicts in the 1990s. From 1989 to 2001, 4,907 Jews made aliyah and, in 1990, just prior to independence, more than 1,000 immigrated to Israel.

On August 31, 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan declared its independence. It has since joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Kyrgyzstan is one of the most progressive of the former Soviet republics and its constitution guarantees equal rights and freedoms to citizens of any religion. A law act protects against national or religious hostility. Islam is the main religion, though the country is officially secular.

Despite the government's attempt to separate state and religion, radical Islamic fundamentalist activity has risen, especially after the second intifada in Israel in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the United States. These extremist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, backed by other Muslim countries, have now gained the support of some authorities and opposition parties, which has led to terrorist attacks and other military conflicts in the country. In their attempt to make Kyrgyzstan an Islamic fundamentalist nation, the rebels have distributed anti- religious and anti-Semitic propaganda. Anti-Semitism has been met with intense opposition by the general public and the Kyrgyz government. The propaganda has infiltrated the population to some extent, however, especially in the isolated southern areas, where Islamic fundamentalism is more active, in Bishkek and the northern regions.

In the beginning of 2004, the Kyrgyz Rukh newspaper published an anti-Semitic article by Tursunbay Akunov. It stated, "Western countries and America, under leadership from Jerusalem, give money to create NGOs run by bad-hearted people…" and that they are "conducting a policy aimed at destroying the spiritual values of Moslems, and of Asian Moslems in particular." The Kyrgyz government and the Word of Kyrgyzstan, a major Kyrgyz newspaper, condemned the article. It is generally thought that as long as the current government remains in power and maintains a certain level of control over the radical Islamic groups, that the situation of the Jews of Kyrgyzstan will remain stable.

Jewish Community

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Kyrgyzstan remained negligible. After World War II, Ashkenazi and Bukharan communities remained separated. Intermarriage between the two groups was uncommon, and neither group married outside the religion. Ashkenazim generally were better educated, while Bukharians maintained the community tradition of working as bakers, shoemakers, barbers, and butchers. Ashkenazim also tended to be more secular, but in recent years have become more religious.

Since independence, the Jewish community, concentrated in Bishkek, has rebuilt itself. The Menorah Center in Bishkek, which is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is the center of Jewish life. It maintains a Sunday school, an Aish HaTorah education center, a Jewish theater and dance group, and a library. It publishes the Ma'ayan newspaper and organizes Maccabi youth sports activities. The center also provides aid to the community's elderly.

Bishkek is home to an Ashkenazi synagogue and several small Bukharan services. A new rabbi came to Kyrgyzstan from Israel in 2000 to head the Ashkenazi synagogue. A number of Bukharan prayer houses are scattered around the Ferghana Valley. There are also Jewish communities in the cities of Osh, Karakol, and Dzhalal-Abad.

Tourist Sites & Contacts

Karpinskogo str. 193
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 720001
Tel.: (996312) 68-19-66

Jewish Cemetery
Karpinskogo str. 193
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 720000
Tel.: (996312) 68-19-66

Jewish Community of Bishkek
Karpinskogo str. 193
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 720000
Tel.: (996312) 68-19-66

Burial Society
Karpinskogo str. 193
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 720000
Tel.: (996312) 68-19-66

Sources: Bukharan Jews
Bukharan Jews Global Portal
Beth Hatefutsoth
Joint Distribution Committee
World Jewish Congress
"Kyrgyzstan", "Bukharan Jews" Encyclopedia Judaica
Header image courtesy of User Ptilou