Lessons Learned from the Kazakhstani Jewish Community
|Photo courtesy of JDC NextGen. Perry Teicher and Daniil Aizenshtat (via Skype)|
ROIer Perry Teicher talks about his time working within the Kazakhstani Jewish community and how he's bringing the message he learned home to New York.
Like many of us, I spent a lot of time at ROI thinking about the global Jewish community. The environment is clearly perfect for conversations around this theme – not only is the summit a collection of active Jews from around the world, but it attracts people specifically interested in issues of local and global relevance – and interested in how to connect these various platforms. Before and after ROI, I’ve devoted a significant amount of time thinking about what that global community means and how to encourage others to develop a sense of being a part of a global community, even when not having the opportunity to travel themselves or to as easily meet people from all over the world.
Since first traveling to Ukraine with the JDC in 2005, it has been an important component of my global Jewish education. While in Kazakhstan, I surprisingly connected with the Jewish community. Prior to arriving in Kazakhstan, I expected to be contemplating Judaism in a yurt, in the steppe [large, barren fields], alone. Within two years of arriving in the country, not only did I find that I wasn’t living in a yurt in the steppe, but importantly, I felt a part of the 40,000-plus Jewish communities in Almaty and Aktobe.
When JDC invited me to staff trips for Jewish students from Tufts and NYU while a volunteer, I couldn’t turn the offer down. I looked at any opportunity to build connections between Jewish communities as only having a positive result. Too often, even subconsciously, American Jews tend to think that we have all the answers. Young Kazakhstani Jews, on the other hand, often had minimal interaction with young and dynamic American Jews, not having experienced Hillel, Limmud, or the many other influential Jewish organizations. For many Kazakhstani participants, these trips were one of the first interactions with an event fully created and run by college students. If nothing else, my experience with the Kazakhstani Jewish community further demonstrated how much more is needed in terms of multilateral understanding and integration.
In August 2011, I returned to Kazakhstan for the first time since I completed my Peace Corps service. This time, I staffed a group from Cornell University. We spent about ten days in Almaty, living and working alongside college-aged Kazakhstani Jews. The groups really connected, cleaning the homes of elderly residents, spending time with kids at the community’s summer camp, and reorganizing a prized possession of the community – their national Jewish library. The purpose of the trip, however, went beyond the direct service. The service only meets a short-term need. The long-term growth of the community and a key aspect of the trip was building a foundation for both the Americans and Kazakhstanis to understand that they are not alone – that there is a broad, diverse, and active community of which they are a part.
The JDC-organized event in New York - Inside Jewish Kazakhstan - attracted around 100 young professionals with the same purpose in mind. Three participants of the JDC NextGen/Cornell trip organized the event; Joanna Lieberman, Melanie Pasch, and Debbie Vishnevsky, and I had the pleasure to moderate. We wouldn’t be dusting any carpets or scrubbing floors, but had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with one of the Kazakhstani participants, Daniil Aizenshtat, via Skype.
Despite being in the news relatively recently, most people know very little about the Jewish community or Kazakhstan itself. For example, not only are there two synagogues in Almaty and one in the capital, Astana, but others in a number of other cities around the country. The community is relatively secular, but young people are re-engaging with religious expressions of Judaism as well as searching for more creative and cultural methods to experience their Jewish identity. Young Jews are leaving, but even while outside of the country, are further exploring Judaism, and bringing new ideas back when they return. Kazakhstan, like many other post-Soviet countries, is continuing to undergo relatively dramatic (if sometimes slow-seeming) change. The Jewish community in Kazakhstan is a good example of this shift.
I hope that my moderation of Inside Jewish Kazakhstan was able to open even a small window into the Kazakhstani Jewish community, elicit additional interest in the important work of building global Jewish community, and challenge participants in how they think about themselves as part of an international community.