Rediscovering Jewish Roots in Kazakhstan

Dov Ben-Shimon

In the years that I’ve worked for JDC, I’ve learned one thing for certain: even when you travel to a distant corner of the world, you’re bound to be inspired by a story of Jews rediscovering and reconnecting to their Jewish roots.

My latest example was told to me at a dinner two weeks ago in Almaty, Kazakhstan, toward the end of a JDC Strategic Partnerships mission. I was seated with two young leaders very involved with the local Jewish community, and I soon learned all about them. Sergei is a building contractor; Lena, his wife, is a graphic designer. Both are in their early forties and are regular volunteers at the local Hesed, the Jewish welfare center that JDC helps support. In Almaty, the Hesed also functions as a Jewish Community Center, and Sergei and Lena are both members of the JCC/Hesed Board.
 
Sergei grew up knowing he was Jewish. It wasn't a particularly significant part of his life. In fact, his mother actually listed their nationality as "Ukrainian" rather than "Jewish" on their internal Soviet passports, having lived through some anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine before the family moved to Kazakhstan. When the young couple first met, religion wasn't an important issue for either one of them, and Sergei thought nothing of marrying a nice non-Jewish girl like Lena.
 
But later, as their two children started to grow up—they're now 12 and 16—Sergei increasingly felt the need to reconnect to his Jewish roots, and get his children involved in their Jewish heritage.
 
Lena had no objection; she’d grown up with no religious connections or feelings. In fact, as their children’s participation in Jewish community activities increased, Lena readily joined Sergei as both started to get involved in community life. As is often the case, the Hesed reached out to them through their kids. And like so many members of a generation that grew up with no connection to Jewish knowledge or community, the Hesed became their family’s Jewish home.
 
After some years, Lena finally plucked up the courage to tell her parents that their grandchidren were now actively involved in the Jewish community and that through them, she, too, had become involved. With great trepidation, she said that she increasingly saw herself as a part of the Jewish community.

Imagine Lena’s reaction when she learned, at that very meeting, that both her parents were in fact Jewish, and so was she!

 "It hadn't been important for them," she said, "and they never knew how to explain it to themselves or to me." Lena’s tale is a very common story in the former Soviet Union, where so many Jews were completely cut off from Jewish life for over 70 years.
 
But this tale has a postscript that makes it all the more worthwhile:
 
Following my dinner conversation with Sergei and Lena, I went to the Almaty Hesed, where I sat and watched as dozens of the JCC’s teenagers sang Hebrew songs and led discussions on Jewish identity. There we were, in the middle of Kazakhstan, inspired and moved by their commitment to Jewish life and learning, and impressed by their proficiency. And as I watched five beautiful young women sing together in harmony, another young member of the community leaned over to my seat and said, "Do you see that girl in the middle, with the brown hair and the orange and black top? I think you just had dinner with her mom and dad….”

A senior JDC professional, Dov recently returned from a weeklong JDC mission to Turkey and Kazakhstan.

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