A Kazak Boy Mirrors Jewish Revival

February 2, 2012


In Kazakhstan, a country the size of Western Europe and where religious expression was suppressed for decades under Soviet rule, a huge spiritual resurgence is underway. And while the local population is almost evenly split between Russian Orthodoxy and Islam, the local Jewish community—50,000-strong, and by far the largest in the region—is undergoing a vibrant renaissance of its own, one Jew at a time.

Take Slavik, 13, who lives with his mother Oksana in Shymkent, an industrial city in remote southwest Kazakhstan. Every Sunday he goes to JDC’s Children’s Center to study Jewish history, tradition, and folk dance. He loves finding new history books at the library and comes back every week with new questions to help broaden his knowledge of Judaism. He participates in every event organized in the community, taking part in competitions and festivals, and he looks forward to his fun-filled summers at the Children’s Center.

“The Center has changed our lives in so many ways,” Oksana says. That’s because only a few years ago, Slavic did not know much at all about Judaism; neither did his mother, Oksana.

Slavik’s entry into the Jewish community came when the family began to receive relief services through the IFCJJDC Partnership for Children in the former Soviet Union. “There is only so much a parent with my limited means can provide,” Oksana explains. The regular food packages, winter clothing, and school supplies were critical for Slavik’s healthful development.

But soon Slavik and Oksana began learning about their Jewish roots. He began to attend the local Jewish Community Center, one of the 40+ JDC-supported JCCs and cultural centers in the region which offer programming for all ages.

The family’s newfound connection to their Jewish heritage, traditions, and community is inspiring this mother and son to become more involved. They regularly recite the blessings over challah and wine on Shabbat and engage in thoughtful conversations about Judaism.

“Slavik comes back from the center and he can’t wait to tell me what he has learned. He is teaching me about a Jewish identity that I never had,” says Oskana.

Oksana recounts a childhood that sounds familiar among her generation in the former Soviet Union—a generation whose parents, if they even told their children they were Jewish, largely instructed them never to disclose that fact. This is a generation of Jews who, like Oskana, at best may have grown up with an inkling that they were Jewish but never really knew what being Jewish meant.

While it is with a certain sadness and regret that Oksana talks about “being deprived of her identity” while growing up, it is a tone of wonderment that echoes in her voice when she talks about life for Jews in the former Soviet Union today.

“When Slavik goes to school, he boasts to the other children that he is Jewish, talking about all the things he learned at the Center. Can you imagine me doing that when I was his age?” she asks.

His positive experiences have helped him evolve from a shy kid, afraid to ask questions and uneasy about making new friends, to a social teenager with confidence and a sense of self he takes pride in.

Slavik’s mom take’s her son’s lead. Despite the long hours she works to support the family she tries to come to every holiday celebration and major event. “The Center is teaching Slavik who he is, but they are awakening me as to who I am as well.”

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