. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leaders Hope Synagogue To Anchor Almaty's Jews

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Black-coated rabbis, women in expensive frocks and children waving flags danced under a blazing sun to celebrate laying the foundation stone of Kazakhstan's first synagogue.

But the new building in the Kazakh capital may not be enough to anchor Almaty's Jews, who are leaving to start new lives in Israel.

Jews, mostly Tsarist officials, first settled in Almaty a century ago. Their numbers were augmented by Jews either exiled to the Kazakh steppe by dictator Josef Stalin or fleeing Nazi Germany.

Soviet repression drove the community's prayers and festivals underground and Jewish leaders said Almaty had never had its own synagogue.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, a New Yorker and a senior member of the orthodox Lubavitch movement, laid the foundation stone in a dusty plot on the outskirts of Almaty earlier this month.

The stone, made from the tombstone of a rabbi banished from Ukraine by Stalin in 1939, marked the start of work on the synagogue and a ritual mikvah bath. "This is symbolic of what's happening throughout the former Soviet Union, there is a resurgence of Judaism here," said Kotlarsky. "Jews are not leaving."

Chief Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen was equally enthusiastic.

"This is history. We're building a Jewish community, we feel freedom," he said before leaping back into the throng gyrating to a band blaring out Jewish music beneath the peaks of the Tien Shan mountains.

The stuffy international departure lounge at Almaty's airport told a different story.

Marina Kavshova, 32, perspired in the hot summer night as she cast worried glances over a large pile of baggage and two energetic daughters, Olya and Katya.

The trio was waiting to board a flight to Tel Aviv, one of several families emigrating to Israel that evening.

"It will be my first time [in Israel], it's a big step," said Kavshova. "But I have to go for the children, they will have a better life there."

She said the Israeli government paid for their tickets and arranged housing in Israel.

Reliable figures for the size of Almaty's Jewish population, which after World War Two topped 50,000, are hard to come by. But Israel's Jewish Agency says 7,570 Jews have left Kazakhstan and settled in Israel since 1989.

Economic uncertainty is the main reason for leaving. Miserly wages often go unpaid for months in Kazakhstan. "I want a normal salary," said Leonid Parkhomenko, a 47-year-old building worker, before checking in for the Tel Aviv flight.

Most of the Bukhara Jews in neighboring Uzbekistan have also left, leaving the region they first settled as traders on the Silk Road in the 12th and 13th centuries. Jews had seven synagogues in Bukhara until the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Jewish merchants once sent camels laden with Chinese silk across the region's harsh mountains and deserts as far as Moorish Spain.

The Jewish Agency says 64,500 Jews have left Uzbekistan for Israel since 1989. The remaining Jewish community in the Uzbek capital Tashkent is building a school for 300 children at a cost of $100,000.

"This will be the first full-time school for Jewish children in Central Asia," Roman Benzman, an aide to Tashkent's chief rabbi, said proudly, shouting above the noise of builders hammering and welding inside the new school.

But like the synagogue in Almaty, it will not stop Uzbekistan's Jews from leaving. "Every week, Jews are leaving Samarkand," said Osher Karnowsky, a 21-year-old Londoner teaching Jewish scripture to a dwindling community of Jews in the city of blue-tiled mosques, south of Tashkent, and built by the Emperor Tamerlane.

In Almaty to attend celebrations for the new synagogue, Karnowsky said: "In Uzbekistan, I don't think there will be a Jewish community, it will be the end of a long history."