astana, kazakhstan | Under communist rule, Mark Vitkin’s parents risked arrest by secretly meeting with friends to sing Jewish songs.
On Monday, Sept. 6, the 70-year-old walked freely with a kippah on his head along the street of Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, on his way to its new synagogue, Beit Rachel, now the largest in Central Asia.
A number of non-Jews stopped him to ask for details about the Tuesday, Sept. 7, formal opening ceremony with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and Jewish leaders from around the world.
“Their curiosity shows that the synagogue is accepted by the community at large,” said Vitkin, who came from his hometown of Pavlodar for a two-day conference for Jews in the region.
Josef Zissels, chairman of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, which co-funded the synagogue, said it’s particularly important that the large blue-and-white building with its black fence adorned with gold Stars of David stands in a Muslim country of 15 million; the country’s Jewish community has 30,000 members.
At a time of when everyone is focused on the deep enmity between Muslims and Jews in Europe, this synagogue show that both groups can and do get along, Zissels said.
The Chabad representative from New York, Shalom Dovber Levine, said the building could have been smaller and less expensive. Logically it should have been in Almaty, which has the largest Jewish community.
But placing a large elegant building in the country’s capital makes a statement about the Jewish presence in Kazakhstan and its relationship to the government, Levine said.
Chabad Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen, who is the chief rabbi of Kazakhstan, said that the bulk of its community came 70 years ago to help settle the area.
Until the last decade they had a very tenuous relationship with Judaism that involved novelties like latkes.
When he first arrived in 1991 there were no synagogues. There is a joke that wherever there is Coca-Cola there is Chabad, but that wasn’t true here, said Cohen, who works out of Almaty.
Cohen said he first became inspired to work with Soviet Jews when as a student at a Lubavitch yeshiva he heard a lecture about how helping people means taking on challenging tasks.
After he had been in the region for a couple of years as a single man, his father called him from their home in Jerusalem to say that he had found a woman for him to marry.
“I said I had one condition, that she will agree to stay in Kazakhstan until the last Jew leaves.” She agreed.
For Cohen that means they are in Kazakhstan until the Messiah comes, since the community is growing.
Complete immigration is not possible until the Messiah comes, Cohen added.
Although he feels the synagogue is a positive step for the future, it is hard for him to envision what will happen next.
“Do you think 10 years ago I dreamed of such a synagogue?” he asked.