Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kyrgyz Jews hold breath amid upheaval

As the capital of Kyrgyzstan erupted in violence Wednesday, members of the Central Asian nation’s small Jewish community held their breath and sat tight.

The ORT school in the capital, Bishkek, shuttered its doors, sending students home just as they were returning from their Passover break. With public transportation suspended and the city in disarray, only three people made it to morning services at the local synagogue. Meanwhile, Jewish community leaders exchanged frantic phone calls, updating each other about the situation on the street.

It was not immediately clear where this one-day revolution would leave the country -- or its estimated 1,500 Jews, most of whom live in Bishkek.

“The situation is the city remains unstable, but the Jewish community has not suffered so far,” Kyrgyzstan’s chief rabbi, Arieh Reichman, told JTA. “All the community leaders keep in touch with each other and with the community members, mostly by phone. I have been contacted by an Israeli foundation that could provide us with humanitarian aid. But the situation is not as bad so far, and hopefully things will calm down in the near future.”

The Jews of Kyrgyzstan are comprised largely of the second- and third-generation descendants of Jews from Ukraine, Belarus and central Russia who fled here to escape the Nazis during World War II. Most returned home after the war, but enough remained to make an impression in Kyrgyzstan, where many of the Jews went into health care. Even during the era of Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism, there was little hostility toward Jews in this remote republic, local Jews said. When the country became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jewish security remained good. Though three-quarters of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.5 million people are Muslim, radical Islam has not really gained a foothold in the country.

Kyrgyzstan is bordered by three other former Soviet Republics -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – as well as China.

“Jews were treated good in Bishkek even in Soviet times, and we hope that whatever government is in power in Kyrgyzstan, this will remain the same and Jews will prosper here,” Reichman said. (JTA)

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