A few months ago I never expected to spend the end of January in Uzbekistan. In fact, I never imagined spending any time ever in Uzbekistan.
However, at the urging of several people, mainly my wife and Gerrie Bamira, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, that’s exactly where I did go. I found myself on Jan. 12 sitting uncomfortably and apprehensively in a Soviet-era plane as it landed in Tashkent at 3 a.m. — in a snowstorm. This was old hat to the three staffers of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who accompanied our small group of eight.
But Gerrie, Mark Fuerstein of Highland Park, and I were novices on a mission with the “Joint,” our federation’s overseas partner and a key recipient of the funds we raise each year.
On each leg of our journey, which began in Istanbul and ended in the Uzbeki city of Bukhara, I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” But the more we saw of the challenges faced by Jews in these communities and how the Joint is helping meet these challenges, the more I realized we were right where we belonged.
‘Who are we?’
We arrived in Tashkent after spending three days visiting projects of the Jewish community and the Joint in Istanbul. The Jews I met in Turkey are accomplished, dedicated, creative, and overflowing with enthusiasm. They face several challenges, some of which stem from the Turkish political climate and some from the economic realities faced by people everywhere. A majority of the 18,000 Jews in Istanbul work in the textile industry. Unfortunately that area of commerce has pretty much left Turkey for the Far East. Now the community is faced with a diminished donor base and an increased need for services. Sound familiar?
Our first site visit in Istanbul gave no hint that that this is a Jewish community facing challenges. The Ulus Jewish School is the only Jewish school in Turkey. Since Turkey prohibits “religious” schools, Ulus operates more as a school for the Jewish community than a yeshiva. Some 650 children attend, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Astoundingly, the school boasts a 100 percent university admissions rate and is the number one ranked academic school in Turkey. The tuition is approximately $7,500 per year; 36 percent of the students receive tuition assistance. A grim reminder of where we were in the world: The school’s security budget is $400,000 a year.
We divided into two groups for Shabbat dinner. Some of us went to the home of Rabbi Isak Haleva, the chief rabbi of Istanbul. My group was treated to a home-cooked Sephardi meal prepared by the mother of Yasar Bildirici, my counterpart in the Istanbul Jewish community. A lively evening was spent with family members, discussing politics and community affairs and drinking anise-flavored raki. The main topic, besides the economy, was the reassertion of Islam in Turkey, which has led the country’s Jews to ask themselves, “Who are we?” I raised the possibility of their leaving Turkey. This was dismissed immediately. “We won’t leave; this is our home.” The conversation made me feel eerily uncomfortable.
Saturday night dinner was with young people who participate in Dostluk Youth Club, a leadership development program. Founded in partnership with the Joint, the club for 18-30-year-olds is now a self-sufficient operation run by proud Jewish young people looking toward the future with determination.
Sunday in Istanbul began with a visit to an early childhood school for deaf children. The Joint, working with the government, provided seed money to what is the only school of its kind in Turkey. The initial group of teachers was trained in Israel; they have in turn trained other special-needs teachers in Turkey. The school now operates as part of the Turkish public school system.
Our next visit was to the Jewish Community Old Age Home, another partnership between JDC and the community, this time with a strong financial assist from the Maryland-based Weinberg Foundation. Therapists were sent from Israel to help train the professional staff and volunteers at the home, which has 120 residents. The bulk of the work is done by volunteers — one for every resident.
On to Uzbekistan
As our plane landed in the snow in Tashkent, I was not thinking of Turkey. My thoughts were more along the lines of, “What am I doing here?” The 8,000 Jews of Uzbekistan would help answer my question.
The Hesed Yehoshua Welfare Center is similar to our Jewish Family Service. During our visit, senior citizen programs were in operation: A psychologist worked with individuals suffering from depression; in another room, a volunteer from the local opera company led seniors in song and stories.
Mark, a wonderful singer, seized the opportunity to perform “My Yiddishe Mama.” The smiles were everywhere: an American, singing, in Yiddish and English, to a group of senior citizens, in Tashkent — I was learning exactly why I was there.
We met a retired physician examining folks at no cost. We learned that if a patient were to be sent to the hospital, workers there would extract a bribe. To get medication — another bribe. And so on. That’s just the way it is.
Not only is the center providing “in-house” support, but it also acts as the facilitator for several programs in the community supported by the JDC. We visited a group of elderly people in the home of Henrietta Tsypkina. This is the “Warm Home” program hosted by women in the community who prepare lunch and programs for their group. Over the years this has become their family, where they celebrate holidays together, eat meals together (food paid for by JDC), and offer support and friendship. We ate and sang with six people in Henrietta’s apartment, and drank wonderful black cherry wine that her grandmother taught her to make.