Gelt Complex: Bukharians Swing Big, A First For Russian Jews, Arab Principal Honored

Published October 24, 2007, issue of October 26, 2007.
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Bukharians Swing Big

America’s Bukharian Jewish community may only number 75,000 people, but last Thursday it was swinging well above its weight.

At a Thursday event in a Senate building, the Bukharian Jewish Congress attracted six senators and three members of the House for lunch on a busy day.

Among those paying tribute to the community were some with intimate knowledge of Bukharian Jews, like Senator Joseph Lieberman, who welcomed them with “Am Bukharian Jews Chai” (a play on the Jewish statement “Am Yisrael Chai”). There were also others who had little to do with the community — like Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who admitted that “there are no Bukharian Jews in Arkansas,” the state with the smallest relative Jewish population in the nation.

No one was willing to explain how the small Bukharian community pulled in such heavyweights. A staffer for one of the senators said that Bukharian representatives have been trying to arrange the event for months but only recently reached the critical mass of participants. Apart from pushing for continued support on a local level, the Bukharian representatives were not lobbying for any particular issue.

Congressman Anthony Weiner, who represents neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that have heavy Bukharian populations, boasted that he had inserted a grant for a community center into this year’s budget legislation.

Lev Leviev, a billionaire diamond magnate who founded the Bukharian Jewish Congress in 1999, is the individual responsible more than anyone else for raising the public profile of the small Bukharian Jewish community. Leviev is also one of the strongest financial supporters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

The lunch was set to honor Leviev, but he was detained on business in Italy and sent a note apologizing for not showing up. Among the participants was Yvette Clarke, a freshman congresswoman who repeatedly referred to the community as the “Bukhranian” Jews. While getting the name of the community wrong, Clarke, whose congressional district includes Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section, home for Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters, managed to greet participants with a “Mazel tov” that drew applause from the crowd.

— Nathan Guttman

A First For Russian Jews

The first Limmud Jewish educational conference in the former Soviet Union brought together Jews from across factional lines for a weekend of study, prayer and socializing.

Limmud, which was founded in London, has been staging Jewish educational conferences around the world for 26 years, bringing together diverse bodies of Jews. In the former Soviet Union, however, organizing this type of undertaking proved to be a monumental challenge due to the many intra-communal disputes in the region.

At Limmud’s October 18 opening ceremony, both of Russia’s chief rabbis made a rare joint appearance. Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, whose group has dominated Jewish life in recent years, and Rabbi Adolf Shayevich of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia took the stage, one after the other, to welcome the participants.

There were 700 attendees, mostly young adults, at the event, which was held at the Pakrovskoe Resort in the Moscow suburbs. Lectures covered subjects as diverse as “Halacha and Pregnancy” and “Old Wine in New Bottles,” which focused on medieval Jewish poets.

The event cost $1.2 million, and the funds were raised almost entirely by foreign donors, underscoring the continuing difficulty of fundraising in a society with virtually no history of charitable giving.

But among veterans there was cautious optimism that the unity of the Limmud conference just may be a sign that Russian Jewry is moving beyond hyper-factionalism.

“I think we have an opportunity to see more cooperation,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ, which supports Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.


Arab Principal Honored

A politically progressive Jewish organization honored the controversial former principal of New York’s first Arabic-language public school.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice gave the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Award to Debbie Almontaser, a founder and former principal of Brooklyn’s Khalil Gibran International Academy.

Since its planning stages, the academy has provoked suspicion among those who see it as a breeding ground for Islamist extremism. The controversy over the school deepened — and became focused on Almontaser — when the then-principal declined to denounce T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser resigned from the school just weeks before it was scheduled to open.

“Debbie has dedicated her whole life to Muslim and interfaith communities and the Muslim commitment to peace and justice,” said Dara Silverman, director of JFREJ. “We reject the smear campaign that was waged against her this summer.”

JFREJ is a New York-based organization that works primarily with and on behalf of people of color, low-income people and immigrants. The group has come under fire from Jewish organizations that are more mainstream for its left-wing politics and particularly for its support of the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group.

A press conference early last week marked Almontaser’s first public appearance since she stepped down from her post. She told reporters that she had been pressured by the Department of Education to resign, an allegation the department denies. She announced that she is preparing a lawsuit against the department and that she aims to be reinstated at Khalil Gibran. During Almontaser’s second recent public appearance, at the JFREJ awards ceremony, her voice came close to breaking as she made a short acceptance speech.

“There is one phrase that is common to the Arab and Jewish communities: yed b’yed, hand in hand,” she said. “I hope we will continue building bridges together.”

Almontaser praised JFREJ, calling the group “one of the most wonderful organizations in supporting the Arab and Muslim communities after 9/11.” she also praised the late rabbi and human rights activist Marshall T. Meyer, for whom her award was named.

In an interview with the Forward, Silverman said that Almontaser has been a longtime ally of the Jewish community. The director pointed out that Almontaser has been honored by other Jewish organizations in the past.

— Marissa Brostoff

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