For 25 years, Itzhak Yehoshua has been the spiritual face of Bukharian Jewry, fêted by politicians and foreign dignitaries as the Bukharian chief rabbi.
Yehoshua continues to receive greetings and awards from elected officials. But among Bukharians today, in their diaspora capital of Queens in New York City, he is better known as an embarrassment — a great man felled by allegations of lax conversion and kashrut standards, bribery and forgery, and of making false claims in the name of Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.
Last April, the community’s Bet Efraim Central Synagogue informed Yehoshua his contract would not be renewed and he was subsequently ousted from the Bukharian Jewish Congress.
A ruling by five Ashkenazi rabbis of the Queens Beit Din, or rabbinical court, a few months earlier found that Yehoshua had violated laws related to conversions. This July, the same beit din issued a second ruling, distributed among the Bukharian community in a 12-page booklet printed in English and in Russian, cataloging the “tremendous lies and fabrications” Yehoshua is alleged to have committed in what the rabbis portrayed as an elaborate and “cunning” attempt to clear his name.
The second ruling, which took up six pages in the July 27 edition of The Bukharian Times, a community newspaper, included allegations that Yehoshua’s accomplices forged a letter from leading Bukharian rabbis to discredit the Queens Beit Din. The beit din also said that Yehoshua falsely claimed the support of Amar, and to prove it, the beit din printed an excerpt of a letter from Amar, calling Yehoshua’s actions “extremely unfortunate.”
The beit din rabbis concluded by warning that if Yehoshua does not cease practicing as a rabbi in Queens, it will “pronounce an official cherem,” excommunicating him from the very community that he helped build.
One recent Friday morning during Sukkot, Yehoshua seemed unruffled by the tumult of the past two years, calmly answering calls on his iPhone from followers with domestic and spiritual quandaries while guiding his Lexus past the well-manicured lawns of Forest Hills.
Yehoshua parked outside his home and stepped out of his car, dressed in a royal blue kaftan, or joma, thickly embroidered in gold, and a black lambs wool hat, or telpak. He strode across the road and retreated to the sun-dappled quiet of a richly decorated sukkah draped in Central Asian rugs depicting Sephardic chief rabbis and scenes from the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Yehoshua, who still claims the mantle of Bukharian chief rabbi, shrugged off the recent tumult as the result of a flourishing community that, as it grows larger and stronger, inevitably bubbles with friction and power struggles.