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“I don’t think we are any different than any [other] Jewish community,” Yehoshua said.
When Yehoshua arrived in Queens from Israel in 1987, at the age of 26, the majority of Bukharians still resided in Central Asia, where they had lived for at least 1,000 years, in cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent, all then part of the Soviet Union.
According to their own account, the Bukharian Jews’ arrival in the region goes back much further. Their earliest presence is said to date to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th Century BCE. Over time, the Bukharians traveled east, settling in major trading hubs along the Silk Road, and developing their own richly distinctive culture. For much of their history they remained connected to other Persian-speaking Jews of the region, such as the Jews of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following the collapse of communism in the 1990s, almost the entire community emigrated. Most went to Israel, but thousands streamed into North America. Queens became their new center here, but smaller communities also developed in cities such as Phoenix, Ariz., and Toronto.
Yehoshua estimates that the Bukharian population of North American boomed from about 700 families before 1991, to about 12,500 families today, most of them coming through Queens. “We used to call our family center [in Queens] the Bukharian Ellis Island,” Yehoshua said.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Yehoshua, the Israel-born son of Bukharian immigrants, was one of the few rabbis in America who could speak Bukhori, an amalgam of Farsi, Russian and Hebrew, and relate to Bukharian culture and tradition.
Yehoshua said the burgeoning immigrant community lacked rabbis and ritual slaughterers. So he solved the problem by training talented Bukharian singers to become cantors, and butchers to become ritual slaughterers.
They may not have reached the stringent standards Orthodox Jews in America require, Yehoshua said, but they had “sincerity” and a “certain fear of God.”
“These were the seeds of a future political power struggle which we are facing today,” he said.
Yehoshua blamed three groups for his recent travails: a younger generation of Bukharian rabbis who reject the notion of a chief rabbi; another rabbinic group, educated at American yeshivas, who want the Bukharian rabbinate to move in a more strict, Ashkenazi-style Orthodox direction, and a power struggle at the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, a new building that almost went bankrupt in 2006 before it was bailed out by billionaire diamond dealer Lev Leviev and Queens real estate developer Simcha Alishaev.