In Kyrgyzstan, my Post-Soviet Jewish Community Thrives
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. Growing up in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, that’s something I never thought I’d see.
My childhood was typical in many ways — playing sports, attending school, and then university — and discovering a passion for archeology. I studied many past civilizations and cultures, digging deep into humanity’s history. But there were some ancient roots I was forbidden from exploring — my Jewish background. The Soviets outlawed all religious expression and discriminated against Jews with acceptance quotas on higher education and employment. In my family, the subject was quiet at best, forbidden for our safety.
That was until August 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and our country declared its independence.
By then, I was a married with a daughter living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, and our freedom from Communism meant new opportunities and excitement for all the possibilities. This idealism was pared back by the economic collapse that followed the Soviet Union’s downfall. This required widespread need for social service support, especially among the elderly who would only receive meager pensions.
Additionally, there were severe deficits for the small collection of Jews who lived in our country. Many wanted to discover what it meant to be Jewish beyond the stigma attached to it by the Soviets. And yet touch points for Jewish life — holiday celebrations, religious observance, and community institutions like Jewish Community Centers — were simply nonexistent. Jewish seniors still had memories of childhood traditions and for those born in the western parts of the Soviet Union like Ukraine or Belarus, recalled Yiddish and some prayers. But for my generation, the slate was completely blank.
So, we looked to rebuild. And with the help of generous philanthropists, global organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and through local leaders with a passion for their Jewish identity, we have done just that. Today, I am a member of a proud, welcoming community of 1,500 Jews. Over the last three decades, our local Hesed Tikva, a social service and community center, has become the heart of our community. It is where we host Jewish programs, educational opportunities, and events. Together, we have enthusiastically revived Jewish life and rather than excavating the past, we are building the future by reversing the course of history.
My family has been a part of these efforts since my daughter was 4 years old. Attending children’s summer camp and family-focused clubs and events, we discovered a world that was previously unknown to us. Through all these activities, we molded a new version of ourselves imbued with values and rituals that gave new meaning to everything. When we lit Chanukah candles earlier this month, a tradition I did not grow up with, I was struck by the holiday’s resonance with my life. The story of the Maccabees victory over those who would try to blot out Jewish worship and expression was intimately familiar.
And today, as a Jewish family that openly embraces our identity, we know what it means to be a part of a Jewish community. It’s not just the taste of fried Chanukah treats, the glow of Sabbath candles, or fireside singing of prayers at a family getaway with the Hesed. It also means being responsible for each other.
That has manifested itself through volunteerism, a concept alien under the Soviets, but a new form of Jewish expression for our community. In essence, it’s about putting all the Jewish values and traditions we have learned into action for the good of our Jewish community members. As an example, high emigration rates from Kyrgyzstan in the 90’s resulted in many seniors being separated from their families. Many are isolated and homebound with no one to care for them. That’s where our community steps in: the Hesed and programs like Jewish Family Services (JFS), work to provide food, medicine, and homecare to those who need it most.
And yet more needs to be done, especially in light of the pandemic and other challenges. So that’s where we, proud Jewish volunteers, step in. What does it look like?
When a mother of four in our community passed away recently and the children were left alone, we immediately provided them with assistance. It means when a young man was diagnosed with a terminal illness, we were able to find the necessary funds and medicine needed to give him the dignity of six more fulfilling months with his family. And last year, when the pandemic suddenly upended our routines and lives, we stepped up to ensure our community was protected and sustained. Volunteers like me called elderly to ensure they had their needs met and to alleviate their loneliness, through lockdown and other health measures, by reminding them they were not alone and engaging them when they needed it most.
The art of volunteering is just that and it requires investment. This has come in the form of virtual training and best practice sharing through a network of volunteer centers and experts run by JDC in partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group. They have helped us stay current and be able to respond to our community when they needed us most. We had access to PPE, extra food and medicines, and worked with the Hesed and volunteers to determine the most effective and safest ways to deliver care.
Three decades since the collapse of Soviet rule, a blossoming Jewish community has risen. An effort that otherwise took centuries to build in other parts of the world, has emerged here in a little over one generation. Heading into 2022, I hold close the story of my mighty, little community and the valuable lessons it offers for our time.
First, believe in the unimaginable, even when history says otherwise. Second, caring for others strengthens the trajectory of hope, even amidst dismay. And finally, a passionate group of people united in their desire to change the course of monumental events, whether a history of oppression or a global pandemic, can do so. All they needed — and all we continue to need — is each other.
Irina Stvolova is a Jewish community volunteer in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.