Bukharian History Comes To The Academy
Fri, 01/15/2010

Queens College will make history later this month when 30 or so students gather for what is believed to be the first course in an American university to explore Bukharian Jewish history and culture.

The three-credit course, “History and Culture of the Bukharian Jews,” will meet for the first time on Jan. 28, and its existence is a sign of the growing community of Bukharian Jews within the school’s student body.

Queens College will make history later this month when 30 or so students gather for what is believed to be the first course in an American university to explore Bukharian Jewish history and culture.

The three-credit course, “History and Culture of the Bukharian Jews,” will meet for the first time on Jan. 28, and its existence is a sign of the growing community of Bukharian Jews within the school’s student body. 

“We estimate that 35 to 40 percent of our Jewish students are now Bukharian,” said Rabbi Moshe Shur, director of the Queens College Hillel. “It’s the largest concentration of Bukharians anywhere.”

The new class will be taught by Imanuel Rybakov, 25, an activist within the Bukharian Jewish Congress, a Forest Hills-based nonprofit that promotes Bukharian culture and institutions. 

Offered as an elective history and Jewish studies class, students will examine pivotal aspects of the history of Bukharian Jews, such as life under Muslim rule, and the changes that resulted after the Russian conquest of Central Asia.

The class will include a visit to the Bukharian Jewish Museum in Rego Park, and a performance by Bukharian Jewish musicians at the end of the semester.

Bukharian Jews are named after Bukhara, an Uzbek city at the heart of the tight-knit community for almost 2,000 years. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Bukharian Jews left for Israel and the United States. Some 50,000 — their largest concentration in America — live in Queens. Only a few hundred remain in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, according to community leaders.

“The idea came to me two years ago, when I found out there was Jewish studies [at Queens College] and our community began publishing English-language books on Bukharian Jews,” said Rybakov.

Although Rybakov attended Queens College to study corporate finance, his passion lies in promoting Bukharian culture. At the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, he teaches Bukhori language classes, and writes a monthly column for the Bukharian Times. 

He also gives tours at the Bukharian Jewish Museum, a three-room space within the Queens Gymnasia, a yeshiva founded by the community’s leading philanthropist, Lev Leviev.

“He has knowledge of our history, and he writes interesting articles,” said Aron Aronov, the director of the museum. “Hashem sent him to me,” he said, using the Hebrew term for God.

Word of the course seems to be spreading beyond the campus. 

“It’s very important to know your history,” said John Yakubov, 20, who plans to take Rybakov’s course as soon as he finishes his studies at nearby Queensborough Community College. A history major, Yakubov found out about the class from Rybakov. 

Looking at his community’s history, Yakubov finds relations with Muslims in Central Asia to be particularly interesting. “We share the same customs as the Muslims, such as the joma (ceremonial robe), and the food.”

For Mark Rosenblum, who directs Queens College’s Jewish studies program, coexistence with Muslims is also a worthy topic, as he teaches a class on the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

“The college is not a melting pot,” said Rosenblum. “It’s a salad bowl where students retain their cultures, while respecting others.” To promote tolerance, Rosenblum runs programs aimed at Jewish and Muslim students.

“We have Common Chords, [a musical group] which plays Jewish and Muslim music,” said Rosenblum. “Now, we will include Bukharian music in the program.” During his visit to the Bukharian Jewish Museum, Rosenblum learned about the pre-Soviet Bukharian Emirate, where Jewish musicians were often the favorites at the royal court and at Muslim weddings.

When she found out about the new class, Sophia Pinkhasova, 17, a senior at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing who plans to continue her studies at Queens College, said, “You can’t even imagine how proud I am. Bukharian Jews will now know what their musicians are singing, and what their parents are saying.”

Sergey Kadinsky

Education And The Gaza War

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has harmed university education and academic freedom in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, a Canadian-authored study alleges.

The report, conducted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says Israel’s restrictions on travel in the West Bank and Gaza create an insurmountable hurdle for students and infringe upon scholarly pursuits there, frustrating hopes for a regional peace.

“Both Israeli and Palestinian academics are facing greater pressure from outside political influences and from within the academy itself,” according to the report, which adds that there are “clear and consistent violations of internationally recognized academic rights” as set out in United Nations agreements.

The four-page report was co-published by the Canadian teachers’ group and Education International, the Belgian-based global federation representing more than 30 million teachers and education workers in 172 countries and territories.

The report found “strong polarization” of opinions within Israel over the political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which has “generated several prominent academic freedom controversies in recent years.”

A summary of the study on the Canadian Association Web site states that “limits imposed on freedom of movement within the Palestinian territories make it difficult and in many cases impossible for Palestinian academics and students to attend conferences or study abroad, and have forced local universities to shut down early and to close entirely for extended periods.”

It cites bans on the import of certain research equipment and materials needed to pursue scholarly activities, and says many academics face arbitrary arrest and detention by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. But it also cites the violence between Palestinian factions for leaving university workers “caught in the cross-fire of the fighting between Hamas and Fatah.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers represents more than 67,000 academic and general staff at colleges and universities across Canada.

JTA

Israel Education Nonprofit

Partners With Spertus

The iCenter, an organization that aims to pioneer the fledgling field of Israel education, has partnered with Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies to launch a certification program for students of Israel education.

“The Israel Education Fellowship is a cornerstone program of the iCenter; each graduate will represent a new opportunity to enrich the field of Israel education,” said Anne Lanski, iCenter president. The fellowship will be a component of Spertus’ Masters of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies.

MAJPS Program Director Barry Chazan stressed that now is the right time for such a program. “There are the right people around, there is the potential to create a major movement, and it is a time in which Jewish education is going through metamorphosis,” said Chazan. “This will be a way to invigorate Jewish education and really make it come alive.”

The iCenter was launched in 2009 and funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.

JTA

New Masorti Centers

Two new centers of Conservative Judaism in Israel will be dedicated in early May. Ceremonies at the Schechter Institute, in Jerusalem, and the Schechter Center for Jewish Culture, in Tel Aviv, will mark the growth of the movement from four students in 1984 to 550 today.

The new sites of Masorti Judaism, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel, will include locations for training rabbis and lay leaders, teachers and émigrés from the former Soviet Union.

The Jerusalem campus was designed by Israeli Prize-winning architect Ada Karmi; its classroom building is set to open in the fall.