Beyond Borat or My Lunch With the Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan

I swear I am not telling this story because this post continues to get the heaviest traffic on the Blog at 16th and Q. This really happened. I didn’t seek it out, and as far as I can tell, there were no hidden cameras or badly accented British Jews present when I sat down to lunch with Rabbi Yeshaya E. Cohen, the Chief Rabbi and Head Shliach of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen with his delegation and Washington DCJCC CEO Arna Meyer Mickelson

Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen with his delegation and Washington DCJCC CEO Arna Meyer Mickelson

The truth of it is, that being in Washington, DC we get a pretty reliable stream of foreign visitors on semi-official visits who put us on their itinerary seeking contact with the local Jewish community. Last month it was a group of Holocaust educators from Poland. Before that we had a delegation from various African countries participating in our Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. You get the point. So somehow we ended up on the itinerary of Rabbi Cohen.

And let me get this out of the way: we didn’t talk about Borat. I didn’t ask him if anyone had ever jokingly threatened to throw the Jew down the well. He didn’t show me a picture of his pet chicken. To have gone into any of this, even as a joke would have been incredibly disrespectful, not to mention juvenile and unprofessional.

So naturally I was biting my tongue the entire time.

In fact, Rabbi Cohen was an incredibly charming, warm and engaging lunch companion — and if I had had the bad taste to bring up Borat, he probably would have taken that too in-stride with good humor.  Instead, we spoke a great deal about Kazakhstan’s heritage of religious tolerance, dating back to World War II when many Jewish families fleeing eastward found themselves in places like Uzebekistan and Kazakhstan. He talked to us a little bit about the Jewish community in Kazakhstan today which stands at around 40,000 people — more than I would have guessed. The Rabbi painted a picture of a community different from the one I carry around in my head of a former Soviet Republic. Instead of being comprised of those too elderly to emigrate, he told us of a dynamic and young community, building new facilities to accomodate a growing need for Jewish community. He spoke of former emigres returning to Kazakhstan, some to live and others to make major business investments. He showed us pictures of children playing at their Chabad-sponsored camps, beautiful new community centers and auditoriums filled with Jews of all ages. It was in-fact quite inspiring to see the work that they do.

It’s a shame that the image most of us have of Jewish life in Kazakhstan is so wide of the mark.

But, Rabbi Cohen is not on some anti-Borat image enhancement tour to make glorious the Jews of Kazakhstan (sorry, couldn’t help it). He’s in town with a very specifc agenda — the repeal of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment which currently prevents Kazakhstan from receiving “most favored nation” trading status. The Rabbi argues in his talking points, that while Jackson-Vanick served an important purpose during the Cold War applying pressure to allow free Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union, it is now a “relic.” He points to the thriving of his own community and his apparent ease of life as a very visible Orthodox Jew in Almaty as evidence of Kazakhstan’s moral fitness. He also draws a clear distinction between the resurgence of anti-Semitism seen in Russia and claims that it has no counterpart in Kazakhstan.

I told him that our agency was not really well positioned to help his cause either way. There are plenty of people out there who are expert in this issue and better placed to advocate for or against such a repeal. I did promise to write about our lunch and what a revealing conversation we had about the amazing community he leads in a place where we don’t too often think about thriving Jewish life. For that, he gets from me a humble and admiring Yesher Koach.

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