Jewish News meets Kazakhstan’s Chief Rabbi: ‘This country is based on tolerance’

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Jewish News meets Kazakhstan’s Chief Rabbi: ‘This country is based on tolerance’

Joe Millis travels to central Asia and meets Jerusalem-born and British-educated Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen who presides over the small community in the country

Joe Millis is a journalist

Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen
Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen

Kazakhstan’s Chief Rabbi believes that the central Asian country is a model of religious tolerance that the rest of the world would be wise to follow.

Jerusalem-born – Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen told Jewish News: “This country is based on tolerance and peace. I thank God every day that I was brought to such a wonderful country.”

British educated – his uncle, Rabbi Akiva Cohen is head of the Yeshivas Lubavitch Manchester – he added that every nation on earth was bless with something by God, “and the Kazakhs are blessed with being a tolerant and peaceful nation.

“Every child here learns that Kazakhstan is an international land and they are all learn to be very proud that they can respect the ‘other’.”

Rabbi Cohen – part of the army of emissaries (shluchim) sent out by the Lubavitch movement around the world – noted that “there has not been any type of antisemitism here. The government takes this very seriously. They won’t let the first spark ignite because they know that all people will suffer”.

Indeed, Astana’s synagogue, in the old, Soviet-built part of the city – the country’s capital since 1997 – is open; anyone can walk in off the street, unhindered.

Astana’s synagogue

“We have no need to hide; we are proud of ourselves and everyone in this country is treated with respect and equality,” said the rabbi.

Officially, there are around 3,500 Jews in Kazakhstan, although the Chief Rabbi believes there are currently upwards of 40,000 Jews in this mineral rich state; one Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry official told the Jewish News that “we are in effect sitting on the Mendeleev Table of elements, our land is so rich”.

Explaining the discrepancy, Rabbi Cohen, 47, said: “Many people do not know their past. Sometimes, they say they are Russians, but once you ask who their mother or grandmother were, they say they were Jewish.”

He added that more and more were coming forward. If they don’t have proof, the rabbi noted, “we do a DNA check”.

Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen

The first Jews arrived as traders in Kazakhstan with the Silk Road between China and Europe, which Beijing is resurrecting today with its Belt and Road initiative.

“The Jews were merchants who travelled with caravans between trading centres. There is evidence that there were Jews in the medieval city of Turkestan, where a 15th century synagogue and Torah scroll have been unearthed,” Rabbi Cohen said.

During the Second World War, Jews fleeing Nazi persecution arrived in Kazakhstan along with many from Russia, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine, who were exiled to the country during Stalin’s bloody era.

Rabbi Cohen is keen to emphasise the role of President Nursultan Nazarbayev in taking the issue of intolerance seriously. “The government says that anyone who allows intolerance, even if they are not involved in terrorism, is not innocent of the crime,” he said.

“They send out the message that terror affects everyone, and I wish this message and the Kazakh model would be adopted around the world.

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