Elul in Uzbekistan: Looking back at thousands of years to find inspiration for today
Traveling to Uzbekistan with SAMi provided the authentic connection to Judaism I was craving. We were provided with a taste of a more undisturbed and genuine sense of what Jewish life was like in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries for generations prior. Our tour visited the synagogues and yeshivot where some of our greatest Sephardic rabbis studied and where countless Jews from lands near and far were welcomed with open arms.
Rising antisemitism, the assimilation crisis, the soaring cost of Jewish education, and the associated costs of an observant lifestyle are just some of the challenges contemporary American Jewry faces. In spite of these numerous challenges, many Jewish programs have inspired significant numbers of young Jewish Americans to strengthen their relationship with their Jewish roots. One program in particular, the Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative or “SAMi,” stands out as it redefines and raises the bar on how organizations can assist young Jewish Americans from all walks of life establish and maintain a more authentic relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people through a Sephardic lens. When my beautiful, newlywed, Bukharian wife, Caroline said she wanted to explore her roots as a Bukharian Jew by traveling to Uzbekistan, countless hesitations came to mind and I felt anything but excitement for the idea of embarking on a trip to a place, I assumed, was anything but welcoming to Jewish people but I couldn’t have been more incorrect.
Traveling to Uzbekistan with SAMi provided the authentic connection to Judaism I was craving. We were provided with a taste of a more undisturbed and genuine sense of what Jewish life was like in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries for generations prior. Our tour visited the synagogues and yeshivot where some of our greatest Sephardic rabbis studied and where countless Jews from lands near and far were welcomed with open arms. As we drove through Uzbekistan, Manashe Khaimov, CEO of SAMi and an adjunct professor of Bukharian Jewish history and culture at CUNY Queens College, wove together Bukharian history spanning across centuries and waves of immigration, namely the Jews who were cast into exile following the destruction of the first and second Beit HaMikdash, the Jewish influence during the time of the Silk Road, and more recently the wave of European Jewish refugees who were taken in to Uzbekistan to escape the horrors of World War II. As we traveled from city to city, we encountered people of many different walks of life, yet we too were greeted with open arms. Our warmest welcome was definitely when we arrived in Samarkand and were greeted with an entire ensemble of Karnay and Surnay!
Each city that we visited had its own deep meaning for the members of the group. Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand were where some of their families called home prior to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. My wife was able to visit the graves of her ancestors at the Chigatai cemetery in Tashkent. We had the zechut, an honor to read tehillim at the graves of her great great grandmother, great grandparents, as well as a sibling of her grandmother (whose yahrzeit memorial remembrance day was a couple days after that visit). We visited museums, palaces, synagogues, cemeteries and strolled through the bazaars and marveled at the quality of fruits and vegetables. Samarkand had its own special energy in the air, but the highlight (besides an incredible Shabbat there) was definitely the extraordinary dinner at the courtyard of our hotel and surprise performance by Mardon Mavlyanov, national artist of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. After our day exploring the Jewish Quarter of Bukhara my wife reflected “…Elul is a time of retrospection, for us to look back on this past year, but this Elul we get to look back to centuries ago to see where we as a people were as well as the journey all the way to 5782.”
The thoroughly structured trip planned by SAMi had us on a week-long excursion with activities planned from the moment we opened our eyes until dinner with countless opportunities to bond with fellow group members who have all since become close personal friends of ours. Khaimov’s expertise kept us engaged through his delivery of years of education and experience related to Bukharian Jewry, in addition to Uzbek history provided by world class tour guides arranged by SAMi. Each meal was under the strict supervision of qualified Mashgichim over delicious and fresh meat and other ingredients. Touring Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand consisted of the perfect balance of visiting each city’s holy sites while also enjoying other luxurious amenities arranged by SAMi.
Traveling to the holy land of Bukhara provided me with a stronger connection to Judaism, comparable to no other experience in my life. I feel indebted to my lovely wife for convincing me to take part in SAMi’s life-changing program and pray to return to Uzbekistan someday soon. Uzbekistan and SAMi have forever altered my Jewish paradigm for the better and helped me realize that sometimes, experiencing Judaism’s most authentic and unadulterated traditions (which can be traced back all the way to the times of our Holy Temples) will help us better understand what it means to be an observant Jew in America today.
“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative. Knowing your heritage, gives an individual a tremendous amount of confidence, sense of belonging, and foundation for its identity” said Khaimov.
SAMi: Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative is a 501c3 organization that focus on communities that have a large number of Sephardic and Mizrahi populations in North America. SAMi is a central hub for Sephardic Jewish life on college campuses and local communities. SAMi aspires to transform the Jewish community across North America to be more inclusive, representative and diverse.
Theodore Feldsher, a participant on a recent SAMi trip, is an American Jew who focuses on making an impact within the Jewish community After high school, he attended Yeshivat Derech Ohr Somayach, Lev Aharon and Mechinat Garin Mahal and then joined the Israel Defence Force’s Golani Brigade as a lone soldier. Feldsher currently works in a corporate law firm in Beverly Hills, Calif.