From Tashkent to Israel and Back Again

by Abigail Pickus

Growing up in Tashkent, Bella Lvovich would have never guessed that one day she would return to her childhood home – only this time as an Israeli emissary.

But that’s exactly what happened.

“I grew up here and now I’m back as an Israeli who teaches and works for the Jewish Agency. It’s like coming full circle. It’s very emotional,” said Lvovich.

There are an estimated 20,000 Jews in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. While Lvovich grew up identified as a Jew, there were no other Jews in her neighborhood and Jewish life was difficult to find.

At the age of 17 she participated in a Jewish Agency sponsored youth club in Tashkent, where she met her future husband, Yonatan. At 18 she left Tashkent for Israel on Na’aleh, a joint government-Jewish Agency program for youth who move to Israel before their parents. She studied at Machon Gold, an all-female yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was during this first year that she learned Hebrew and decided that she wanted to make Israel her home.

“I decided that I wanted to spend my life and build my home here because I am a Jew,” said Lvovich, now 30, and the mother of two daughters ages six and three.

After studying educational administration and Bible at Bar Ilan University, she eventually accepted a position with the Jewish Agency and in 2008, she and her family moved back to Tashkent.

“Since I am from Tashkent, I am not a stranger and this helps me with my work,” she said.

In her role as shaliach (emissary), she works with youth and families about Aliyah to Israel. She explains their options and if they decide to make the move, helps them navigate the process from start to finish. “We stay in contact with the families from the minute we meet to even after they have already moved,” she said.

Since 2008, 388 people from Tashkent have moved to Israel. By the end of 2009, 550 people from Central Asia (Uzbekistan as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) will have settled in Israel.

Encouraging Aliyah isn’t easy.

“Aliyah today is not simple because there are so many competing options out there,” said Lvovich. “A young person can learn in Israel or he can learn in Europe or even in Russia. There are many young people who prefer to move to Moscow because it’s easier and they know the language. So my challenge is to explain why Israel is preferred.”

The Jewish Agency sponsors many Jewish-related cultural and educational programs throughout Central Asia to help build Jewish knowledge and identity, including youth movements and Jewish summer camps.

And emissaries like Lvovich work with people individually, to share with them what Israel can do for them.

“But it isn’t only what people can receive but what they can give, as well. Many young people, particularly the boys, want to serve in the Israeli army. They want to defend the country,” she said.

image: Bella Lvovich

courtesy The Jewish Agency for Israel