Inside the international campaign to save Kyrgyzstan’s only Jewish school

The tiny Jewish community of Kyrgyzstan does not have many allies.

With only several hundred Jews, few international Jewish organizations maintain a significant presence in the relatively poor former Soviet country, which is separated from any large Jewish community by vast geographical distances. The largely agrarian Kyrgyzstan, with a population of just below 7 million people, does not even have a dedicated Israeli ambassador in the country (they live in neighboring Kazakhstan), nor does it have a dedicated ambassador in Israel.

So when Kyrgyzstan’s only Jewish school, Pri Etz Haim, in the country’s capital of Bishkek, received an eviction notice last month, the community did not have many places to turn to for help.

The head of the community and principal of the school, Vladimir Kritsman, contacted Robert Singer, a long-time prominent figure in international Jewry.

“The moment he got the letter, he called me in. Basically, because he had nobody else to go to,” said Singer, a former head of the World Jewish Congress who is now the chairman of the non-profit Center for Jewish Impact.

The Kyrgyzstan Jewish community and its plight are representative of many small Jewish communities around the world, particularly those in former Soviet Union countries, according to Singer, who has worked with these communities for decades.

“They don’t have strong communal structures, they’re usually very poor, they don’t have institutional support, and they usually don’t speak [English] to present themselves to the world. This Jewish community is an excellent example of that,” Singer said. “But these small communities are sometimes even more important than big communities. A big community, there’s not a lot we can do for them. But a community like this, you can actually save it.”

Students at Kyrgyzstan’s only Jewish school, Pri Etz Haim, speak during a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in an undated photograph. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Indeed, Israel’s former ambassador to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Michael Brodsky, acknowledged that while the embassy has a relationship with the local Jewish community, it is far from its primary focus.

“Of course, we maintain active ties with them and closely follow up on their situation and on Jewish life here… But social support for the Jews in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is not among the core tasks of the embassy,” Brodsky told a professor researching Israeli soft power in central Asia in 2018.

These communities generally depend on one or two active institutions that help keep the members together, and without which they would fall apart.

“The only thing that keeps it together is the school. Without the school, the community would disappear,” Singer said.

The school was first established in 1993, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, with donations from Belgium, Israel and the United States, Kritsman told The Times of Israel, speaking from Bishkek through an interpreter.

Kritsman then was the school’s assistant principal. Two years later, he became the principal and has held the position ever since.

Vladimir Kritsman, left, the principal of Kyrgyzstan’s only Jewish school, Pri Etz Haim, sits in his office on June 27, 2022. (European Union in Kyrgyzstan)

“We have dedicated 30 years of our lives to this. We have a great number of brilliant students. A lot of our graduates continue their studies in Israel and join Tzhahal,” Kritsman said in Russian, but using the Hebrew acronym for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“We will try to do our best to save our school,” he said.

Singer said he was involved with the formation of the school in the early 1990s, and he was also the head of World ORT, a group that sets up and runs Jewish schools around the world, when Pri Etz Haim joined the organization in 2004. Singer visited the relatively isolated community a few years ago and also has a personal connection to Kyrgyzstan, as his mother’s family sought refuge there during the Holocaust and his infant half-sister died and was buried there.

“I had always been told that [during World War II] the partnership and the relations and the friendship between the Kyrgyz people, the Muslim people and the Jewish people was outstanding,” Singer said.

A little-known, isolated community

Bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the south and China to the east, Kyrgyzstan’s population is roughly 90 percent Sunni Muslim. Though most people are secular, there is a growing hardline Islamist presence in the country.

During World War II, more than 40,000 Jews lived in what is now Kyrgyzstan, many of them refugees from Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union. After the war, most returned to their homes but a few thousand stayed behind. There was a mass exodus of Jews from the country following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, with the overwhelming majority making their way to Israel. Today, only a few hundred Jews live in the central Asian nation, with estimates ranging from 300 up to 1,500. This largely depends on definitions of who counts as a Jew, considering there is a relatively high number of interfaith marriages.

A monument commemorating the Soviet Jews who sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan during the Holocaust. (Center for Jewish Impact)

The Kyrgyzstan Jewish community was and, to an extent, still is made up of three main groups: Bukharian Jews, who have been living in central Asia for more than 1,500 years; Persian-speaking Jews from present-day Iraq and Iran, who moved to the area as traders a bit later; and Ashkenazi Jews, who first moved to the country at the turn of the 20th century. Today, Ashkenazi Jews — most of them descendants of people who fled to Kyrgyzstan during the Holocaust — are decidedly the largest group.

Living on the so-called Silk Road between China and Europe, the Jews of Kyrgyzstan were mentioned in the writings of Arab geographer Al-Maqdisi and Marco Polo in the 11th and 13th centuries, respectively.

Into the 1900s, Kyrgyzstan was home to multiple small but vibrant Jewish communities, but religious practice was fiercely restricted after the communist revolution, particularly after World War II, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. For nearly a decade afterward, the community was without a rabbi or any organized religious life. In 2000, Chabad sent Belarus-born Rabbi Arie Raichman to Bishkek, where nearly all of Kyrgyzstan’s Jews now live. He and his wife Esther have been there since.

Men attend services at a synagogue in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in an undated photograph. (Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS)

Though small, Bishkek’s synagogue is active — mostly attended by older members of the community — and the Raichmans run a small Jewish kindergarten. The community even has its own monthly newsletters about local goings-on, called “Ma’ayan,” or wellspring in Hebrew.

The campaign to shutter the school

For years, a small but vocal group of Bishkek residents has railed against Pri Etz Haim school, whose name means “Fruit of the Tree of Life,” calling for its eviction. Earlier this year, their campaign picked up steam as members of the Bishkek city council joined their efforts.

This campaign — known as Nashe Pravo, or “Our Entitlement” — has based its criticism of the Jewish school on the grounds that it is located in what was once a municipal kindergarten, which the group says is needed for local children. They maintain that they are not opposed to the existence of a Jewish school in principle, but that it should be located somewhere else in order to free up the building for public use. The group has also fought against other private schools in the capital, though its social media campaigns have focused more on the Jewish school.

Singer sees the campaign as antisemitic in nature, noting that Jewish stereotypes and antisemitic canards appear in many of the statements and social media posts put out by Nashe Pravo supporters.

“They would have posters with things like, ‘Jews always have money, let them build a new school’… or say ‘Why do we need a Jewish private school in a Muslim country?’” Singer said.

Indeed, claims of Jews being rich and nefariously well-connected are easily found in many of the group’s Facebook posts and comments.

Though the school’s principal, Kritsman, said he “definitely” sees antisemitism as a factor in the campaign, he believed that it was also potentially driven by business interests as the school is located in a desirable part of the city and that if the school were evicted, developers could use the space to put up a more lucrative building.

“But some of the officials who have led the campaign, they have demonstrated some pure antisemitic attacks on our school,” Kritsman told The Times of Israel.

Still, Kritsman stressed that in general, the Jewish community maintains a very warm relationship with the majority-Muslim population and that the community has received support from the national government. “They Krygyz people have always been a very tolerant people,” he said.

Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, who was involved in the effort to save the school, declined to take a position on whether or not the fight to shutter it was necessarily driven by Jew-hatred, despite occasional uses of antisemitic tropes and stereotypes.

Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU’s coordinator for fighting anti-Semitism, addressing the Israel Council on Foreign Relations in Jerusalem, July 14, 2016 (Andres Lacko)

“I don’t think we can even begin to know if the motives were antisemitic,” von Schnurbein told The Times of Israel. “From our perspective, it was really about fostering Jewish life and supporting the Jewish community in this issue.”

The Kyrgyzstan Jewish community has been violently targeted by antisemites in the past. In 2010, during a period of unrest in the country, banners were raised blaming Kyrgyzstan’s troubles on foreign and local Jews. The community’s synagogue was firebombed multiple times and a pipebomb was thrown at it on the first day of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, causing limited damage.

Young children play with dreidels to celebrate the Hanukkah holiday in a Jewish kindergarten run by Chabad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in an undated photograph. (Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS)

Kritsman said the community is still cautious after the 2010 attacks and maintains strict security protocols for the school.

The fight against the school

In March of this year, the campaign successfully lobbied to get the school stripped of the exemption from having to pay for utilities that it had long received. And a few weeks later, on May 14, the city council issued its eviction notice, ordering the school to clear out of the building, which is still technically considered municipal property.

Roughly 90 students attend the school. Though not all of them are necessarily Jewish — the school is well regarded, so some non-Jewish politicians and business leaders send their children to it — Pri Etz Haim maintains a decidedly Jewish curriculum, teaching students Jewish history and culture, as well as Hebrew.

It took 12 days for Kritsman to receive the letter from the city council, which gave the school one month to vacate the building. He quickly contacted Singer, who immediately sprang to action, reaching out to officials in the United States, European Union, Israel, as well as Russia, which still carries significant clout with the former Soviet state.

Robert Singer, the head of the Center for Jewish Impact and former head of the World Jewish Congress and World ORT, in an undated photograph. (Shahar Azran)

Singer said after Kritsman informed him of the eviction notice, he and the head of policy and operations for the Center for Jewish Impact, Tracy Frydberg, set up a “war room” dedicated to saving the school and started contacting anyone he thought could help.

Within a few days, Singer had reached out to von Schnurbein, the US Charge d’Affaires ad interim to Kyrgyzstan, the chief rabbi of Russia and local business leaders, as well as Israel’s Foreign Ministry — and through it the Israeli ambassador to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — as well as Israel’s Education Ministry, which works closely with World ORT. He asked all of them to lobby on behalf of the school.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed its involvement in the effort but stressed that it played only a small part, asking the Kyrgyzstan government about the school.

Von Schnurbein, who said she had been aware of the school’s struggles since April after it was first stripped of its utilities exemption, asked the EU ambassador to Kyrgyzstan to look into the matter, and similar questions were raised by the US charge d’affaires and others, which brought the issue to the attention of Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov.

“The office of the president of Kyrgyzstan took immediate action and stopped all this nonsense,” Singer said.

“[The EU ambassador] reached out to the authorities. And there was a positive response from the authorities, which we welcome,” von Schnurbein said.

Vladimir Kritsman, right, the principal of Kyrgyzstan’s only Jewish school, Pri Etz Haim, speaks to EU Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Eduard Auer on June 27, 2022. (EU in Kyrgyzstan)

Singer credited the victory to the rapid response by a number of figures from around the world. “It was all of this together. Suddenly a little school that no one knew existed received international attention. [Jewish] people on the ground also saw that they hadn’t been left alone,” he said.

On June 2, roughly two weeks after the eviction notice was signed, Kritsman was informed that the eviction had been called off.

“We cannot always win, but we can do the maximum. And from time to time we do win,” Singer said.

“In this case, we can say that not only was the school saved but the whole community,” he said.

Not taking a break this summer

The school is now gearing up for further fights with Nashe Pravo, which has continued publishing articles in newspapers and on social media attacking it.

One such article published on the Kyrgyzstan news site 24.kg on Friday denounced Singer’s international intervention in a “property dispute” and accused the national authorities of overstepping their bounds.

“What the hell is this? Do state authorities and international organizations have the right to interfere in the activities of local authorities, especially in a property dispute?” one of the Nashe Pravo organizers wrote.

The leader of the Nashe Pravo organization, Kalicha Umuraliyeva, repeated the claim that the Jewish school, which has been in the same location for over three decades, was “occupying a kindergarten” and should build a new facility.

“No one is demanding the closure of the school, only the liberation of the kindergarten building,” Umuraliyeva said, according to another 24.kg article on the topic.

Kritsman does not dispute that the building was once a municipal kindergarten, but said it was willingly handed over to be used as a Jewish school. He also noted that other municipal kindergartens were given to people by the government for private ventures at the same time, but the campaign has not demanded that they too be returned for municipal use.

To prepare for further efforts to close down the school, the community hired a team of local lawyers to help it negotiate with the city. The funding for the legal team came in part from the World ORT organization and in part from members of the local Jewish community, according to Singer.

The school year ended last week, Kritsman said, and he hopes to reopen after the summer as usual.

“But we are not sure what will happen in one month or three months. Now we have some support from the authorities so we are going to try to reach some agreement with the city,” he said.

The European Union has also maintained its connection with the school. On Tuesday, its ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Eduard Auer visited Pri Etz Haim, meeting with Kritsman to discuss “the ongoing activities of the school,” Auer’s office said.

Singer stressed that the tiny Kyrgyzstan Jewish community is not a wealthy one and generally depends on the goodwill of Jews abroad.

“This is an extremely poor community. There are no real donors, no income,” he said.

Indeed, Kritsman said that if the school were evicted, it would likely be forced to shut down permanently as it could not afford to construct a new building.

These antisemites didn’t disappear, and I assume they will keep trying to kick the school out.

“Unfortunately, the school has no money or financing for that,” he said, quickly adding with a boast, “even though we are one of the best schools in the country, which is documented and which you can see from our students’ test results.”

Initially, Singer kept his efforts relatively quiet and news of the school’s plight was largely limited to local Kyrgyz outlets and Facebook pages.

But once the school no longer faced imminent eviction, Singer’s Center for Jewish Impact approached The Times of Israel about the story.

“These antisemites didn’t disappear, and I assume they will keep trying to kick the school out. That’s why it’s important that people around the world and in Israel know about this because it’s a small community that is struggling to survive,” he said.

Singer said he hoped this incident would raise awareness about the Kyrgyzstan Jewish community, both its current one and its history as a refuge for Jews during the Holocaust, among Israelis and Jews around the world, especially as he predicted that more and more Israelis would begin traveling to the country.

“I think this is the next place that Israelis are going to go. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country with mountains and lakes. Central Asia is going to be the next area for Israeli backpackers. So it’s important that the Israeli public knows about this small Jewish community,” he said.

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