Until the Young Bukharian Leadership Institute started in 2013, Bukharian Jewish college students and young professionals in the New York area found it challenging to develop leadership skills in a culturally conscious environment and build bridges to the larger Jewish community.
Bukharian Jews have their roots in central Asia, in several countries including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. As they’ve settled in New York neighborhoods over recent years, they have begun exploring how to become more integrated into New York Jewish life.
The Young Bukharian Leadership Institute, supported by UJA-Federation of New York and implemented by the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), is opening doors for Bukharians to become involved in new ways.
“I immigrated when I was 14,” Manashe Khaimov said. “I graduated from Baruch College and wanted to be involved Jewishly. By being involved with the Young Bukharian Leadership Institute, I’ve learned how American Jewish organizations operate and how to connect the Bukharian Jewish community to the larger Jewish community. It’s helped me go to the next level and be a leader in an organization.”
Khaimov, who had attended Limmud FSU through the Young Bukharian Leadership Institute, is now Limmud FSU’s chair of public relations and marketing. He is also currently the interim director of the Bukharian Teen Lounge, a program of JCCA, a UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agency
Developing Leadership On Campus
The Young Bukharian Leadership Institute also starts laying the foundation for leadership skills with college students at Queens College in collaboration with Queens College Hillel.
Queens College is a New York City university with a large Jewish student body. There are 4,000 Jewish students at the school and a quarter, or 1,000, are Bukharian Jewish students, said Ruben Shimonov, engagement associate at Queens College Hillel who is responsible for engaging students from Bukharian and other Sephardic Jewish communities.
“But very few Bukharian students had historically made their way to Hillel’s door,” Shimonov said. “And because Hillel is the major player for Jewish campus life, very few Bukharian Jews were involved in Jewish campus life.”
To address that gap, the Young Bukharian Leadership Institute supported Shimonov in reaching out to Bukharian students. He started by talking to students one on one and learned that the students were active in Jewish life in their local communities, going to synagogue at home or other cultural events, but they did not see Jewish life on campus as welcoming.
“We needed to show that Hillel is a space to explore and celebrate Jewish identity on their own terms and that Hillel is an inclusive space for everyone,” said Shimonov.
To make that a reality, Shimonov created the Bukharian Choikhona, or teahouse, in the Bukhori language. In Uzbekistani culture, the teahouse was the center of intellectual and cultural life where people came together to share ideas and have a good time. Shimonov envisioned that students would meet monthly and have traditional Bukharian food and tea and discuss different topics ranging from how Bukharian Jews connect to their communities to traditional music and culture and a vision for the future.
For Yasmin Pinhasov Malaev, a rising sophomore at Queens College, the Bukharian Choikhona was a crucial way to become more active in the Bukharian Jewish community at college.
“I want more people to understand Bukharian culture and to prevent the culture from dying out and people from walking away from it,” said Malaev, who is also president of the Bukharian Cultural Club under Hillel’s supervision.
Before the Choikhona began, Malaev said, there weren’t many Bukharians active on campus. The meetings now attract 40 to 50 students each month.
“Leadership is a very long journey,” reflected Bella Zelkin, director of émigré services at the JCCA. “We’re creating connections for people who care about the Jewish community and continuity and their growth as possible future leaders.”