A THRIVING, LIVELY BUKHARAN JEWISH POPULATION IN ATLANTA
By Al Shams
In the 1960’s, at the height of the Cold War, there was a popular satirical movie called “The Russians are Coming.” The movie centered around a Russian submarine that ran aground on a small New England coastal village and how the residents reacted to their arrival. After some very humorous episodes, the two groups began to form positive relationships.
Now, in 2014, there are approximately 35,000 Jews living in the Atlanta area who can trace their ancestry to central Asia. The Atlanta Jewish Community and Greater Atlanta area is all the better for their presence. There are a number of Jewish communities around the world, but there is one, that for more than 2,000 years, has survived, preserved its religion and identity in almost total isolation from the mainstream of Jewish life. This sect is commonly known as Bukharan Jews; they have developed their own culture while doing their best to adhere to traditional Jewish practices. They have always dreamed of returning to the Holy Land, the land of Israel.
The origins of Bukharan Jews are obscure and we are not sure when Jews first settled in Central Asia. One legend holds that the Assyrians, around 722 BC, deported a large number of Jews from conquered Israel to Hador (Bukhara). Another legend is that the Jews arrived in Central Asia around 520 BC after they were conquered by the Persians. That community was isolated until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when more than 90% of the Bukharan Jews left Central Asia, most migrated to Israel, New York or the Atlanta area. Gwinnett County seems to be the home base for those living in Georgia.
One Family’s Story
One of the leaders of the Georgia community is Anatoliy Ishhakov and his wife Khano Aranbayeva, who I had the pleasure of meeting, during which they related aspects of their lives. Anatoliy and Khano were born in and lived in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He was an engineer, and she was an accomplished pianist, having studied at the Conservatory in Russia.
In Uzbekistan, they were constantly harassed by members of the KGB. Bribes and false accusations against your neighbor were a way of life there. In one instance, a KGB officer wanted their home; Anatoliy was fearful that a phony charge would be leveled against him and he would lose his home or worse yet endanger his family.
Being caught attending services of practicing Judaism in any way would result in jail time; there was no recourse to this discrimination. They had few if any prayer books or religious articles. What they knew was passed down from generation to generation in oral form. Amazingly with only a modest understanding of the service, holidays and Torah they clung to what they knew, and lived similar to our present day core Jewish values. The family was able to obtain refugee status and applied to the U.S. Embassy to emigrate. In time, they were able to leave Samarkand, but left almost all of their possessions behind.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, they along with many other Russian Jews received tremendous assistance from local Jewish relief agencies. They resided in a Tempo apartment and obtained jobs. Anatoliy served as a hotel maintenance worker while Khano worked as a hotel housekeeper each earning $5.00 per hour. What drove them to work hard? Several months after moving into the apartment, Anatoliy noticed a pile of household goods on the grass. Amazed he asked a neighbor what happened, when he learned that the tenant was evicted due to nonpayment of rent, he vowed that he could never let that happen to his family. He promptly secured a second job.
Over time, life and job opportunities improved and Anatoliy and Khano were able to raise their family’s living standards. Their children graduated from Yeshiva Atlanta high school and have gone on to successful careers. Vladdy, their son, graduated from music conservatory (violin) and is now a composer/performer/producer. Daughter Lily holds a Phd in neuroscience. They are grateful to a number of caring people and the Jewish organizations who provided help and hope.
During our interview Anatoliy related many stories that showed his creativity, ingenuity, and ability to achieve much with meager resources. One such story is worthy of relating. In 2002, Anatoliy had an opportunity to buy an old childcare facility in Norcross. This property would be at the core of his plans to create a community center for the local Jewish population. But he needed to source funding for the agreed selling price of $700,000. Anatoliy reached out to local families, foundation, financial institution and his friends in New York as well as tapped into his own limited funds. Closing day drew near. He was still $100,000 short. If Analoliy could not come up with the final portion, the entire project will be lost and all the money raised must be returned. He asked for a month’s delay while he feverously searched for a solution.
Anatoliy had read about a wealthy Bukharan billionaire living in Israel who said he would match 25 percent of the funds raised for worthy Jewish projects. He learned that this billionaire was stopping over in New York for a conference. Armed with this information and with no direct relationship with the billionaire, Anatoliy went to New York for one last hope. His friends provided the introduction to the billionaire and he was granted a five-minute meeting. Anatoliy left this meeting unsure about his success and was told to wait for a response. The hours that passed seemed like years. But 3 days later, a representative from the billionaire called and said that $100,000 would be wired to the community center’s account. Anatoliy was overjoyed and immensely grateful for the gift. But he had a quick thought: 25% of $600,000 was $150,000 (not $100,000). But he decided to say “Thank you” and not ask for the additional $50,000.
Thus is the story of the current headquartered location of King David Community Center (KDCC). KDCC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides care services directed toward two of society’s most vulnerable segments: low income elderly and children (especially those from low income families). Anatoliy currently serves as KDCC’s President while Khano is its Executive Director.
Senior Services at KDCC
While its roots and core are firmly with the Jewish Community, KDCC Senior Services has grown to encompass a uniquely diverse, multi-national low income client population whose family roots originated from throughout Central, South and East Asia including Russians, Koreans, Nepalese, Chinese, Vietnamese and more.
Adult Day Care services are provided at KDCC locations in Norcross, Doraville and Clarkston. Attending seniors receive a range of programming activities designed to encourage physical, mental and social wellness. In addition, local excursions and shopping trips are periodically scheduled. KDCC provides the necessary transportation services.
Additional services offered to low income elderly clients include: personal support services (home care), home delivery meals (with freshly prepared ethnic meals including kosher meals) and physical therapy. KDCC has been able to take on these different programs due its ability to continuously operate in good standing with the various regulatory bodies.
Children Services at KDCC
The King David Academy – with its Pre-K and Sunday program offerings – is nationally certified and is recognized by the state of Georgia as a center of distinction. It opened in 2002 when it had only 1 child through its first 3 months of operation. Today, it is a popular and thriving program serving the needs of children of multiple age groups.
King David Academy is dedicated to offering the highest levels of care and education. They are especially proud of their nutrition program that offers fresh kosher food cooked daily. Examples of its Sunday school curriculum include Judaic studies, bilingual education, music & theater and ballet. Children from low income family often receive partial or full scholarship.
King David Synagogue
Beit Yitzhak is an orthodox synagogue located at the Norcross location. The congregation is primarily composed of Jews from Russia and Central Asia, but all are welcome. Rabbi Israel Zelman, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, is unique in his extensive knowledge of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic subcultures. Through the continued support of benefactors such as Mr. Eliot Arnovitz, former President of the Jewish Federation of Atlanta, the King David synagogue is able to serve to it religious mission and provide supporting programs such as cemetery plot purchase subsidy.
Plans are underway to dramatically expand the synagogue’s facilities including the addition of a Mikva (one of the few in Atlanta) to be partially funded by Mikva USA.
Going forward, Anatoliy and Khano hope to strengthen KDCC’s commitment to serve the low income elderly and children. Several major growth initiatives are being launched.
To ensure that both the children and elderly client population have improved facilities, KDCC is adding a Health & Wellness Center on its main campus. The facility will include swimming pool, fitness center and multi-use gymnasium. A building permit has already been secured for this project.
Given its breadth of senior services, KDCC is taking the next logical step by looking to expand into housing for low income elderly. Their vision is to develop an ‘international village’ at the property adjacent to the current Norcross headquarter. Here, low income seniors will be able to ‘live, play and age in place’ in a facility that is designed with their lifestyle needs in mind. This $40 million project, potentially housing as many 530 low income elderly residents, is currently undergoing permitting process.
It was a wonderful experience to meet and learn about this unique group of Jews. Their dedication to Judaism, community service and giving back can serve as an inspiration to many. Realizing that they arrived in Atlanta not speaking English and unfamiliar to Southern customs, it is truly amazing what dedication and perseverance can accomplish. It’s almost like G-d were lending a helping hand. Those wishing to learn more could Google King David Community Center.