The Bukhar­ian Rabbi Who Won’t Leave His Post

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Paul Berger

For 25 years, Itzhak Ye­hoshua has been the spir­i­tual face of Bukhar­ian Jewry, fêted by politi­cians and for­eign dig­ni­taries as the Bukhar­ian chief rabbi.

Ye­hoshua con­tin­ues to re­ceive greet­ings and awards from elected of­fi­cials. But among Bukhar­i­ans to­day, in their di­as­pora cap­i­tal of Queens in New York City, he is bet­ter known as an em­bar­rass­ment — a great man felled by al­le­ga­tions of lax con­ver­sion and kashrut stan­dards, bribery and forgery, and of mak­ing false claims in the name of Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Is­rael.

Last April, the community’s Bet Efraim Cen­tral Syn­a­gogue in­formed Ye­hoshua his con­tract would not be re­newed and he was sub­se­quently ousted from the Bukhar­ian Jewish Congress.

A rul­ing by five Ashke­nazi rab­bis of the Queens Beit Din, or rab­bini­cal court, a few months ear­lier found that Ye­hoshua had vi­o­lated laws re­lated to con­ver­sions. This July, the same beit din is­sued a sec­ond rul­ing, dis­trib­uted among the Bukhar­ian community in a 12-page book­let printed in

English and in Rus­sian, cat­a­loging the “tremen­dous lies and fab­ri­ca­tions” Ye­hoshua is al­leged to have com­mit­ted in what the rab­bis por­trayed as an elab­o­rate and “cun­ning” at­tempt to clear his name.

The sec­ond rul­ing, which took up six pages in the July 27 edition of The Bukhar­ian Times, a community news­pa­per, in­cluded al­le­ga­tions that Ye­hoshua’s ac­com­plices forged a let­ter from lead­ing Bukhar­ian rab­bis to dis­credit the Queens Beit Din. The

beit din also said that Ye­hoshua falsely claimed the sup­port of Amar, and to prove it, the beit din printed an ex­cerpt of a let­ter from Amar, call­ing Ye­hoshua’s ac­tions “ex­tremely un­for­tu­nate.”

The beit din rab­bis con­cluded by warn­ing that if Ye­hoshua does not cease prac­tic­ing as a rabbi in Queens, it will “pro­nounce an of­fi­cial cherem,” ex­com­mu­ni­cat­ing him from the very community that he helped build.

One re­cent Fri­day morn­ing dur­ing Sukkot, Ye­hoshua seemed un­ruf­fled by the tu­mult of the past two years, calmly an­swer­ing calls on his iPhone from fol­low­ers with do­mes­tic and spir­i­tual quan­daries while guid­ing his Lexus past the well-man­i­cured lawns of For­est Hills.

Ye­hoshua parked out­side his home and stepped out of his car, dressed in a royal blue kaf­tan, or

joma, thickly em­broi­dered in gold, and a black lambs wool hat, or

tel­pak. He strode across the road and re­treated to the sun-dap­pled quiet of a richly dec­o­rated sukkah draped in Cen­tral Asian rugs de­pict­ing Sephardic chief rab­bis and scenes from the First Tem­ple in Jerusalem.

Ye­hoshua, who still claims the man­tle of Bukhar­ian chief rabbi, shrugged off the re­cent tu­mult as the re­sult of a flour­ish­ing community that, as it grows larger and stronger, in­evitably bub­bles with fric­tion and power strug­gles.

“I don’t think we are any dif­fer­ent than any [other] Jewish community,” Ye­hoshua said.

When Ye­hoshua ar­rived in Queens from Is­rael in 1987, at the age of 26, the ma­jor­ity of Bukhar­i­ans still resided in Cen­tral Asia, where they had lived for at least 1,000 years, in cities such as Sa­markand, Bukhara and Tashkent, all then part of the Soviet Union.

Ac­cord­ing to their own ac­count, the Bukhar­ian Jews’ ar­rival in the re­gion goes back much fur­ther. Their ear­li­est pres­ence is said to date to the de­struc­tion of the First Tem­ple in Jerusalem in the 6th Cen­tury BCE. Over time, the Bukhar­i­ans trav­eled east, set­tling in ma­jor trad­ing hubs along the Silk Road, and de­vel­op­ing their own richly dis­tinc­tive cul­ture. For much of their his­tory they re­mained con­nected to other Per­sian-speak­ing Jews of the re­gion, such as the Jews of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fol­low­ing the col­lapse of com­mu­nism in the 1990s, al­most the en­tire community em­i­grated. Most went to Is­rael, but thou­sands streamed into North Amer­ica. Queens be­came their new cen­ter here, but smaller com­mu­ni­ties also de­vel­oped in cities such as Phoenix, Ariz., and Toronto.

Ye­hoshua es­ti­mates that the Bukhar­ian pop­u­la­tion of North Amer­i­can boomed from about 700 fam­i­lies be­fore 1991, to about 12,500 fam­i­lies to­day, most of them com­ing through Queens. “We used to call our fam­ily cen­ter [in Queens] the Bukhar­ian El­lis Is­land,” Ye­hoshua said.

At the be­gin­ning of the 1990s, Ye­hoshua, the Is­rael-born son of Bukhar­ian im­mi­grants, was one of the few rab­bis in Amer­ica who could speak Bukhori, an amal­gam of Farsi, Rus­sian and He­brew, and re­late to Bukhar­ian cul­ture and tradition.

Ye­hoshua said the bur­geon­ing im­mi­grant community lacked rab­bis and rit­ual slaugh­ter­ers. So he solved the prob­lem by train­ing tal­ented Bukhar­ian singers to be­come cantors, and butch­ers to be­come rit­ual slaugh­ter­ers.

They may not have reached the strin­gent stan­dards Ortho­dox Jews in Amer­ica re­quire, Ye­hoshua said, but they had “sin­cer­ity” and a “cer­tain fear of God.”

“These were the seeds of a fu­ture po­lit­i­cal power strug­gle which we are fac­ing to­day,” he said.

Ye­hoshua blamed three groups for his re­cent tra­vails: a younger gen­er­a­tion of Bukhar­ian rab­bis who re­ject the no­tion of a chief rabbi; an­other rab­binic group, ed­u­cated at Amer­i­can yeshivas, who want the Bukhar­ian rab­binate to move in a more strict, Ashke­nazi-style Ortho­dox di­rec­tion, and a power strug­gle at the Bukhar­ian Jewish Community Cen­ter, a new build­ing that al­most went bank­rupt in 2006 be­fore it was bailed out by bil­lion­aire di­a­mond dealer Lev Le­viev and Queens real es­tate de­vel­oper Sim­cha Alishaev.

Alishaev, who is pres­i­dent of the community cen­ter, said he did not want to say whether Ye­hoshua had done any­thing wrong. But, he added, Ye­hoshua “does not have [the] right to speak on be­half of… the community cen­ter or the community at all.”

Sev­eral Bukhar­ian rab­bis de­clined to com­ment on Ye­hoshua’s re­moval. One in­sider de­scribed the episode as a “black eye” for the community.

Even those who be­lieve the al­le­ga­tions against Ye­hoshua say — with a sigh — that he is a tal­ented rabbi who, by guid­ing its ini­tial es­tab­lish­ment and growth, achieved great things for the community. One per­son said he “cried tears” over Ye­hoshua’s down­fall.

“He’s a very great guy,” said Ye­hoshua sup­porter Arthur Shakarov, manag­ing part­ner of King David, a kosher Bukhar­ian res­tau­rant. “I don’t know why peo­ple are telling about him so much bad sto­ries.”

Ru­mors in the community cir­cu­late that Ye­hoshua ac­cepted money for easy con­ver­sions. But peo­ple are vague on de­tails. When asked about the beit din rul­ings, Ye­hoshua would say only that he was ac­cused of al­low­ing a rit­ual slaugh­terer to continue prac­tic­ing af­ter he ought to have re­tired.

Rabbi Peretz Stein­berg, one of the five rab­bis from the Queens Beit Din that ruled in the mat­ter, ini­tially de­clined to give any de­tails. Later, he said that Ye­hoshua per­formed a num­ber of con­ver­sions that “were not proper.”

There were “other things, as well,” Stein­berg added, but “we didn’t get in­volved in the thiev­ery and the dis­hon­esty.” Ye­hoshua re­fused to at­tend the

beit din hear­ings. In­stead, he went to Is­rael, where he per­suaded for­mer Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bak­shi-Doron to in­ves­ti­gate the Queens Beit Din rul­ing. In a rul­ing, posted on Ye­hoshua’s web­site in Jan­uary Bak­shi- Doron de­clared the Queens beit din judg­ment “com­pletely il­le­gal.”

Ye­hoshua “is a re­spect­ful and peace­ful man and not the blood­thirsty sav­age whom he was wrong­fully claimed to be,” Bak­shiDoron wrote.

The Bukhar­ian community will mark its 40th an­niver­sary in the United States with a day-long con­fer­ence in For­est Hills on Oc­to­ber 21.

That, af­ter four decades in Amer­ica, a Sephardic community had to turn to an Ashke­nazi beit

din to re­solve its dis­pute could be

Community’s united front is frac­tured by rift with its for­mer spir­i­tual leader.

a sign that the Bukhar­ian community is still not self-suf­fi­cient, said Alanna Cooper, a cul­tural an­thro­pol­o­gist at Bos­ton Univer­sity.

Cooper, whose book, “Bukha­ran Jews and the Dy­nam­ics of Global Ju­daism,” will be pub­lished later this year, said the community also ap­pears to have failed to cul­ti­vate a strong and co­he­sive lead­er­ship com­prised of both rab­bis and community lead­ers.

“I get the sense that al­though there were fac­tions within the community and not ev­ery­one was be­hind the chief rabbi… there was a sem­blance that they were a united community,” Cooper said. “That’s now been to­tally frac­tured and de-cen­tered.”

Cyn­thia Zalisky, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Queens Jewish Community Coun­cil, has no­ticed some­thing sim­i­lar. With Ye­hoshua as chief rabbi the community was “un­der one ban­ner,” she said, “and now there’s not one rabbi who has come and taken his place in that lead­er­ship role.”

De­spite the Queens Beit Din’s de­mand that he leave, Ye­hoshua is adamant that he is still the community’s chief rabbi.

His son Michael Ye­hoshua has launched a new, English­language Bukhar­ian news­pa­per, The Tri­bune, full of pos­i­tive sto­ries about his fa­ther.

In Septem­ber, Bak­shi-Doron cut the cer­e­mo­nial rib­bon on Ye­hoshua’s lat­est ven­ture: a new $2 mil­lion syn­a­gogue and community cen­ter to be based out of a pala­tial For­est Hills home fi­nanced by Ye­hoshua’s sup­port­ers.

Ye­hoshua said on Oc­to­ber 5 that the new cen­ter would open for ser­vices by Hanukkah. On Oc­to­ber 11 he was more vague, say­ing the build­ing had not yet been pur­chased and that a sec­ond prop­erty could be­come his new head­quar­ters.

For now, he said, he is lead­ing ser­vices out of the first floor of his home.

He Won’t Go:

PAUL BERGER

Itzhak Ye­hoshua, sit­ting here in a sukkah in Queens, re­fuses to re­lin­quish his role as Bukhar­ian chief rabbi.

SAM KAZA­KOV

New HQ: Is­rael’s for­mer Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bak­shiDoron cuts the rib­bon for Itzhak Ye­hoshua’s new syn­a­gogue with Ye­hoshua stand­ing, in a gold-em­broi­dered caf­tan, to his left.

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