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U.S.: Afghan Jews Keep Traditions Alive Far From Home

Prayers at New York's Anshei Shalom temple (RFE/RL) NEW YORK, June 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- More than 200 Jewish families of Afghan descent live in the New York City borough of Queens -- the largest group of Afghan Jews outside of Israel. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, there is officially only one Jew left, Zebolan Simanto, a 45-year old caretaker of a synagogue in Kabul.

The focal point for Afghan Jews in New York is the congregation Anshei Shalom, which is also a spiritual home to Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Russia, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

Afghan Memories

Binyamin Pinchasi, a jeweler by trade, was born and raised in Israel. He has never been to Afghanistan, but both of his parents grew up in Kabul. They still have fond memories of growing up in the Afghan capital more than 50 years ago.

"We never had persecution in Afghanistan. And the government was very helpful to us."

Pinchasi, who appears to be in his early 30s and speaks a little Dari -- which along with Pashto is one of Afghanistan's two main languages -- says he feels a spiritual connection to the country, though only a faint one.

"Some connection yes, a little bit," he said. "I think if we go to visit there, we're going to feel some more."

Like most congregants at Anshei Shalom, Pinchasi helps support Simanto, the last Jew in Kabul. This year -- like every year -- they sent Simanto a package for Passover on April 1 that was nearly 27 kilograms of grape juice, matzo and oil -- all kosher -- that cost $650 to ship to Kabul.

Pinchasi, who came to New York as a teenager, has lived in New York for about 13 years. Anshei Shalom, he says, is the place where he finds comfort and spiritual guidance.

"We're coming here almost every Sabbath, every Saturday," he said. "During the week we're coming here at least three or four times...sometimes it's every day. You feel it like you see all the people, all the [Afghans], you feel the tradition by the praying, and it's different."

Keeping Traditions

Jonathan Abraham is also a member of the Anshei Shalom Synagogue. His parents left Afghanistan in the late 1940s. He was born in Italy and raised in Israel. Abraham speaks neither Dari nor Pashto, but he comes to the synagogue every week. Sermons here are conducted in Hebrew, which he speaks fluently.

"The idea is to carry on the tradition that for many-many years our parents and their parents tried to preserve and keep in Afghanistan where they were kind of isolated between a lot of Muslim countries and Russian [Soviet] countries that didn't always encouraged them to keep their tradition," he said.

Abraham says that when living in a free country where you can openly practice your religion it is even more important to keep traditions alive to ensure that the hardships one's ancestors experienced were not in vain.

Abraham says that he would like to visit Afghanistan one day when the country is not so troubled. But he says that Afghanistan was only a stop in the Jews' travels around the world.

"Afghanistan was just a station for the Jews who were exiled from Israel thousands of years ago," he said. "So, we weren't really Afghans by definition, we just lived over there. We respected the rules of the country and leaders and the king, and whoever was in charge. We are very grateful for the time we had over there but right now we're in a different place."

Jack Abraham, who was born in Afghanistan and lived there until the age of 11, is the president of Anshei Shalom. He claims that it is not the only Afghan synagogue in the United States. Abraham says that each Sunday between 30 and 40 people attend the service.

'Winds Of Change'

Approximately that many -- all men -- were present during the service on June 17. There are separate compartments for women on both sides of the spacious and well air-conditioned prayer room but women, Abraham says, usually do not attend Sunday services, they come for prayers separately.

"They don't have to pray with us, they can pray at home, they don't even need to pray," he said. "In our religion the women have gotten a higher, much higher level of spirituality than men because they give birth. As such, they're not required to pray like men."

Anshei Shalom is in a lush, almost suburban area of Queens. But they've moved three times, Abraham says, since initially establishing the first synagogue in a basement in 1976. The current one-story building has housed the synagogue since 1983.

Afghanistan's Jews, Abraham says, began moving out of the country long before the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

"There was a wind of change; we felt the wind of change before the Soviets came in," he said. "We were feeling the wind of change in the 1960s. The changes were that the government was sending their students to schools in Russia [Soviet Union]. My mother is Bukharian, we ran away from the Russian Revolution to Baku [Azerbaijan], to Turkmenistan, to Bukhara [Uzbekistan], and then they passed the Amu Darya River back to Afghanistan. My father is Afghan; my mother is Bukharian. So, when we saw in the 1950s and 60s [that] Afghan students from a Muslim country [were] going to Russia [Soviet Union], we knew that the wind of change was going to come. Those kids were going to be somehow or another infused with socialism and communism and repression. So, our people started leaving already."

Abraham, who came to the United States to study in 1962 and decided to stay, says that he is very proud of his Afghan heritage. Abraham speaks fluent Dari and has a special place in his heart for the only remaining synagogue in Kabul -- it was built by his father in 1964.

Feeling At Home

"We never had persecution in Afghanistan," he said. "And the government was very helpful to us. If there was any kind of a thing happening out on the street, they would inform the Jews 'Take it easy, don't go to work' on these particular days because people were talking negative, and they would put police outside of our doors for protection. So, I'm looking at it as being fortunate, I'm grateful, I'm proud, I've never, ever hid the fact that I was born in Afghanistan. Never."

Abraham's father relocated to the United States in 1969, before the synagogue in Queens was established. After the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan in 2001, Abraham paid for the partial renovation of the Kabul synagogue, which by then had fallen into poor condition.

He says that the caretaker of the synagogue, Simanto, does not want to relocate to the United States but would rather carry on as the last member of his religion in Afghanistan.

"I talk to him but [Kabul is the] place [where] he feels at home," he said. "He's by himself, all by himself in a compound over there and he lives a life, breathes the air, he is totally alone, all by himself in that land."

Abraham says that he talks to Simanto several times a year and that they will continue to support him as long as he needs help. After the repairs were done three years ago Simanto no longer had to climb into the synagogue through a window.