After the unimaginable events of October 7th, world travelers and Jewish philanthropists Dina and Jonathan Leader from Westchester, NY debated canceling their long-anticipated trip to Uzbekistan, part of a grander journey to the Middle East that included Israel and Dubai.
But then they called Rafael Nektalov who, as it turned out, had a trip planned that would coincide with theirs. His was for Shashmaqom Forever, the musical festival he co-founded with David Mavashev.
Concerned, Dina asked, «Rafael, are you still going? Is it safe?»
«Yes, of course!» answered Rafael, a close confidant of the Leaders for over 20 years. He was emphatic. After all, he was the one who inspired them to travel to Uzbekistan («I said, you need to go there to truly understand Bukharian Jewish life and culture,» Rafael recounted), and had a big role in organizing their 6-day itinerary, which included Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara.
His reassuring words convinced them to proceed — «Uzbekistan is the safest place on the planet! You’ll never feel an inkling of antisemitism.» — setting the stage for an unexpected journey through the heart of Uzbekistan’s cultural richness at an uncertain time. (They canceled the Israel and Dubai legs.)
With over 25 years dedicated to assisting the Russian-speaking community, Dina, who was born in Ukraine, had encountered pockets of Bukharian Jewry in the US, first and foremost at Baruch College Hillel, a hub with a distinct concentration, which they had financially supported for years. As Ashkenazi Jews, they found themselves navigating a realm where everything, from clothing to music to practices, differed.
Dina, who shared the Soviet Jewish identity with the Bukharians, reflected on some of their differences: Former Soviet Jews from Russia and Ukraine tended to be more secular (Refusniks were religious but because of political reasons they were not allowed to practice any religion), standing in contrast to the Bukharians, who held steadfast to their core values. Within the sweeping Soviet Union, «things were more relaxed in the ‘Stans because their local authorities were willing to keep a blind eye,» the couple explained. «It was more a function of the political structure. Judaism was never the problem,» said Dina, «and whenever you would meet someone from the older generation, they would always say, ‘We never felt threatened by the Muslim community.’»
Another aspect that struck her in New York was their male-dominated society, how «highly educated women, many of them holding PhDs» keep the custom of seeking parental approval of husbands, and how «parents are mingling in their personal lives.»
«You have to live with people to understand them,» said Dina, a principle that guided her long curiosity to delve into Uzbekistan’s soul. Fortunately, her American-born husband Jonathan shares her sense of exploration. «I’m always up for new adventures,» he said.
A Dynamic Duo
Dina and Jonathan Leader, a power couple dedicated to supporting Judaism and known for their longtime hand in the UJA-Federation and support of Russian-speaking families since 9/11, picked Uzbekistan, seeking to explore a lesser-known part of the Jewish diaspora. espite their shared commitment and desires, and their identity as Ashkenazi Jews, they could not be more different.
Jonathan, born into a family that immigrated in the early 1880s, has a lineage rooted in the challenges faced by Jews during that time. His great-grandparents resisted the pressure imposed by the Czar to join the army, a move intended for conversion, and instead sought a life with access to kosher food and freedom from persecution. Born at 1:50 am on July 5th, his only regret in life is that his mother «didn’t push a little harder,» he jokes, wishing his birthdate could align with his patriotism. Educated at Yale and Harvard Business School, Jonathan built a successful career in finance and business, eventually starting Liberty Capital Management. Despite a divorce, he found himself drawn into the world of Jewish philanthropy through UJA-Federation, where his path intersected with Dina’s.
Dina, on the other hand, comes from a family that arrived from the Soviet Union in the early ’70s, holding the unique distinction of being the first family to fly directly from Russia to New York via Italy. At the time there was no immigration policy because of the Cold War. For this, Mayor Koch greeted them upon arrival, and they were invited to Washington, DC for an Oval Office press conference given by US Attorney General John Mitchell (it was initially supposed to be given by President Nixon, but he was immersed with Watergate.) Her father, a survivor of World War II, endured unimaginable hardships and was recruited by the Russian army at the young age of 9, no taller than a rifle, to spy on the Germans. His experiences with antisemitism shaped his life, yet he pursued the American dream, opening a specialty food store in Brighton Beach. Dina, arriving in the U.S. at the age of 10, quickly adapted, learned English, and pursued education at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Hunter College. Her early work at the Council of Jewish Organizations (COJO) of Flatbush laid the foundation for her future involvement in philanthropy.
Their eventual meeting at COJO, brought about by chance and facilitated by a shared commitment to Judaism, led to a partnership that spans nearly three decades. (The couple is celebrating their anniversary next week!) Despite being «polar opposites» in some aspects, their dedication to Jewish traditions and people has created a harmonious blend. Jonathan’s reconstructionist upbringing, focusing on cultural and moral aspects of Judaism, was complemented by Dina’s more orthodox background (she went to Chabad summer camp and studied at Yeshiva), introducing him to practices like lighting Shabbat candles. Together, they became «polar twins» on the inside, their commitment to Judaism and Israel enriching their lives.
Journey of a Lifetime to Uzbekistan
As the 20th of October approached, the stars aligned for their journey—they discovered Rafael, together with David Mavashev, would be on their exact same flight! This auspicious encounter would serve to only enhance their experience, providing them with a lifetime of memories.
Their arrival unfolded a mesmerizing panorama — a Muslim country steeped in beauty, adorned with ancient madrassahs, and a people whose friendliness knew no bounds. This was, in fact, a social relic of being along the Silk Road. The guides emphasized that ‘the Quran does not promote violence, it promotes peace’ adding to the heartwarming experience.
«Is this really the portrait of co-existence?» Dina and Jonathan both wondered, while deeply cognizant of government suppressions.
This was the first time for each of them in a Muslim country. But Uzbekistan, a moderate Muslim country, is «Islamic-lite,» where about 50% observe Ramadan, and burqas are forbidden. You are just as likely to find a Muslim who drinks beer, a lasting by- product of Soviet influence, as you are to find one who prays five times a day.
Feeling safe enough to express themselves, they donned a kipa and Star of David, while exploring a sprawling Jewish cemetery in Bukhara. Here, the municipality’s threat to reclaim land prompted an innovative solution of embedding gravestone shards that are up to 500 years old into the ground, preserving the essence of Jewish history. «It’s very meaningful,» said Jonathan, «because you see the presence of Jews there for so many years and they’re preserved in this way. And the government paid for it.» Government funding stands as a testament to the commitment to safeguarding Jewish sites, including synagogues and festivals.
But one afternoon of exploration was not enough for Dina. «The cemetery deserves a week of study onto itself. And there’s a sort of serenity that envelops you when you’re there—a desire to linger, to acquaint yourself with each tombstone and the rich history it holds,» said Dina.
Despite initial hesitations, security proved to be a non-issue. (Jonathan did, however, in feel uneasy about Uzbekistan’s Muslim majority being pro-Palestinian. He also shared how Tashkent’s Chabad Rabbi who had encouraged them to travel to Uzbekistan was «roughed up by some Uzbeks» a couple of days after they arrived, and that the Chabad of Tashkent is now permanently closed.)
Nevertheless, they were warmed by the uniqueness of Uzbekistani customs, from toasts to the flow of conversations. «The people coming and going—there’s no staccato lifestyle there, it’s legato. It never ends,» reflected Dina. Everyone was an exemplar of generosity and hospitality.
A highlight of the trip was visiting a Jewish home for Shabbat. Aside from meat, the family produced everything themselves, from bread, to growing vegetables and fruits in their enormous courtyard, because they keep kosher. «If you’re Jewish and observant, you have to rely on yourself,» said Jonathan. He added that the head of the household had an unusual hobby of raising doves: «He had 250 doves and brought one out. Dina has a photo of a dove on her arm.»
Amidst the rich tapestry of customs, the couple discovered a community of around 2500-5000 Jews in Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara, which is all that remains of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. (There are pockets of Jews scattered outside of these cities, too.) This number pales in comparison to what it once was before the downfall of the Soviet Union, when Uzbekistan’s Jewry was around 94,900.
Their emotional connection deepened as they visited ancestral gravesites, engaged with the local rabbi, who shared views on current events, including the situation in Gaza, and witnessed the ritual slaughtering of kosher lambs that embodied the preservation of an old way of life.
«In a small wagon, there were slaughtered lambs, and I noticed one on the ground that was not kosher. I asked why and they explained, ‘Because the lungs weren’t good.’ It was fascinating glimpse into a life rooted in the Old Testament, where the customs are meticulously observed and upheld,» shared Dina.
Each city — Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara — left an indelible mark, offering a unique blend of modernity, historic grandeur, and a nostalgic journey back in time.
But Samarkand held the distinction of being guided by Rafael, a figure revered wherever he went, the couple experienced the warmth and hospitality of Uzbekistan in ways they never anticipated.
«He’s highly respected wherever he goes. Everyone knows him—both Jews and Gentiles. No one could have been a better host or guide,» said Jonathan. He recalls an incredible feast in Samarkand on their last night. «We were presented with gold-embroidered robes to wear as we danced and sang, gifted by the non-Jewish owner of the hotel,» said Jonathan, as evidence of the hospitality they encountered everywhere they went. (According to Rafael, Golden Samarkand owner Alik Jafarov did this for his American and Israeli guests because he’s a big supporter of the Jewish community.)
«We were so lucky to have Rafael’s attention because he knows absolutely everyone, and he knows the Jewish history—every Jewish site and street and quarter,» added Dina.
The journey, overlapping with David Mavashev and his Ashkenazi wife Marina from the US, and Bukharian Jewish singer Rita Yusupova from Israel, led them to a house museum belonging to a wealthy Bukharian merchant named Abram Kalantarov, where hours melted away in exploration, conversation, and song, giving them a taste of Shashmaqam. «Marina shared details that were very interesting to us, as well,» noted the couple, who had a shared background.
Rafael and David also brought the Leaders around Samarkand, giving them a remarkable tour of the Jewish cemetery, stopping by the gravesites where David’s great grandparents were buried, and Rafael’s relatives. «It was very emotional,» the couple said.
Yet, as the flood of information and experiences engulfed them (Dina was non-stop translating from Russian to English for Jonathan), a prevailing question lingered. In Tashkent, plans for a Jewish Community Center and museum showcased a promising preservation effort, but the future of these sites, not just in Tashkent alone, but across the country, remain uncertain. Dina left Uzbekistan with a mystery — «Aside from the Bukharian custom of visiting cemeteries once a year, will there be enough support and funding to safeguard these cultural treasures and reclaim Jewish land as the Bukharian community gradually dwindles?»
Their long-awaited adventure, spurred by a moment of uncertainty, unfurled like a suzani of resilience, warmth, and a deep understanding of a culture that welcomed them with open arms—Jews and Muslims alike. The tragic events of October 7th became not just a footnote in their journey but a catalyst for an exploration that transcended expectations and cultures, fostering harmony.
Given the trip’s brevity, however, Dina’s curiosity, while piqued, was not totally satisfied. «I would love to go back one day.»
Photo by D. Leader
and R. Nektalov
Photo by D. Leader
and R. Nektalov