Lunch at Congress

Rav Zalman Zavulunov standing outside of Representative Burgess Owen’s office, where he has the posters of all those who were kidnapped by Hamas

«I hope your Congress functions better than our Congress,» quipped Brad Schneider, a self-deprecating representative from Illinois. It would be funny if it wasn’t true.
Schneider (D-IL) was one of the seven Congressional Representatives who addressed us during our 2-hour lunch at the Capitol. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY), Don Bacon (R-NE), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Grace Meng (D-NY), who represents the Bukharian Jewish community in Queens, and Burgess Owens (R-UT). With each one given the floor for about 5-10 minutes, posing for photos with award winners, and then dipping out, it felt like Congressional speed dating.
Representative Bacon is the congressman you’d most like to grab a drink with: He shared fantastic tales about his visit to Uzbekistan, like how he met with the President, and went hunting, and even joked how at he drives a white Chevy Impala just like everyone else in Uzbekistan. «I would fit right in,» he said. Raised evangelical, he was sent to Israel by his father when he was 15. Visiting the Holocaust Memorial, and learning about the Holocaust for the first time, was an emotional experience for him. He then visited the Knesset where they explained how Israel is a safe haven for Jews. It stayed with him ever since. «I don’t want to be just a friend to Israel, I want to be a warrior champion,» he said.
Representative Wasserman Schultz is the congresswoman everyone is going to end up with. She said that she’ll be our representative one day—when we all inevitably retire in Florida. (This made me think of the Bill Maher joke: «For the record, Jews never colonized Israel or anywhere ever, except maybe Boca Raton,» which he said in a «Real Time with Bill Maher» segment filmed shortly after October 7th.) Coming from a traditional Jewish family, Schultz emphasized that protection and prosperity of the Jewish community remains an integral part of her political work.

Boris and Nina Kandov at the State Department

And Representative Grace Meng is the congresswoman the community is already in a relationship with: «The Bukharian community has transformed the Borough of Queens, the city of New York, and the country in so many ways. There were parts of Queens that were desolate with empty storefronts, and the Bukharian community has really changed the landscape. I’m so honored to be here with all of you. I wanted to be here to celebrate and thank you for your amazing contributions to the rich tapestry of Queens, and of course, the best district in the country, the 6th district in Queens (where Debbie Wasserman Schultz was actually raised.)»
Most remarkable was the bipartisan showing of Republicans and Democrats, all coming together because they support Israel and the Jewish people.
Compared to what we see on the media, they seemed to be more friends than foes.
They all lauded the importance of fostering community and praised the achievements of the Congress of Bukharian Jews of USA and Canada, which many of them have worked jointly with across various businesses, partnership meetings, and projects.
We also heard from diplomats with ties to the Bukharian community: Advisor to the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the US Vugar Gurbanov; Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Uzbekistan to the US Gulyamjon Pirimkulov; and Second Secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the USA Raun Akim. Each one stressed the importance of their Jewish community.
«Congratulations on the anniversary of the Congress of Bukharian Jews,» began Second Secretary Raun Akim. «I would say Central Asia, in particular Kazakhstan, is a true home for the Bukharian Jewish people. Being from a Muslim majority country, Kazakhstan presents a strong case study of co-existence…and is an example of Kazakh kindness.»
After speaking, each one stood with an award winner from our community. Award winners, recognized for their contributions to the Bukharian community, included: the activities and contributions of the President of the World Congress of Bukharian Jews Lev Leviev, the President of the Congress of Bukharian Jews of the USA and Canada Boris Kandov, the President of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center Leon Nektalov, the Chief Rabbi of the Bukharian Jews of the USA and Canada Baruch Babaev, World Congress Coordinator Rav Zalman Zavulunov, President of the Jewish Institute of Queens Chagit Leviev-Sofiev (who accepted an award on behalf of her father Lev Leviev) and her husband Greg Sofiev, businessman-philanthropist Yan Moshe, who hosts the Bukharian Jewish Museum in Queens, media mogul Roman Kaykov of Kaykov Media, the Bukharian Jewish Community Center’s Joseph (Yossi) Khaimov, as well as Boris Aronov, Gavriel Mordukhaev, Anatoly Iskhakov from Atlanta, Oleg Ustayev from Philadelphia, Abo Ilyaev, Rachirah Harris, and last but not least, my esteemed boss, Rafael Nektalov, Editor-in-Chief of the Bukharian Times.
Rafael gave a 5-minute-long acceptance speech, in Russian, during which he was flanked by eight men on each side. Then, on a whim, he called me up to introduce me to the crowd, asking me to say a few words in Uzbek.
«Men Uzbekistonni sevaman,» I said, surprising the room with my (limited) fluency. Yes, I love Uzbekistan—but now, I love Bukharians more!

State Department

After lunch, we departed Congress for the U.S. Department of State a few blocks from the White House on C Street. As a former intern at the US Embassy to the Holy See in Rome, I was especially excited to finally visit the headquarters, housed in the Harry S Truman building, and was struck by both its architectural elegance, and informative lobby exhibit showcasing the department’s breadth of work and achievements abroad, from nuclear negotiations to vaccination programs, and its most inspirational secretaries of state, like Madeleine Albright, who, in her later years, taught at my alma mater, Georgetown University.
«We will not be intimidated or pushed off the world’s stage by people who do not like what we stand for, which is freedom and democracy, and the fight against poverty, and disease and terrorism,» said Albright. Boris Kandov and his lovely wife Nina stood proudly beside her words.
But given the fiery divisiveness of the world today, where it feels as if we’re on the verge, heaven forbid, of another world war, the skeptic in me wonders: is diplomacy becoming futile? Has the US lost its edge?
Our delegation proceeded inside to meet with the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asian Relations, John Pommersheim, to discuss the region’s growing importance, human rights concerns, and issues specific to their community.
Pommersheim, who is the former US Ambassador to Tajikistan, was joined by Brianna Hawk, Uzbekistan Desk Officer at the State Department; and Jennifer Miller, Senior Advisor for Domestic Partnerships at the State Department.
Pommersheim highlighted the recent US focus on Central Asia, including the historic Biden-Mirziyoyev meeting and increased engagement with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. He emphasized the «C5+1» framework for cooperation on issues like the critical minerals needed for clean energy transition, diversification away from Chinese dominance in the supply chain, not to mention Russia, and fostering interfaith dialogue. He also mentioned that there had been an inaugural B5+1 meeting in Almaty, focused on business.
The delegation raised concerns about religious freedom and human rights in the region, acknowledging some improvements but also areas needing progress. They also brought up Azerbaijan, where they recently held their World Congress, as a positive example of Muslim-Jewish relations.
Specific issues included antisemitism and cultural heritage. Regarding antisemitism: Concerns about Uzbek singer Yulduz Usmanova’s online rhetoric and potential influence on Central Asian Muslim communities in the US. Rafael Nektalov, founder of music festival Shashmaqom Forever, expressed concern about her being allowed into the US and radicalizing his Muslim neighbors in New York. Nektalov also shared his frustration regarding the difficulty of obtaining US visas for maqomists in Uzbekistan to come to the US and perform.
Leon Nektalov raised the issue of cultural heritage: He made a request for UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for ancient Bukharian Jewish cemeteries in Uzbekistan.
«If UNESCO could recognize them as a World Heritage Site that would be helpful. Our Bukhara cemetery is over 700 years old. And our Samarkand cemetery is over 400 years old. There’s also one in Termez. We’ve put in millions of dollars and are worried about what will happen to them in the long run,» said Leon, President of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center.
Michael Zavolunov then spoke in Russian about his native Tajikistan. As much of the meeting was in Russian, there was, unfortunately, a lot that I missed. But thanks to Rafael Sattarov’s report last issue, I now know that «Zavulunov spoke about the activities of his foundation in preserving the Jewish cemetery in Tajikistan and supporting some programs to support low-income Jewish families in Dushanbe.»
The ambassador expressed appreciation for the delegation’s insights and highlighted the value of their potential role in liaising with other countries in the region.
As a token of appreciation, Boris Kandov presented Ambassador Pommersheim with «Public Diplomacy: Uzbekistan – Bukharian Jews – USA,» by renowned Uzbek publicist Mavlon Shukurzoda, which documents the initiatives brought to life thanks to the Congress of Bukharan Jews and Canada with the Uzbekistan Friendship Society – America, including diplomats from Uzbekistan to the US.
This meeting was a testament to the State Department’s openness to engaging with Bukharian Jewish Americans on matters of mutual interest, particularly concerning the evolving landscape of Central Asia — underscoring the critical importance of the Bukharian Jewish Congress of the US and Canada.

Senator Chuck Schumer – Savior of Soviet Jews

Just as I thought we were headed back to New York, our bus traveled back to Congress for a bonus meeting. This time at the Senate, where we met with five-time New York Senator Chuck Schumer —for five jam-packed minutes.
A familiar-looking portrait of George Washington hung in the foyer of the Senate Majority Leader’s Office — «It’s the same portrait that’s on our dollar bills,» he said.
«I’m the highest-ranking Jewish elected official ever.» (There are, however, higher-ranking non-elected Jews, such as Supreme Court Justices.) As a self-proclaimed «shomer» (Hebrew for guardian or watchman), he also took credit for Bukharian Jewish immigration to the US.
As we, a small crowd of about 20 people, stood in the foyer hovering around him, he shook each one of our hands, smiling—revealing his pride.
«I was the one who wrote the laws to allow Soviet Jews into the U.S. You are all benefactors of my laws,» he said. It was, literally, a full circle moment.
He asked how many Jews are left in Uzbekistan and the group said about 100 or so. «That’s all?» Senator Schumer seemed surprised. He inquired if any had been back, and many said yes—mostly to visit the cemeteries there. That also seemed to surprise him.
He then shared a personal anecdote: «So my great grandmother had many children – 15. ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ The Nazis came and told them to come onto the porch. She said no. They gunned them all down. The same thing that happened in Israel happened to my ancestors two generations ago.»
Ezra Friedlander responded: «And you know what? Hashem had a plan that you should be in the U.S Senate [to support the Jewish community.]»
The senator replied, emphasizing the need to stick together on important, existential issues. «We have to fight antisemitism, and we have to [support Israel]. I, as Senator Majority Leader, made sure Israel gets all the money it needs. Last time [March 2024] we got Israel $3.8 billion. No conditions.» (He said this about 11 days before Congress passed a bipartisan bill allocating Israel with $17 billion in aid, and before President Biden has made some of it conditional, withholding some arms as a result of his disapproval of Israel’s incursion into Rafah.)
Senator Schumer then expressed interest in participating in a community event. «If you have some celebration or event I’ll come!»
The crowd replied in unison: «Really? You’ll come? That would be amazing.»
Cue Boris Kandov, who approached the Senator and shared that he’ll be organizing a big event celebrating 25 years of the Bukharian Jewish Congress of the US and Canada.
«If it’s on a Sunday, I’ll be there,» said the Senator.
«Thank you, thank you, thank you,» we all chanted as we left, beaming.

A Return to my Academic Roots

When I was a student at Georgetown University, never did I think that 19 years later, my first visit to the White House, Congress, and State Department — rubbing shoulders with the most senior Jewish elected official — would be with a delegation of Bukharian Jews.
And yet, it makes total sense.
You see, in the fall semester of my senior year (2004), I enrolled in an anthropology course titled, «The Peoples and Cultures of Post-Soviet Eurasia and Siberia,» taught by Dr. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, who is still an active faculty member. It was whimsical of me, as I, a rebellious French major, wondered, who are the peoples and cultures of post-Soviet Eurasia and Siberia? I was intrigued.
We spent five weeks learning about the ‘Stans, and five weeks on Siberia. That’s when I became hooked on Uzbekistan. Little did I know then that the class would have such an impact on my life.
And so, when I found myself on a bus to DC, surrounded by Bukharian community leaders I wasn’t so surprised. Maybe for some I seemed out of place, a lone Ashkenazi American woman among a throng of Bukharian American Jews, but I knew, with that whisky in hand, I was right where I was meant to be.

The first part of this article was published two weeks ago in issue 1160, and can be found online in the Bukharian Times archives:

By Erin Levi