How SAMi Fosters Community and Identity Among a Diverse American Jewry

In these tumultuous times, it can be hard to be a Jewish student on a secular college campus. This has become abundantly clear since October 7th, as aftershocks of hate have spread across the world. Many people seem surprised at this seemingly sudden transformation of centers of education into breeding grounds for antisemitism, but looking at Jewish history, this follows the same patterns that we have seen for centuries.
In Nazi Germany, there was, obviously, hate against Jews. By 1938, Jews were even eliminated from college campuses entirely (Yad Vashem). Similarly, Bukharian Jewish students, under the Soviet Union, experienced discrimination.
With this deeply rooted hate on college campuses, Jewish students have always needed support systems and programs where they could connect with one another. This creates a sense of community, even when the rest of the world is against Jews.
There are great organizations that are involved in this kind of work, uniting Jewish students, such as Hillel, which provides programming for Jewish students (but not exclusively) on college campuses across the country.
The issue with programs like this, however, is that these organizations are very Ashkenazi-centric. Even if programs try to have a more Sephardic angle, they tend to paint those events as exotic or «different» from the mainstream.
Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative or SAMi, founded by Manashe Khaimov, seeks to combat this, by uniting Jewish students, while also celebrating the differences and nuances in their history, culture, and practices. This gives a voice to Sephardic and Mizrahi students, and also helps Ashkenazi students understand that they too have unique cultures.
SAMi was started in the spring of 2020 with its first leadership cohort. Professor Khaimov, with a background studying Bukharian history and helping others connect to it as well, was passionate about creating a space for all Jewish students to connect to their heritage.

One of the driving factors of this perspective developed during his time working for Bukharian teen lounge. He spoke to a student who asked him about the Holocaust. She had read the «Diary of Anne Frank» in class and did not understand why the other Jewish students in her class seemed to have stories and connections to the Holocaust while she didn’t. Instead, her family would speak about being soldiers. Anecdotes such as this further showed Khaimov that the education system does not tell the story of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. He felt that it is important for this to be shared.
This idea further developed as Professor Khaimov started a Zoom support group during the Covid pandemic, with mainly Bukharian students. The group decided to not just meet and complain about life during the pandemic, but really learn about their history and legacy. The following semester, the cohort expanded and even included Ashkenazim. This cohort was the roots of SAMi. Professor Khaimov saw that his lessons on leadership and Jewish culture and tradition were in such high demand that he realized he needed to expand his mission. He ended up winning a competition, proposing his idea, and was able to raise money towards hiring another teacher to continue the course.
Khaimov also worked on creating hubs of SAMi across college campuses to provide seminars and programming geared towards Sephardic and Mizrahi history, tradition, and culture. Today, SAMi runs many programs including a national conference in Miami and different classes related to leadership, within varied communities.
Khaimov believes that this initiative is not only important for Mizrahi and Sephardic Americans but also for Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim should understand their unique heritage. For example, an Ashkenazi from Lithuania may have differences from an Ashkenazi from Germany. Khaimov poignantly explains how the Jewish people exist within this framework, using the analogy of a pomegranate, which is SAMi’s logo. He explains that on the outside, Jews look like one cohesive structure. This is partially true as Jews are completely connected as one nation. However, as one peels away the layers, he sees how Jews have varied backgrounds and are therefore very different. Naturally, there may be more layers and walls between communities, like the pomegranate, but the gaps can be bridged, and Jews can appreciate each other’s backgrounds.

SAMi is specifically important for the Bukharian Jewish community. The Bukharian Jewish community has experienced many struggles, and it is important for them to have a space to share their history. One struggle that they faced that is within their collective memory is the discrimination against Jews under the Soviet Union on college campuses. Jews, in particular Bukharian Jews, had trouble accessing universities the same way that their non-Jewish contemporaries could under the Soviet Union. For example, on entrance exams, Jewish students were asked «coffin problems.» These problems were so difficult that even the smartest students could not solve them. The goal was for it to be almost impossible for Jewish students to do well, and therefore inhibit them from getting into elite universities. Therefore, having SAMi hubs on college campuses automatically makes colleges a more welcoming place for Bukharian Jewish students, countering a traumatic history of discrimination.
Another example of a challenge that SAMi combats, specifically in the Bukharian community, is the issue of losing culture within New York. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a mass emigration of Bukharian Jews. In fact, by the end of the 1990s, 20% of immigrants to New York were Bukharian Jews. Immigration has continued over time and there is a large Bukharian community within New York. Specifically, many live within Queens. In the year 2000 there was an estimated 50,000 Bukharian Jews living in Queens. Although this is a large group, it faces threats of losing its identity. The Times of Israel shares this perspective from a member of the community who says, «We’re successfully integrating into American Jewish society…But at the same time, we’re losing a lot of our ethnic culture based on Central Asian customs and culture.» While under the Soviet Union Bukharians were threatened in terms of maintaining a religious identity, in America it became hard to hold tight because of integration. Families are concerned that their children will lose sight of their unique identity. This struggle is clearly seen in the generation of college students, and SAMi combats this by helping students connect to one another and learn about their history, traditions, and culture.
SAMi has also been crucial for Mizrahi and Sephardic students because they felt that they were «tokenized and exoticized,» seen as a fringe group with a «colorful» culture, rather than a part of the diverse Jewish people, as Tal Israeli wrote in her Hey Alma story, «I’m Tired of Feeling Tokenized as a Mizrahi Jew.»
However, with SAMi, students learn that all Jews have unique cultures and that we all need to learn our culture and appreciate others as well. This affects the broader community, because these college students then go home to their families and share what they learn, combating the struggles of post-immigration generations forgetting their culture in America.
The goal of SAMi, as Professor Khaimov poignantly puts it, is to become so successful that it is no longer needed. Professor Khaimov hopes that the students will connect to their histories and be able to form connections with broader Jewish organizations, to include Sephardic and Mizrahi students within the great tapestry of Jewish culture. SAMi hopes to create future leaders who will share their heritage and make sure that it does not get forgotten or put on the side of Jewish history. This will not only help Sephardic and Mizrahi students gain insight into their heritage, but it will motivate Ashkenazi students to further understand the nuances in their own history as well.

Sara Stein wrote this article as her term paper for Professor Khaimov’s Queens College history class, «History and Culture of the Bukharian Jews.» The class provides an overview of the origins and history of the Jewish population in Central Asia, paying special attention to the period beginning with the Russian conquest of the region in 1865 and continuing to the migration from the former Soviet Union in recent years and the subsequent establishment of new communities in Israel and the U.S.

Sara Stein, Queens College