My Unforgettable Trip to Central Asia

By Tori Schwartz, Associate Director of Development

Having just returned from a week-long JDC Entwine Insider trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I’m feeling overwhelmed with gratitude and pride. Grateful to the warm and welcoming people of Central Asia and proud to be part of a global Jewry much larger than myself. I, alongside 19 other Jewish young adults living in Seattle, spent 7 days with the small yet resilient Jewish communities in Almaty, Kazakhstan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (thanks to the generous support of the Rosen Family Foundation). 

Kazakhstan is home to over 35,000 Jews (the majority of which reside in Almaty, their largest city), while Kyrgyzstan is home to just under 700 (most of which are in Bishkek, their capitol). Immigration to Israel is the main cause of the decrease in the jewish population in both cities. The majority of Kazakh and Kyrgyzstan Jews are Ashkenazi, who migrated after WWII from the Nazi-occupied western parts of the Soviet Union and during Stalin’s Great Purge in Russia in the 1930’s. JDC has been operating in both countries since the late 1990’s. 

We started off visiting Hesed in Almaty, which acts as both a welfare and community culture center for the nearly 8,000 Jews living in the greater Almaty area, funded in part by JDC (the Joint Distribution Committee), a beneficiary of the Federation system. We played with the small children from the youth club, danced with the teens from Active Jewish Youth, and made arts and crafts with the elderly. We learned all about the lives of these people, shared stories, and came together as one diaspora Jewish community. We ended the day with visits to home-bound older adults to drop off food and medicine, and hear a bit more about their backgrounds.

On day 2, we played tourist around the bustling city of Almaty before making our way to Kyrgyzstan for the second half of the trip. There, we drove to Issyk Kul, a popular tourist destination for locals and the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world, for a long weekend joining the bishkek Jewish community at their annual Family Camp. Together, we danced to “Shalom Alechem,” made Kiddish Friday night, ended Shabbat with Havdalah, and played about a dozen camp games that made me nostalgic for my old camp days. We were totally integrated throughout the weekend, sometimes using Hebrew as the only form of communication between us. While our Jewish experiences were vastly different from one another, our bond and connection was truly remarkable. The relationships we formed there were just indescribable.

Beyond these immersive Jewish experiences, we also had a chance to immerse ourselves in the local Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures. We went on an excursion to the Semyonov gorge where we built a yurt (primary housing for the nomadic people in Central Asia), learned about the traditional woman’s headdress called Elechek, cooked Boorsok (fried dough) and Dymlama (beef stew with vegetables), listened to traditional folk music, and rode horses in the Kungei-Alatoo mountain range.

And, oh yeah, we tried horse milk and kurt, dried balls of sour milk! Both were definitely tangier than I thought!

A trip I’ll never forget. Thanks to JDC Entwine for an Insider’s trip of a lifetime.