Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Shalom, Mongolia: A Jewish Culture Guide

Little is known of the early history of Jews in Mongolia. However, in the 19th century, trade routes had been established betwixt Mongolians and Siberian-Jewish merchants, resulting in a few Jewish families settling within the region. By the 20th century, a small Jewish community had been established in Outer Mongolia, according to Jewish Virtual Library, comprised mainly of Ashkenazi fleeing the Russian Civil War. In the 1920’s Mongolia was politically and economically dominated by the Soviet Union. According to Jewish Virtual Library, “a Russian-Jewish journalist came across a community of 50 newly settled families in a remote region of Outer Mongolia approximately 200 miles from the Manchurian border. In 1926, Ulan Bator (formerly Urga), the capital of the Mongolian People's Republic, maintained a community of 600 Russian Jews who left Outer Mongolia due to increased Soviet influence. Most fled to Manchuria, and those who remained were government workers.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent transition from communism to democracy, many Mongolian Jews sought better economic opportunities abroad. Some relocated to Israel what for a visa-free agreement betwixt the two nations. This resulted after the Israeli government discovered that a substantial number of Mongols were illegally working in the country.

Perhaps the most famous Mongolian Jew is Sumati Luvsandendev. He is the country’s most respected pollster operating the Sant Maral Foundation, and chairman of the board of directors for the Mongolian chapter of the Soros Foundation, which funds socio-political activity and promotes democracy. There was even a 2001 piece in The New Yorker about Sumati (Mongolians generally use their first name only).

“I want to start an information portal where Mongolian citizens could find information on Jews and Israel in the Mongolian language,” Sumati explained to JTA in a 2003 interview.

“There are enough fingers on two hands to count all Jews who live here,” he continued.

“Mongolia, overall, is the last nomadic civilization on globe. We still have a quarter of population, who considers themselves as nomads. As for Jews, well there was actually in no time a big Jewish community… Now if you’re talking about a Jewish community in Mongolia, it’s like in Japan, mainly expats, coming from different countries, from Israel, from America, from Russia,” Sumati told the World Jewish Congress in 2014.

The closest Jewish community to Mongolia served by a rabbi is Irkutsk, located in Siberia. Rabbi Aaron Wagner also acts a Chabad Lubavich emissary. In 2005, Rabbi Wagner visited the Mongolian Jewish community and suggested, “that the two communities should maintain close contact and provide mutual support to one another.”

Although the Jews in Mongolia are small in number, they have a strong sense of community. Alexander Mashkevich, former president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress surmised it best in 2003: “Jewish communities are being revived even in those countries where no Jew seems to have ever set foot. The Jews of Mongolia have their own, though still little-known, history.”

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