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Kavkazi Jews Dance Their Heritage

Kavkazi traditional dress"One, two, three -- dance!" shouts Sirgei Manashiro to a roomful of eager pupils. For the past four years Sirgei has volunteered 12 hours a week at the Kavkazi Community Center in Beersheva, teaching young Kavkazi Jews not just the technique but the spirit behind their ancient dance tradition.

Kavkazi Jews -- Jews from the Muslim provinces such as Azerbaijan and Dagestan in the Caucasus Mountains in the former Soviet Union -- immigrated to Israel in two waves, with 15,000 arriving in the 1970s and another 55,000 in the late 1990s.

Lost in the mass of new Israelis from the former Soviet Union, until recently this unique community did not receive the attention and services it needed to successfully acclimate to life in Israel.

Plagued by high unemployment -- 50% of the community's adults are unemployed -- and high dropout rates -- as high as 36% in the 16-18 age group -- the community is still in many ways struggling to find its place in Israeli society.

"When we first arrived here we were lumped in with all of the other Jews from the FSU. The Israeli government didn't understand that Russian Israeli social service providers often held negative stereotypes of us from the FSU, and therefore we did not receive the assistance we needed. Because we had lived in the mountains they thought we were primitive and did not sufficiently advocate for us," describes Rina, a local community leader.

Kavkazi traditional dressKavkazi Jews are traditionally characterized by a very strong family unit and sense of communal identity, but ironically often the very traits that allowed them to preserve their traditions in the FSU have impeded their successful integration into Israeli society.

"My parents have always been proud and industrious. When we arrived in Israel they went straight to work without taking time to do ulpan [intensive Hebrew learning]. They did this because of a sense of duty to provide for the family, but they didn't learn Hebrew, which in the end really hurt them," recounts Sarah, aged 17.

Alarmed by the statistics and a growing awareness of the uniqueness of this community, the JDC, supported by United Jewish Communities, launched an intensive programmatic response to the situation. Initiatives have been developed to encourage young people to remain in school and to facilitate employment among adults.

An integral element of the community's rebuilding process is the active participation of Kavkazi Jews as leaders in their own community, and strong emphasis has been placed on empowering leaders to create programs that reflect the richness of their historic and cultural legacy.

Kavkazi traditional dress"Several years ago I realized that I barely recognized my community anymore. Before we came to Israel we were active, community leaders, business leaders. The transition to Israel was extremely difficult, but now we are beginning to regain our communal strength," says Rina.

As part of the community's cultural initiatives, 25 young Kavkazi Jews gather four times a week at the community center to learn the dance tradition of their heritage. Classes are led in Kavkazit, the language unique to the Jews of Kavkaz, and students wear traditional clothing.

"This is dance with soul," says Sarah. "It's important to remember our heritage and this will assure that our traditions are not lost with the passage of time. I am learning from Sergei the way that he learned from the generation before him. This is how we keep our tradition alive and strong."
"Even with all of the difficulties we are glad to be here. We dreamed about coming to Israel for generations," says Sirgei. "I am proud of the ways in which we are rebuilding our community in the Jewish homeland."