An American Jew with the military in Afghanistan, Robert Engell is anxious to help the last Jew in Afghanistan, Zabolon Simantov . But how? And will more visibility put Zabolon's life at risk?
The two story masonry buildings form a ‘U’ around the courtyard. To the left as you enter are the remains of the mikvah, the ritual bath. Of note is the fact that upon colonizing a new area ancient and modern religious Jews will build a mikvah first as it is essential to the family and religious life of the community. Directly behind on the second floor is the one small room in which Zabolon lives. The room contains a small table and couch. He entertains guests and was a wonderful host. The table was full with fruit and home roasted nuts. And of course chai or coffee. After several cups and good conversation we went to the synagogue; which is located on the second floor and forms the last arm of the compound.
Behind well worn doors adorned with an old Mezuzah that had been touched by countless hands was the synagogue. A fairly sparse room with a raised Bima in the center of the room and the Aron Kodesh built into the front wall. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a Rabbi standing on the Bima while leading services; the entire room filled with Afghan Jews, a Torah scroll recently removed from the Aron Kodesh and joyfully brought up the stairs of the Bima and opened to be read from for the congregation. On the Bima was a tin T’Zdaka or charity box into which all of us placed an offering along with several very old religious posters with excerpts from the Amidah prayer. The Amidah is central to the prayer service and provides a person the opportunity to approach God in private prayer. The Aron Kodesh, or Ark was unadorned and looked like a locked wall cabinet. In it were small piles of very old prayer books and other religious artifacts such as prayer shawls ; most in disrepair from age and needing replacement.
On the walls were a number of small plaques honoring the memory of loved ones. Several referred to cemeteries located in Herat; a strong reminder of this synagogue communities historic home. The synagogue was fairly bright and airy; a result of its wall of windows facing into the courtyard. The space looked fairly well cared for in general but was certainly showing signs of potentially serious problems with flaking plaster and paint. There were also some windows that were broken. Following our time in the synagogue we once again enjoyed Zabolon’s hospitality with more chai and conversation. We learned more about his family’s history and truly felt the wonder of experiencing a unique and very special moment in time.
I tended to struggle to keep my impressions of Zabolon focused on him as an individual as I tended to see him as a representative of the Jewish history in Afghanistan. Here he was just an individual wanting to survive; like so many of his Kabul neighbors, wanting to figure out how best to restart a life that he once knew before the years of war. But, he was also the last Jew living in Afghanistan, living in what may be the only synagogue in the country. These facts created a compelling desire to both understand more and to somehow provide him and the synagogue with support; without really knowing what that help might be.
By way of background many scholars believe that the Jews arrived in this region around 2500 years ago. Their population grew steadily until it was decimated during the conquest of these lands by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The population then existed in only small numbers through the mid 19th century when there was a short term influx of Jews fleeing from Persia, where the Muslim authorities had begun to aggressively persecute them, quickly bringing Afghanistan's Jewish population up to 40,000. They came to Afghanistan because it was fairly tolerant of their Jewish population until 1870 when Afghan Muslim authorities enacted anti-Jewish measures. This caused many Jews to leave. In 1933, following the assassination of King Nadit Shah there was an anti-Jewish backlash and Jews were banished from most Afghan cities, limiting them to Kabul, Balkh or Herat. By 1948 there were approximately only 5,000 Jews remaining in Afghanistan when Israel was established. In 1951, with the removal of emigration restrictions most remaining Afghan Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States. Following the Soviet invasion in 1979 almost all of the remaining Jews finally left. Except Zabolon, who still remains. And that is the dilemma.
As an American Jew in the military who volunteered to come to this country to help the Afghan people it is particularly compelling to be here at this moment in time as the final chapter is seemingly moving inexorably toward its ultimate conclusion for the Jews. Having learned the tragedies that have been visited upon the Jewish people over a lifetime makes me want to do something. We are here, right now and have the capacity to provide support. But what? What exactly is the goal? Zabolon doesn’t want to leave; he just wants to be able to make a living. We have discussed somehow developing a way to help rehabilitate the synagogue and the surrounding buildings. Perhaps an NGO or Foundation could take ownership of the synagogue and manage the construction and future upkeep. Having survived through many challenges Zabolon remains at the synagogue, able to somehow provide enough for himself to live; but not enough of keep the structure in good repair. He is a proud man and does not want charity, saying that if he was able to have a shop again than he would use his earnings to care for and rebuild the synagogue. He is the last Jew in Afghanistan. What will happen to the synagogue after Zabolon? The cultural and historic importance that the story of the Jewish people in Afghanistan in general and this structure in particular symbolizes for both Jews and all of Afghanistan is significant. The challenge is trying to provide support to Zabolon the person and to the synagogue in such a way as to not hurt either due to unintended consequences. In particular, the concern that additional visibility for either Zabolon or the synagogue could lead to the destruction of both.