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SYNAGOGUE’S REOPENING MAY BE TOO LATE

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In a dusty alley of the ancient city of Bukhara, an unmarked doorway opens into one of the city's two synagogues, where a young Israeli teaches a small gathering of adults about Jewish law.

Against one wall are piled hundreds of old religious books awaiting storage."These are the books of our ancestors," says one of the students. "When people leave, they can't take them, so they leave them here."

This synagogue in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, closed during Stalin's anti-religious campaigns, was reopened three years ago. The restored synagogue is a hopeful sign for the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia, an ancient community which has inhabited this remote region for centuries.

But for many it has come too late, for the Bukharan Jews are leaving their ancestral homeland in search of a better life in America, Israel and elsewhere.

"It's like a chain reaction," says Rabbi Itskhak Abramov. "People leave because their mother or brother or sister has left. If somebody has a good life over there, they invite their relatives to come."

The caravan cities of Central Asia grew rich on the medieval Silk Road trade between Asia and Europe. Jewish traders first came to the region through Persia, with the earliest certain evidence of their presence in Central Asia dating from the fourth century.

Jewish communities grew up in all the chief Central Asian cities, in Bukhara, Samarkand, Kolva and Tashkent, where the Jews became merchants or craftsmen working in the silk and cloth trades.

They suffered restrictions under the despotic Islamic emirs of Bukhara in the 19th century. Russia's conquest of the area later in the century ended these restrictions, and the Jewish community flourished. But after 1917, the new Soviet government ended the trade that had sustained the Jewish community.

Today the three largest communities of Bukharan Jews are in Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. They became known as Bukharan Jews after the emirate of Bukhara, to distinguish them from European Jews who came to Central Asia after the Russian conquest.

European Jews are Ashkenazi, while Bukharan Jews are Sephardic whose mother tongue is a Persian dialect. The Muslim majority in Uzbekistan are either Tajik-speaking Uzbeks or Persian-speaking Tajiks.

Most Jews in Bukhara are already making plans to join relatives in Israel or New York. Rafael Khaimov, 38, and his wife, Zina Gabrilova, 33, are leaving for New York this autumn with their three young children and Khaimov's parents.

Khaimov has no illusions about everything being easy in the West. He visited New York five years ago. "It's also difficult there. You must work hard," he says. "Everything has its advantages and disadvantages."

Khaimov's friend, Aleksander Tamayev, 40, is also leaving for New York with his family this summer to join relatives there.

"There are many problems here and no future, not just for our children, but even for us," says Tamayev. "And everybody's relatives are in America."

There are many problems for those who decide to leave. Even the cost of a plane ticket is a major expense for people in Uzbekistan, where the average salary amounts to less than $10 a month.