Hardly a Muslim country in the world today can claim kind hospitality to Jewish people. And yet, in Baku, Azerbaijan, Rabbi Meir Brook is routinely greeted with warm blessings by Muslim passersby.
“This is an unusual country,” he explains. Wedged between Chechnya and Iran, on the easternmost edge of the former Soviet Union, near the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country, from the government down, but home to 35,000 Jewish residents- and everyone gets along. In fact, the Jewish community is held in such high esteem by the local populace that Brook says he can’t make it down the street without being respectfully extolled by the local passerby, who often stop their cars and step out to greet him.
Jews have lived in Azerbaijan since the times of the second temple and for two millennia enjoyed prospering businesses and a thriving community. Aside for thousands who lived in the nation’s capital, Baku, Jews were dispersed throughout the country in small villages, some of them entirely Jewish.
One of those villages, formerly known as Yeverskaya Sloboda (literally, Jewish Village), still exists, probably the last shtetl left in the world today, says Brook. Made up entirely of Jewish residents, this small hamlet two hours from Baku is in the process of slowly reclaiming its heritage, all but wiped out by the Communist regime, who changed the village name to Krasnaya Sloboda (“Red Village”), closed the synagogues and dismantled the schools.
It’s a movement back to Jewish tradition that’s sweeping across the whole country these days, particularly in Baku, where developments in the community over the last two years point to a Jewish future stronger and more committed than its recent past, says Brook.
A native Israeli, Brook arrived in Baku two years ago with his wife Sarit and their children to assume the post of Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of the city, a position offered to him by Rabbi Berel Lazar of the FJC.
Divided into three factions, Ashkenazim, Georgians, and Sephardim (by far the largest of the three), the Jewish community in Baku, about 25,000 souls today, was traditionally a strongly committed community that included some wealthy and very powerful Jews. When the communist party came to power nearly a century ago, many of them retained their high positions, but lost most of the Jewish commitment.
Even today, Brook notes, many customs continue to be practiced in the community: Brit Milah is commonplace, as are the purchase of kosher meat and Matzah for Pesach, and the insistence on a Jewish burial.
But though life here would often end on a Jewish note, its early years were usually lacking one, he says. Since the rise of communism, no Jewish school existed in Baku, and “without Jewish education, even the remaining traditions have little chance of survival,” Brook says.
So immediately on his arrival in Baku, Brook set out to build up the Jewish infrastructure in a way that would ensure a future for the community.
A year after his arrival, Brook and leading community members opened the Or Avner Jewish Day School, with an initial enrollment of 100 kids. For its first year, the school, for unexplained reasons, was denied official license by the country’s ministry of education. After a year of efforts, culminating in a meeting of Jewish leaders, including Lazar and Mr. Lev Levayov, president of the FJC and sponsor of the Or Avner network, with Mr. Heydar Aliev, the nation’s president, the schools was granted official accreditation last month.
Since then, Brook says, interest in the school has risen tremendously, and its fame, thanks to coverage of the meeting on all the news stations and front pages, has spread throughout the city.
And general interest in Judaism has also risen considerably, he says. Since completing construction on a brand-new three story synagogue and community center two months ago, daily services are thriving and Jewish programs are always well attended—not just by the Ashkenazi community.
Though his official position is Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Brook says his activities are far from limited to that. A Pesach Seder, for instance, held in Baku’s largest and most lavish banquet hall, brought together 850 Jews from all of Baku’s three factions. “Everything we do is open to the whole community, without taking away from their unique traditions,” he says. In attendance at the Seder were many of Baku’s leading Jews, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi among them.
There’s a lot in the works for Azerbaijani Jewry these days, including a kosher store, a mikvah (none exists presently), a yeshiva for men and one for women, a study program for seniors and further financial assistance for many of the city’s Jews. In addition to Baku, Brook keeps in contact with small Jewish communities elsewhere in the country, including Krasnaya Sloboda, and, he says, further Jewish growth is needed in many of those places as well.
“Being out of touch with Jewish tradition for three generations of communism means there’s a lot of education needed in Azerbaijan’s Jewish communities, and a lot of interest,” he says. “We’re working on building a Jewish infrastructure here that can meet those needs.”