Between November 12 and November 15, 2023, at the invitation of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, hundreds of European rabbis will flock to and convene in Baku, the Capital of Azerbaijan, to attend the Conference of European Rabbis.
European Rabbi Conference
The Conference of European Rabbis (CER), is primarily a European Orthodox Rabbis’ alliance that unites more than 700 religious leaders of the mainstream synagogue communities in Europe. Founded in 1956, after the atrocious Holocaust, in order to revive the dwindling Europe’s Jewish communities by British Chief Rabbi Sir Israel Brodie and was supported by the chief rabbi of France, Jacob Kaplan, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, Aharon Schuster and the British Sephardic spiritual leader, Hacham Gaon. The first conference took place in 1957, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and remarkably, sixty-six years later, the 2023 conference will convene in Baku, Azerbaijan, a Muslim majority country.
Meaning of a Rabbinical Conference in Muslim Azerbaijan?
A rabbinical conference in a Muslim country is an extraordinary event. It is obvious that this planned conference comes amid the tightening of the relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, kinship developed over decades between the two nations, now includes an unprecedented strategic partnership.
CER biennial convention, expecting to host some 500 rabbis in Azerbaijan, seen as the home to one of the most unique Jewish communities in the world.
According to Azerbaijan’s hospitality tradition, the conference participants will be visiting the Red Village, the ancient, historic Jewish town of Quba, centuries’ long home of the Mountain Jews.
Azerbaijan is the home of the Mountain, Georgian and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Historically, Jews have settled in Azerbaijan after the destruction of the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE.
There are seven operating synagogues in the country today: three in Baku, two in the Red Village, Quba, and two in the city of Oghuz. There is also a Jewish communal center in Ganja.
The alliance between the two countries spreads wide. Baku supplies Israel with almost half of its energy needs and 70 percent of Azerbaijan’s arms are said to be produced by Israel. However, the friendship between Azerbaijan and Israel is not just strategic. It is not just about an exchange of arms for energy security. It is about a strong people-to-people bond between both peoples.
Coexistence the World Needs to Take Heed Of
Relations between Azerbaijan and Israel intensified during the 2020 44-days 2nd Karabakh War. Israel and Turkey had Azerbaijan’s back while it was at war with Armenia to liberate the Nagorno-Karabakh region that was illegally occupied by Armenia for 30 long years. That support meant so much to the entire Azerbaijani nation. At the end of the victorious war Azerbaijani people were in the streets celebrating their country’s victory while wrapped in Israel’s blue and white flag. Israel’s flags were hanging with pride over the balconies of homes in Azerbaijan.
Antisemitism, in any form, does not exist in Azerbaijan. Of course the Arab-Muslim countries’ self-propelled conflict with Israel, now slowly thawing through the Abraham Accords, never entered Azerbaijan’s ethos.
Basically, Azerbaijan, a nation that prides itself having a rich interculturalism policy, gives equal reverence to all religions and ethnic groups living in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s interculturalism is a genetic specimen.
Jewish Symbols No Risk to Azerbaijan’s Jews
Unlike in most European cities today, in Azerbaijan a Jew can don a kippah-a Jewish traditional skullcap and proudly walk in the cities’ street while also wearing the Star of David, one other Jewish symbol. A fear of Jew hating attack or discrimination, as we witness in most European countries today, does not exist in Azerbaijan. The call for BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) against Israel, as we witness taking place in many European and American institutions and universities, does not exist in Azerbaijan.
Rabbi Shneor Segal, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Azerbaijan, Rabbi Pesach Mirov, the spiritual leader of the Synagogue of Mountain Jews in Baku, and Rabbi Zamir Isayev, who serves as the chairman of the Georgian Jewish community in Azerbaijan, lead a very inspiring Jewish life in Azerbaijan, leading by example and motivating local Jews to come closer to their ancient faith.
Restoring Faith After Faithless Soviet Era
In 1742 the Khan of Quba, Huseynali Khan, gave the Jews permission to set up a community free of persecution across the Kudyal River from the city of Quba. Originally referred to as Yevreyskaya Sloboda “Jewish Settlement,” and under Soviet rule the name was changed to Krasnaya Sloboda “Red Settlement.
After the death of Huseynali Khan in 1758, his son Fatali Khan became the Quba Khanate ruler. He highly appreciated the loyalty, wisdom, and industriousness of the Mountain Jews, and thus gave them great opportunities to engage in agriculture, gardening, trade, and crafts. With favorable living conditions created for Jews in Quba, Jews from other villages and even from Baku, Iran, Turkey and other places moved to live in Quba.
Seventy years of Communist Soviet rule, from 1920-to-1991, took a toll on Quba Red Village, seen to be the largest only Jewish town outside Israel, also addressed as the Jerusalem of the Caucasus. The local synagogues were closed to worshippers and their usage was desecrated and redirected away from worshipping and religious tradition to Soviet anti-religion policy.
From the late 19th century, Baku became one of the Zionist – the right of the Jews to self-determination – Movement centers in the Russian Empire. The movement remained strong in the short-lived 1918-1920 Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.
After the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, all Zionist-related activities, including religious and cultural nature were banned. The revival of Jewish life began when the Republic of Azerbaijan declared its independence in December 1991. The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR in 1991. Until 2021, it was marked as Independence Day. In October 2021, it was renamed and became Day of Restoration of Independence.
By a river in the hills near the Russian border, an ancient Jewish community of multilingual Jews kept and keeps ‘Europe’s last shtetl’ ongoing.
Attesting to this shtetl‘s phenomenon is the Jewish Museum in the Red Village.
Mountain Jews Museum
Located in the heart of the Red Village (Town), the impressive Mountain Jews Museum, opened in 2020 in the 19th-century Karzhog Synagogue building, a restored synagogues that the Soviets had abused, it is the first and only museum in the world devoted to the Mountain Jews’ rich history, not yet well known to most.
The multifaceted exhibit purpose is to acquaint the visitor with a unique mini-civilization, combining with the achievements of Jewish culture intertwined into the cultures of the peoples of the Caucasus. The museum aims to broadcast universal human values, with the hope to serve as a source of knowledge about the material and spiritual culture of Mountain Jews while also providing space for interethnic and interreligious dialogue. The initiative to create a museum of the Mountain Jews came from God Nisanov, Zarakh Iliev, and German Zakharyaev, natives of the ‘Red Village.’ The creation of a common concept and the collection of exhibits was carried out by the International Charitable Fund STMEGI* – the largest organization uniting Mountain Jews of the whole world.
* German Rashbilovich Zakharyayev is an Azerbaijani-born businessman, public figure and philanthropist acting as the vice-president of the Russian Jewish Congress and is the president of the International Charity Foundation of Mountain Jews, STMEGI.
The question of kosher food will not be a challenge to the conference’s participating rabbis. While there was a kosher restaurant in Baku prior to the COVID era, which was forced to close, another kosher restaurant, ‘Rimon,’ was recently opened at the 9RFX+HV3, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, Baku, Azerbaijan address. Available also is kosher take away cuisine, provided by a kosher catering company.
The 500 European rabbis, soon to assemble in Baku, will send a clear message to the entire world: human harmonious interaction, regardless of any and all differences, is made possible in the Republic of Azerbaijan by the invitation of the country’s President Ilham Aliyev.
As far as those who constantly attempt to subvert Israel, and there are many of such in the world, take heed, learn what human spirit of symphonic coexistence is all about.
US-AZ Cultural Foundation is available to expand on teaching those who seek to learn about Azerbaijan.