December 11, 2019

High Holidays Reflections from Azerbaijan: A Year Filled with Shared Joy and Friendship

For Jews in Azerbaijan like for others around the globe, the approaching Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays are a time for contemplation. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, to make a fresh start together. From far flung parts of the world like never before we need a fresh start, a new perspective – finding places of peace and renewal.

Our Rabbi of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue of Baku has taught us of the elements of teshuva, or repentance, the main ingredient by which we make ourselves right to the Heavens and our community. When we think of the need for healing, we must think of what we did in order to find ways to improve ourselves and the world around us. The most important place for growth comes from a reflection on what was good and inspiring, because to know what we could do better, we must certainly have some knowledge of what we did right.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that the greatest lesson of Torah is that we must “love your neighbor as yourself.” For this particular requirement, I feel we have many great examples to share and much to hope for in the coming year. Perhaps there is no better example to share than how President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan each year sends our Azerbaijani-Jewish community a letter just before Rosh Hashana, to celebrate and honor our holiday, wishing Jews in Azerbaijan and around the world a Shana Tova. In his 2009 letter, described beautifully in the Jewish Journal, as well as in all letters ever since, President Aliyev has expounded on the great appreciation the Republic of Azerbaijan has for Jewish people, a very rare statement for a leader of a Majority-Muslim country to publicize to the world.

I also look back at the connection to the Jewish community of Los Angeles this year. I vividly remember the visit to Sinai Temple for the Torah Dedication ceremony, after the selfless members of this great congregation reached out over 7,000 miles commissioning and overseeing the completion of a new Sefer Torah as a gift to our Mountainous Jewish synagogue in Baku, Azerbaijan. The spirit and generous heart of this beautiful congregation led by Rabbi David Wolpe is surely a record of goodness that took place in this year, of reaching across the borders of life to create a new place of family and harmony.

Moreover, we should look to the important support we received from Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of the Pico Shul in Los Angeles, who opened his compassionate heart and synagogue in February, to honor, with his congregation as well as Azerbaijanis of California, the innocent victims of the brutal Khojaly Massacre that was committed in 1992 against Azerbaijani civilians in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. In this powerful memorial, Jews from Los Angeles showed that by uniting both Jews and Muslims in a collective experience of tolerance and shared sacrifice, we can overcome a future laced with tragedy. This kind of care and bravery is surely something to remember for what we can do better in the next year.

And I remember, with much joy and pride, receiving the scores of Azerbaijani Mountainous Jews currently residing in New York, who visited Azerbaijan, their eternal homeland of peace and happiness. For Jews from America to peacefully travel to their Muslim-majority homeland is very different from what most Jews of eastern nations can experience. These pilgrimages have happened frequently for many years now, not only out of New York or Israel, but also from many other countries where Azerbaijani Jews live.

I was able to carry this message as well through my travels around the world. In addition to the Los Angeles visit, I also traveled this year to Italy, Germany, and France, to share the message of interfaith peace that has been such a success here in my country for thousands of years, but more important than the historical, it is working now. There are so many troubled places around the world today, and it is my dream to share this example of what is REALLY WORKING, with other nations and people everywhere, to help create better world for the generations to come.

We must also share in the joy of what we did successfully and what was inspired by a place of elevation. What we can do now is take from these learnings and see what more can be done and use these avenues that are presented to us, and make something together that is bigger and better than ourselves.

From our community in Azerbaijan to all Jews across the world: Shana Tova U’metuka. May you have a good new year, and may it be filled with sweetness. May we all learn to spread that sweetness further in the world than ever before.