December 8, 2019

Chanukah Reflections from a Muslim Country with NO Anti-Semitism

I sit in my quiet kitchen on this Chanukah evening, and watch the reflection of two candles bounce from the glass on the window, frosted somewhat now from cold December nights. A few hours ago, I was with my family. As we had our traditional evening tea, we spoke of miracles, but somehow, not only of those specific to the Chanukah story, but also of what recently happened here in Azerbaijan. This miracle is a much different story than the story of Chanukah, but one with a remarkably similar teaching.

Just this past November, we celebrated with around 50 members of the Los Angeles Sinai Temple, a delegation of Jewish leaders that came over 7,000 miles to visit and learn about Azerbaijan, and to celebrate the most supreme act of friendship to our Mountainous Jewish community: the gift of a new Sefer Torah. Although during the trip the delegation also visited our beloved Red Town, one of the largest all-Jewish towns outside Israel, these special events did not take place there, but in Baku, our capital city, where our community’s largest and newest synagogue is located. Inaugurated in 2011, this synagogue was entirely built by Azerbaijani Government and gifted to our community.

Also similar to Chanukah, the story of how our Torah came to be is an example of how a small group of individuals can make the difference for many. After Sinai Temple’s Chief Rabbi David Wolpe addressed his congregation in 2014 and graciously conveyed our request, it was two leading members of the Sinai congregation and Men’s Club, Cary Lerman and Elie Alyeshmerni, who drove the initiative, passion and resources toward finding our new and perfect Torah. The Lerman and Alyeshmerni families, with Rabbi Wolpe and many fellow congregants, brought forth this literal miracle for the Jews of Azerbaijan, thus creating a deep and abiding connection between the Jewish communities of Azerbaijan and U.S.

In the story of Chanukah, the miracle of light helped the Jewish people to restore the Holy Temple and the word of Torah across the land, summoning an age of peace and prosperity. Yes, the Torah is a work of wonder. This story of old, makes me think of my new, but very dear friends from Los Angeles. I think of what they have done in bringing a new Torah – not only a gift to the Jewish people of Azerbaijan, but also a gift to the entire world. A world that very much needs inspiration now, as one of Sinai Temple’s delegates, Yael Lerman Mazar, also the Director of Legal Affairs for the organization StandWithUs, wrote in Jerusalem Post.

In the words of Kohelet, we say there is a time for every purpose. So of course it is no coincidence that we celebrate Chanukah while so much of this world is now in turmoil – a fire so much different from the illumination of the Chanukah candles. In those 8 days many years ago, righteousness and peace was restored to a land sickened with violence, replaced by goodness and the Torah. An important part of what keeps Azerbaijan so safe for all religions and cultures, despite being located in a troubled part of the world, is that tolerance and respect for diversity is a major attribute of this young democracy. A brilliant Rabbi and great mind, Rabbi Wolpe wrote about his perspective on traveling to Azerbaijan, which he named “an Oasis of Tolerance”.

And this oasis of tolerance would not have been possible without the skilled leadership of President Ilham Aliyev, who has transformed Azerbaijan to an island of stability and prosperity in a difficult region, proving that a leader can engender in his country a true spirit of brotherhood, through diversity, and not in spite of it. President Aliyev’s leadership appointments also reflect this same intention. Sinai Temple’s visit was largely made possible thanks to the efforts by Dr Kamal Abdullayev, Azerbaijan’s State Counselor on Multiculturalism, Interethnic and Interreligious Affairs. Together with the venerable Sheikh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazade, Grand Sheikh of all Muslims of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, and Mubariz Gurbanly, Chairman of the State Committee on Religious Associations, they are all at work securing and refining our culture of peace, resolute in their mission to study, develop and improve upon a reality that not only supports, but also champions harmonic diversity.

In this very publication, The Jewish Journal, Sinai delegation member Peter Rothholz recently quoted Cary Lerman: “Azerbaijan is a country without anti-Semitism where Jews are a vital part of the national fabric.”

Rabbi David Wolpe and the entire Sinai Temple delegation and a crowd of over 100 people, Jews and Muslims alike, danced with our Torah through the streets of Baku. With music to accompany our happiness, we carried the Torah under the Chuppah made of a Tallis, and raised the holy gift high in our hands. Once you have danced with a Torah, you are truly friends for life – this is nothing that time or distance can hold a flame to.

As we hope for miracles and celebrate those that have occurred in the past, let us also make sure to take full advantage of the miracles we already have: our Torah, our faith, and each other. Since it is a Chanukah imperative to light Menorah and show off our candles to publicize the miracle, we should also show the world and each other how illumination and tolerance can light the way to a peaceful future. So we must bring more Torah’s outside into our streets, unveil them from their sacred space in Synagogue, and join together to light up the world whenever possible.. For Chanukah this year, we must trust the lights that have  survived through the millennia into today, and let it infuse our days with peace. As Rabbi Wolpe most beautifully noted as he spoke to all of us here in Baku, replying to the question of “how did the children of Israel carry the Torah for 40 years through the wilderness?”, he proudly shared…. “The Torah carried us!”.