November 18, 2018

Celebrating the Jewish New Year in the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel


Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – begins in two days, this Sunday evening. For us, the Jews in Azerbaijan, like for other Jews around the world, this holiday embodies benevolence, honesty, fresh start and unity. 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, and to make a fresh start together.

Each year during the holiday we, the Mountain Jews living in Azerbaijan, attend services at our synagogues, sound the shofar and recite special liturgy, take care of those in need, gather around the table, eat honey-dipped Challah and apples, and pray for forgiveness. What is unique about Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays in Azerbaijan is that our fellow Muslims and Christians come together with their Jewish brothers and sisters to share our joy and happiness. In Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between these ethnic and religious communities, and this exemplary harmony continues to this day.

Today in Azerbaijan the Jews have everything they want. We have peace, stability and prosperity. We have our flourishing synagogues, schools, kindergartens, and various cultural facilities. We have the support of the government, which is making tremendous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions. On every Rosh Hashanah, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev sends a congratulatory message addressed to the Jewish community of the country. This year was not an exception.

Here is the text of the congratulatory message by the President of Azerbaijan that I just received:

“Dear Compatriots!

I cordially congratulate you on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and convey to you my heartfelt wishes.

We regard ethno-cultural diversity in the modern Azerbaijani society, where traditional relations of friendship and brotherhood, and tolerance and multicultural values ​​exist among people, as an indispensable achievement of our national statehood. People of different ethnic backgrounds living in our country, including the Jewish community, have always lived in peace in Azerbaijan, preserving their language and culture and traditions without any discrimination.

Today the independent state of Azerbaijan remains committed to its progressive historical traditions. In line with modern democratic principles, ensuring human rights in the country, protection and strengthening of ethnocultural values ​​of ethnic minorities is one of the priorities of our state policy.

The Jewish community, who have been living in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years, have become an integral part and full-fledged members of our society. I want to emphasize with satisfaction that our citizens of Jewish origin are closely involved in the socio-political life of our country, which is currently experiencing a period of great development and progress, and make valuable contributions to the process of democratic state building.

Dear Friends!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrated by you every year is the embodiment of renewal, spiritual purity, kindness and solidarity. Once again, I sincerely congratulate you on this beautiful day, wish happiness and continued prosperity to you and your families.

Happy Holidays!

Ilham Aliyev

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Baku, September 7, 2018.”

Together with our fellow Muslims and Christians, as the Jewish community of Azerbaijan we have to continue our work on a daily basis towards making sure that this togetherness, this solidarity and this harmony keeps blossoming and becoming stronger and stronger every day in the country, and that this unique model inspires many other nations in the region and beyond. That’s my Rosh Hashanah prayer this year!

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

The Khojaly Massacre: Reflections by an Azerbaijani Jew

Survivor of the Khojaly Massacre mourning the death of her family members

February 25/26 is a difficult time for us in Azerbaijan, and for all Azerbaijanis around the world. It is a day when we remember the Khojaly Massacre, one of the most brutal incidents of inhumane warfare to take place in modern times. It is a day when we commemorate what happened in 1992, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, in the town of Khojaly. In the early 1990s, supported by powerful allies, Armenia managed to invade approximately 20% of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. United Nations Security Council condemned this illegal military occupation that was accompanied by total ethnic cleansing of the occupied lands of their indigenous Azerbaijani population (over 800,000 of them). Sadly, to this day, the occupation continues, and the international community does nothing to make Armenia comply with international law.

But what happened that night of February 25/26, 1992 in Khojaly was much more than an act of occupation. What happened in Khojaly was a brutal massacre. Hundreds of totally innocent, unarmed Azerbaijanis were gunned down while fleeing the Armenian army. They were gunned down like animals in a field: men, women, and children.

As an Azerbaijani Jew, I feel especially sensitive about such an incident of inhumanity in modern time, in my modern country, decades after the Holocaust, with so many years of “Never Again” already behind us. It is hard to believe human beings were still capable of such atrocities, but as we know, even today, violence and cruelty ensues, in many countries around the world. We have such a responsibility to make good on that promise, and yet the world continues to challenge our commitment. A few years ago, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin addressed this very issue at the United Nations General Assembly, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He challenged the gathering of world leaders, asking: ““[I]s our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly? Of Afghans by the Taliban? Is it effective enough today in Syria? Or in the face of the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria? Are we shedding too many tears and taking too little action?” He understood what the Khojaly Massacre is – something that should never have happened. Something that goes against the grain of morality, of what is right in the world, of the most basic tenets of humanity.

It’s not surprising to me that the President of Israel could shed some light on Khojaly, and on Azerbaijan in general. Azerbaijan and Israel share particularly strong and lasting ties. Azerbaijan and Jews do as well. I speak from my own experience as leader of the 2,000-year old Mountainous Jewish community in Azerbaijan, but also base this sentiment on history. Azerbaijan has a bold and lasting history of protecting, honoring, and celebrating Jewish life and Judaism. During the Holocaust, Azerbaijan was a renowned safe haven for Jews, accepting as many as could make it to our land, and fighting the Nazis until their defeat, on the Russian front. For centuries before the Holocaust, during many incidents of European and regional anti-Semitism, Azerbaijan served as a safe haven for Jews then too.

In 1992, during the invasion and occupation of Azerbaijan, many Azerbaijani Jews volunteered and fought against the Armenian insurgents. One that stands out in particular is Albert Agarunov, a renowned hero in our nation, and someone who is becoming more well known across the world because of his unusual and remarkable story, and his great heroism. A Mountainous Jew, Albert was a marvelous sharpshooter, and was successful at defeating and evading the Armenian militants for much of the war. He was so skilled as a sharp-shooter, the Armenians placed the highest bounty on his head of any Azerbaijani. Sadly, Albert was killed by an Armenian bullet as he had left the safety of his tank, exposed to the insurgents so he could navigate the tank around the bodies of murdered fellow Azerbaijanis. His last act was an act of respect and kindness, and he is revered and titled as a National Hero in Azerbaijan, buried at our famous Martyrs Lane in the capital city of Baku, remembered adoringly by all Azerbaijani people.

Yes, this time of year is a difficult time, as an Azerbaijani and as a Jew, remembering this great tragedy. Thankfully, we have survivors who share their experience and supportive services to continue their healing process. Thankfully, we are a nation that can carry on as a land of peace and tolerance despite the intolerance and cruelty others have caused us to endure. Thankfully, we have the support of great nations, such as the State of Israel, the United States and many others, to continue pushing Armenia to take responsibility and to leave the occupied Karabakh region; our land they so brutally took and still refuse to leave. I hope it will not be long from now that we have more to be thankful for, and that the story of Khojaly and the entire region will have a new chapter; one without occupiers, one that has the thousands of residents returning home, even after so many years.

Remembering the Holocaust: Reflections on Azerbaijan

Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in 2013. Photo courtesy of Washington Post


Just this past Saturday, January 27, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a day when much of the world officially remembered the great catastrophe that was the Holocaust. It was a day for commemorating the history of that frightful time, for renewing promises to “Never Again”, and a time for sharing insight on what human beings are unfortunately capable of, and also of heroes and survivors that had everything at risk.

In the days following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I greatly appreciate the many and varied articles, graphics, videos and stories; uniquely and in some cases very specifically shining some light on all there is to remember. The most horrific tragedy to ever fall upon humanity, the Holocaust and World War II are both profound universes of stories, of individuals and of nations. These terrible catastrophes involved so many people, and by virtue of the role each played, and the concessions they were or were not willing to make in the face of fascism and cruelty, the Holocaust revealed the base instincts of over 80 countries of the world.

I was very young when it all happened, and as a Jew, or really any other person for that matter, I was blessed to come from Azerbaijan: a place that protects Jewish life; a country that could not be taken by Nazis that desperately sought its capture; a Muslim nation that has long ago built and safeguarded communities for Jews to live in freedom and peace, and that fought the Nazis and served as a supportive harbor for any Jew that managed to escape and flee to our lands, a nation that today holds a week long Holocaust memorial.

All of this makes me think of Azerbaijan’s history and specific stories I’ve learned throughout my life of the individuals amidst millions upon millions of individuals impacted by the war. From Azerbaijan, one out of six people were the victims of the Nazis, including the approximately 400,000 Azerbaijanis who were killed fighting against them in the battlefronts. Hitler desperately wanted to invade Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku and get hold of our natural resources. As a nation gifted with an abundance of oil and gas and as a haven of tolerance and especially, in this time, as a haven for Jews, it is critical to the outcome of WWII that Hitler never made it to Baku, after the Nazis, enroute, were devastated at Stalingrad.

One of the more specific stories about the Holocaust that has stuck out to me recently is connected to a young man I’ve gotten to know; Anar Usubov is an Azerbaijani living in Northern California. He is also a childhood survivor of the Khojaly Massacre, Armenia’s brutal attack on Azerbaijan in 1992, which stole the lives of innocent men, women and children, among them over 25 members of Anar’s family. Anar is very lucky to have survived it and has been quoted as saying he is grateful his own grandfather didn’t live long enough to see what happened to him. That’s because Anar’s grandfather was a survivor and also a hero of the Holocaust.

The Usubov family is Azerbaijani Muslim, and their religious identity played a special role in the heroic story of Shahhuseyn, Anar’s grandfather, and a man who saved many Jews from the grips of death. In one of the worst places in the world, Auschwitz, Shahhuseyn was imprisoned as a captured Soviet soldier, as Azerbaijanis served in the Soviet army to fight the Nazis. On the day of arrival and during the terrifying process of selection, Shahhuseyn realized the Nazis were separating the Jews from the Muslims by asking them to recite a verse from the Koran. In the midst of a long and crowded line, Shahhuseyn hastily taught as many Jews as possible a verse from the Koran, until he was identified for doing it and nearly beaten to death. Many Jews in the receiving line on that day at Auschwitz kept their lives, thanks to the courage of this one man.

Shahhuseyn’s story is something Azerbaijan is proud of and also very fitting for the history of a nation that has protected Jewish life for thousands of years, and a place that has given many lives to the fight for freedom, in foreign lands and at home, against invading nations and brutality. A place that throughout recorded history has been a land of rare and uncompromising tolerance. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I am proud of what my nation did during those years, and as we remember the Holocaust, it is comforting to remember the other side – the people and places that did all they could to fight against such atrocity, and to protect sacred innocent life, of all people the same.

How Azerbaijan helped to defeat Hitler

November 9, 2017 will mark the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Jews were subjected to pogroms throughout Nazi Germany, which turned out to be the beginning of the “Final Solution” and Holocaust.

When one remembers this terrible genocide against the Jewish people, we should also be mindful of all nations that made tremendous contributions and sacrifices to achieve a victory over the evil Nazi regime and its Führer. Azerbaijan was one of these nations.

As the Third Reich attempted to conquer Eurasia, the German General Staff was faced with a massive problem: the Blitzkrieg required mechanized equipment. Unlike previous wars where horsepower was triumphant, the Wehrmacht needed oil to fuel its tanks and planes in this new kind of warfare. Germany had no oil wells of their own, and so Adolf Hitler decided to seize the oil fields of Azerbaijan. This could first provide Wehrmacht with much needed oil, but also starve out the Soviet Union as Azerbaijan’s oil was essential for the Soviet army. Indeed, as Hitler celebrated his birthday in 1942 with a cake showing the Eurasian landmass, he carved out a large piece marked as Baku, capital city of Azerbaijan, for himself.

Hitler’s plans were not to be. Over an eight-month period in 1942-43, on their way to Azerbaijan through the North Caucasus, the German war machine ground to a halt at Stalingrad ending in a disastrous defeat for Nazis and stopping their march to Baku. They began a retreat from the Eastern Front that would not finish until the collapse of Nazi tyranny in 1945. It was a costly victory in a deadly war lasting over 6 years with 70 million people killed. The Soviet Union suffered the most, with an estimated 26 million fatalities. Hitler’s ultimate goal, Azerbaijan, shared in the suffering. 700,000 Azerbaijani soldiers, including 100,000 women, fought on the front line with 400,000 making the ultimate sacrifice. Thousands of Azerbaijani Jews sacrificed their lives fighting against the Nazis on the front lines.

Azerbaijan’s contribution to the war effort also included delivering 23.5 million tons of oil a year to the Soviet Army. Baku oilmen accounted for more than 70% of the total oil production and more than 80% of the total fuel production in the Soviet Union in 1941-1945. Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, acknowledged that this uninterrupted supply of petroleum products to the front lines was essential to the ultimate victory over the Nazis. Azerbaijani Mountain Jews are also proud of the fact that one of the key figures in Azerbaijan’s oil industry during those difficult years was Yakov Mikhailovich Agarunov – a proud member of our community.

To better understand Hitler’s war for Baku oil, I would highly recommend to watch a great documentary “Objective Baku” that was filmed with the support of Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev Foundation and produced by Mrs. Arzu Aliyeva. The film successfully premiered on National Geographic TV in May 2015.

World War II was a milestone for Azerbaijan’s oil production, one of many.  In 1848, engineers drilled the world’s first oil well in Baku to usher in the modern petroleum age. This preceded the first American oil well in Pennsylvania by 11 years. Over the next several decades, Azerbaijan produced the first oil pipeline, the first oil tanker, the first oil refinery, etc. In the beginning of the 20th Century, Baku produced 50% of the world’s oil. 

A newly-independent Azerbaijan achieved another milestone in 1994, when the government signed the “Contract of the Century” with Western oil companies to jointly develop and produce the Azeri, Chirag and Guneshli oil fields in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea.  Thanks to the smart use of revenues generated by this contract Azerbaijan has become the largest economy and richest and the most developed country of the South Caucasus region. It has also allowed Azerbaijan to reduce poverty from 50 percent then to under 5 percent now. This contract was renewed on September 14, 2017, and will be effective until the end of 2049. The revenues generated by this new deal will allow Azerbaijan to continue social and economic reforms aimed at modernizing the country and improving the wellbeing of the population – as well as further strengthening a free and independent nation. It also allows its customers, such as the state of Israel, to do the same.

From fighting Nazis to fighting poverty, the oilmen of Azerbaijan continue to make contributions to their country and to the world.

A Jewish Medical Hero from Azerbaijan: The Life of Dr. Gavriil Ilizarov

Gavriil Illizarov, an Azerbaijani-Jew, and his World Changing Invention

From my own experience and from the life stories of so many others, I know that a Jew, a Christian or Muslim growing up in Azerbaijan all have an equal chance at making a successful life and making significant contributions to our world. One such success story that has always stayed with me is that of Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov. The story of a great innovator, scientist and thinker that did not have the internet, or many research associates; rather he had a desire to explore saving lives and in the most difficult of circumstances – war.  

Ilizarov was born in 1921 into a poor Jewish peasant family from Azerbaijan, who had moved to Poland. His father, Abram Ilizarov, was a Mountain Jew from Qusar, Azerbaijan, while the mother, Golda Ilizarova, was of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. When he was little, his family moved back to Azerbaijan, where he grew up in the town of Qusar, near Qırmızı Qəsəbə – a Jewish town. Ilizarov graduated from Buynaksk Medical Rabfac (an educational establishment set up to prepare workers and peasants for higher education) in Dagestan 1939 and was admitted into the Crimea Medical School in Ukraine. At the height of World War II his medical school was relocated to Kazakhstan, where Ilizarov completed his training, and encountered the worst cases of bone and limb damage imaginable among Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazi army on the Eastern front.

From these experiences, Dr. Ilizarov embarked on groundbreaking discoveries that would change the future for people with severely damaged limbs. Dr. Ilizarov discovered that by severing bones in half, and affixing them slightly apart, so to leave a small amount of space, that the bones would regrow to fill in that space. This meant that even totally shattered bones could be repaired, and even lengthened. Dr. Ilizarov took his groundbreaking discovery one step further and developed an apparatus, based on the mechanics of a bicycle, to set severed bones in place and, at the same time, continuously spacing the bones apart so to facilitate regrowth.

For years, many doctors and scholars scoffed the idea; it was before considered unthinkable to repair a bone through the process of regrowth. But Dr. Ilizarov had seen the results first hand from his many years in Siberia, and he persisted in advancing and perfecting his surgical technique and his apparatus. In 1968, his reputation changed dramatically, after his success in treating the famous Russian Olympic champion, Valeriy Brumel. Brumel had injured his leg in a motorcycle accident and underwent dozens of unsuccessful surgeries before connecting with Dr. Ilizarov. Only then and with the help of what became known as the Ilizarov Apparatus, was Brumel able to recover, where before meeting Dr. Ilizarov he had faced the prospect of amputation. After this, Dr. Ilizarov became famous for his invention and more generally, for his magic touch with healing bones. In 1987, Ilizarov’s orthopedic techniques were brought to America, and he had officially achieved international recognition and fame. That same year, American manufacturers began distributing his apparatus; what they called the Ilizarov External Fixator.

Unlike the experience of Jews living in other nations within the region or regions nearby, Ilizarov  benefitted from the open and embracing culture of tolerance that exists in Azerbaijan, where a Jewish child can grow to become a doctor and scientist, with the rights and freedom to pursue passions and goals; just the same as anyone else. We have seen this with many examples, including our current Supreme Court Judge Tatyana Goldman, our Jewish Parliamentarian Yevda Abramov, and many leaders and heroes across the spectrum of industry and action, today and throughout our past.

Dr. Ilizarov was one of the Soviet Union’s most decorated civilians, and received the Order of Lenin three times, the Order of Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest civilian honors in Italy, Jordan and Yugoslavia. His discovery had finally changed the way in which doctors approach shattered or deformed bones, then and today.

I consider Dr. Ilizarov’s true bravery, this genius to pursue unique ideas; all in the face of overwhelming and tumultuous circumstances. I also consider the fact that he was given the freedom and resources to pursue his career in the first place, a fact that people from my generation and many parts of the world do not take for granted. What if his parents had not moved from Poland back to Azerbaijan, so that he could grow up in safety as a Jew and with support for his studies, rather than endure what so many Jews in Poland endured? How many people would have suffered with otherwise untreatable injuries or deformities if this one man did not have the opportunity to study and relentlessly pursue his passion?

I see there is a very strong connection between the homeland of Dr. Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov and the accomplishments of his life. Like so many of his Jewish brothers and sisters from Azerbaijan, he nurtured and shared his gifts in order to make the world a better place.

Jews of Azerbaijan and United States: In celebration of our transcendent connection

California and Azerbaijan Jews share a special bond, and our special friendship is becoming better known this year, as a number of important events have taken place that commemorate our connection. The last flight I took across the 7,000 miles between us was to return to Los Angeles in February with a delegation of fellow leaders of the Mountainous Jewish community of Azerbaijan. Our purpose in visiting was to receive and celebrate the gift of a new Sefer Torah from the Jewish community of Los Angeles. A new Torah takes about a year to write, each letter composed in painstaking scrutiny; a single imperfection rendering the entire document invalid. The creation, and even the transport of a new Torah is a challenging and expensive process, and the Torah itself, perhaps the most meaningful bond between Jews across the world and cultures.

But how did this come to be, and why would a synagogue in Los Angeles sponsor a Torah for a Jewish community so far away? Many Jews in Los Angeles have never before heard of Azerbaijan, nor of Azerbaijan’s over 30,000 Jewish residents. Even lesser known, is that Azerbaijan is home to the Mountainous Jewish community, who have lived in Azerbaijan in peace and prosperity for over 2,000 years. The Azerbaijani people and government have been huge supporters of our Mountainous Jewish community, and as well as the other Jewish communities, including several in Baku, which houses three synagogues and a large Jewish day school.

What is particularly unusual about Jewish life in Azerbaijan, which is a close friend and partner of Israel, is that we live and freely practice our faith in peace and prosperity, protected and respected, in a secular Muslim country. We share cities and towns, and live and work with our Azerbaijani Muslim brothers and sisters. By its example of tolerance and inclusion, Azerbaijan destroys all the stereotypes that exist out there in the world as far as the co­existence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is concerned. Azerbaijani example proves that it is still possible for all these major religions to enjoy peaceful and harmonious co­existence in mutual respect. As Jews, our reality in Azerbaijan is somewhat like a dream. Imagine a Muslim government that spends millions of dollars on building a beautiful synagogue for Jewish residents, or a Muslim country that celebrates a Jew as one of its greatest war heroes. This is our reality in Azerbaijan.

So how does this all connect to a new Torah at Sinai Temple? Last year when I traveled to Los Angeles for the first time, I was often asked by my fellow Jews what the Jewish community in Azerbaijan needed. I had just one answer: A Sefer Torah for our Synagogue! I am glad that the Los Angeles Consulate General of Azerbaijan, who has strong relationships and a widening network of Jewish friends in California, conveyed this request to Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple, who later told this broader story of our history in Azerbaijan to his congregants. Sinai Temple immediately recognized how big of a deal it is that Jews live in such a peaceful and hopeful way in a Muslim country. The energy and hard work leading up to the Torah Dedication, was so magnificently holy and inspired, it could only happen at a place called Sinai. The Rabbi spoke of our story on Shabbat, and like a flash, we were brought to Los Angeles to receive the Torah. This magnificent gift and gesture was inspired and realized by the Sinai Temple Men’s Club, a group of visionary congregants led by Cary Lerman; the type of people that are here to change the world. As true leaders, they shined a light on something that represents hope, and from there, took direct action and brought to life something beautiful and lasting. That hope is built on our story, that Jews actually can live with respect, and even love, in a Muslim country. Just the fact that Azerbaijani Muslims wholeheartedly facilitated this Torah donation from one Jewish community to the other speaks volumes about what Azerbaijan stands for. This inspiration could change the world.

Yes, it was an experience of true grace, that in such dark times for Jewish people across the world something as elevated and positive could occur, bringing Jewish communities together across thousands of miles to celebrate friendship and the most lasting connection between all Jews, our Torah.

The Torah anchors all Jewish people across geography and culture, and the gift we have brought back to Azerbaijan is nothing short of priceless. The Los Angeles Sinai Temple’s most meaningful act of friendship embodies the epitome of hope and the shared Jewish­Azerbaijani dream of tolerance and peace. As I watched the world become smaller and smaller from thousands of feet above land, returning to my Jewish home in Azerbaijan, I felt a sense of possibility and inspiration as occasion for this trip. The values and momentum of this celebration are part of something much larger than one night or even one Torah; a movement to bring together all Jews and Muslims, across all global communities, so that we may one day truly exist as one world family, no matter the language or distance or differences between us.

Mr Milikh Yevdayev is the Leader of Azerbaijan’s ancient Mountainous Jewish community

Celebrating the Azerbaijan and Israel connection

Diplomats from the world’s only Jewish state and a predominately Shiite nation met in Westwood Feb. 3  — and got along perfectly.

The consuls general from Israel and Azerbaijan met in a well-attended public forum at Sinai Temple to discuss economic, political and cultural ties between the two countries, and to witness the gifting of a Sefer Torah from the temple’s Men’s Club to leaders from the community of Mountain Jews who have long lived in the majority Shiite Azerbaijan. 

The unusual event, which speakers frequently referred to as “historic,” emphasized cultural and historical bonds tying together Israel and Azerbaijan, a secular, former Soviet Republic nestled in the Southern Caucasus. An estimated 15,000-20,000 Jews live in the country, according to the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry. 

“This relationship has a very strong human foundation, and that’s our wonderful Jewish community,” Azerbaijan Consul General Nasimi Aghayev said at the event. “When we established, or rather restored, our independence in 1991, Israel was a natural ally for Azerbaijan, because there was already a strong foundation in our society. That’s why Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence, and one of the first countries to open an embassy in [the capital city of] Baku.” 

The two countries do billions of dollars in annual bilateral trade, according to Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel. Azerbaijan’s overall economy is dependent on energy exports; according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 90 percent of Azerbaijan’s total exports are oil and natural gas. So Azerbaijan sends oil to Israel, and Israel sends defense materials to Azerbaijan. 

But the relationship extends beyond oil and arms. Israel is Azerbaijan’s fourth largest trading partner, dealing in telecommunications, cybersecurity, education and agriculture, according to The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. 

“This is a model for how Jews and Muslims can get along in the Middle East,” Siegel said.

Asked by the panel’s moderator, Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple, how Azeris have created a culture of interfaith tolerance — between Jews, Muslims and other religions — both within and outside of their borders, Aghayev said, “For centuries it has been the case that these ethnicities, these religions, have coexisted together. And this was due to the fact that Azerbaijan was a crossroads of different cultures and civilizations.

“But, of course, you can’t forget the role of the government,” Aghayev continued. “Government can foster tolerance, or government can steer away and do stuff that is not so positive. In our case, since the very beginning, the government of Azerbaijan has strengthened this tolerance, strengthened this interfaith harmony.”

Three members of the Mountainous Jewish community traveled to Los Angeles to accept the Sefer Torah – Milikh Yevdayev, chairman of the Mountainous Jewish Community; Edva Abramov, a member of the Azerbaijani Parliament; and Rabbi Avraam Yakubov of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue in Baku. With the assistance of translators, all three participated in a group interview with the Journal prior to the ceremony, as did Gunduz Ismayilov, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Religious Institutions. 

Aghayev stressed that the Azeri government is devoted to democratic and secular values, and that it views defending all religious groups and supporting interfaith dialogue as one of its duties. 

Yevdayev seconded Aghayev’s sentiment: “We celebrate each other’s holidays. We share in each other’s joys and also pains,” he said. 

“Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,500 years, Christians since the first century, and Muslims since the seventh century,” Ismayilov said. 

In recent years, the Azeri government has provided financial resources to many of the country’s religious groups, including the Mountain Jews. In 2012, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s government gave money to build the Mountain Jews a new synagogue in Baku, where the Sefer Torah given by Sinai Temple’s Men’s Club will reside.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple led the effort to raise the funds to acquire the Torah, which was written in Israel by Rabbi Avishai Smila over the past year, and completed by members of the Men’s Club in Los Angeles prior to the ceremony. 

It all began a year ago with a conversation between Wolpe and Yevdayev, who was making his first trip to the U.S. When asked what the community in Azerbaijan needed, the latter’s answer was simple: a Torah. So Wolpe approached the Men’s Club and the rest is history.

“The Torah, according to our sages, is the ketubah — it is the marriage contract between God and Israel — and Sinai was the chuppah, it was a marriage canopy. So when you give a Torah to another community, it is also like giving a ketubah, like giving a marriage contract, and it binds the two communities together,” Wolpe said as he presented the new Torah to Yakubov.

Members of the visiting delegation also emphasized the forging of a new bond between Jewish communities in Israel, Azerbaijan and the United States. “Sons of Israel live in different parts of the world, but despite this fact Jerusalem and the sacred Torah unite us all,” Abramov said while addressing the event’s attendees. 

Moreover, the governmental bond between these three governments extends beyond trade and mutual support of religious tolerance. Azerbaijan sent soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq as a part of various U.S.-led coalitions, and there has been speculation in American and Israeli press as to whether Aliyev’s government has secretly assisted Israel in combatting Iranian nuclear capability. 

Despite this collective public support of each other’s efforts, there are some signs in the United States of a growing unease with Azeri politics. Most significantly, Aliyev has faced criticism in the American press for using his authority for repressive, autocratic ends. A Human Rights Report from the State Department stated that in 2013, “the president dominated the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government,” and the government “failed to take steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses.” 

A recent New York Times editorial chastised the Azeri government for “continuing a crackdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations,” including arresting and jailing numerous journalists and activists. The editorial quoted a cable published from the American ambassador to Azerbaijan, published by Wikileaks, which stated that Aliyev’s actions force American policymakers to make “a choice between U.S. interests and U.S. values.”

Aghayev and Abramov both told the Journal that the Azeri government has not participated in human-rights abuses or unjustified prosecution of members of the press. 

“Nobody is being persecuted for journalistic activity, but if someone commits a crime there should be justice according to the law,” Abramov, who belongs to Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, said during the group interview. 

Accusations of misuse of power have been overblown in the Western press, Aghayev asserted. 

More important, insisted Abramov, are Azerbaijan’s supportive relationships with Israel and the United States — bonds that undoubtedly reached new depths at Sinai Temple. 

“Today, a dream is coming true,” Yevdayev said at the event. 

The Khazars and the Mountain Jews: Tales from Jewish Azerbaijan

Buried deep beneath Azerbaijan’s bucolic landscape lie secrets behind the ancient Muslim-Jewish friendship that prevails in this South Caucasus largely Shiite country. The 8th-century leaders of the Khazar Empire, famously, converted from their shamanistic religion and worship of a deity named Tengri to Judaism. A semi-nomadic Turkic tribe, the Khazars originated to the north of and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Khazars ruled lands from the Volga-Don steppes to the eastern Crimea and the Northern Caucasus for some three centuries, often listed as between 650 to 969 AD.

The circumstances surrounding both the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism and their relationship to other Jews abound in mystery. Nonetheless the story of the Khazars and their neighbors is more than a missing piece of the Jewish story. Khazar history holds clues to the Azerbaijani tolerance model.

In the 1970s, readers of writer/journalist Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe pondered the intriguing hypothesis that European Ashkenazic Jews descended from Khazars who migrated into Eastern Europe as their empire was collapsing. Scholars since have discredited the book for a variety of reasons. Anti-Semites have used theories of the Turkic Khazars as ancestors of modern Jews to attack Zionist claims of Israel as an ancestral homeland.

The Khazars’ decision to become Jewish may in fact reflect a simple desire to remain independent of both the Muslim Arab caliphate and of Christian Byzantium. Their conversion nevertheless resonates with the existence of another major Jewish community in the region—the so-called Mountain Jews of Quba, a town about 160 kilometers from Baku, today’s capital of Azerbaijan. While large gaps exist in public knowledge of both the Khazar people and the Mountain Jews, oral tradition holds that the Khazars and Mountain Jews interacted and that the Mountain Jews played a significant role in the Khazar conversion.

The Mountain Jews are said to have settled in northern Azerbaijan after leaving the Persian Empire beginning in the 5th century. They developed their own language, Juhuri, or Judeo-Tat, which endures to this day. Over centuries they formed productive relationships with their Muslim neighbors across town.

In recent years the Mountain Jews of the Red Town (the all-Jewish section of Quba; considered to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel) have captured outsiders’ interest. They practice a blend of Ashkenazic and Sephardic religious traditions and maintain customs unique to their community.

Much of what is known about the Mountain Jews’ history is preserved in oral history, although archaeologists also have evidence in the form of artifacts such as sacred texts, architecture, and talismans.

The record supports the strong, positive impression the Mountain Jews left on their neighbors. Literate and religious, the Mountain Jews were also accomplished horse riders and warriors and skilled agriculturists. They displayed an enviable determination to adapt to their environment. And to the region’s rich musical portfolio they added their own complementary repertoire.

Visitors to the Red Town today are struck by the clearly marked Jewish institutions and the ample use of the Star of David as home decoration. But those who spend time in Quba at large also marvel at the fluid relationship between the town’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

The history of ethnic relations in Azerbaijan is obscured not only by a lack of historic evidence but also by a long history of intermarriage and conversion. As for the Mountain Jews, many have moved to Israel, even while in many cases maintaining a home in Quba.

Given Azerbaijan’s role as a Silk Road crossroads, and its experience of military invasions, it is not surprising that the country has hosted many ethnic groups in close proximity. Still, the entente between Azerbaijan’s Jewish and Muslim populations contrasts sharply with the relationship in neighboring regions.

Many Azerbaijanis point out that different ethnicities working together, side by side, kept Azerbaijan alive through the course of empires and the Soviet Union. Family friendships across ethnic lines are relatively common. Azerbaijani leaders frequently cite negligible evidence of anti-Semitism, support for synagogues and Jewish schools, and public recognition of the contributions of Jewish Azerbaijanis.

As archaeologists and historians continue to uncover and parse the evidence, Azerbaijanis and their visitors continue to enjoy the fruits of ethnic harmony. No doubt, the Khazars and the Mountain Jews have a place at the table. But, in the words of H.E. Rafael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, “At first, I found the Azerbaijani tolerance model to be something new and unexpected. I have traveled extensively in other countries. But really it is very simple. The Muslims here have never thought of Jews as apart from society.”

Indeed, since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has worked to reclaim and document its history. Enhanced understanding of Azerbaijan’s human story will bring bright new insights to the telling of the human story.

Diana Cohen Altman is Executive Director of the Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. 501 (c) 3 that celebrates the culture, arts, and heritage of the Azerbaijani people. She previously served as Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum/Center for Jewish Culture/Philip Lax Archive.