Former Board of Deputies treasurer Laurence Brass recently returned from a visit as patron of Faith Matters to Azerbaijan, where he addressed an international conference on multi-culturalism.
Azerbaijan is at the crossroads of western and eastern cultures. An anomaly in the Islamic world, it is friendly to both Jews and Israel. Multi-culturalism is a way of life and a strictly-enforced government policy. All religious traditions are accepted – there are seven synagogues and 13 churches.
Azerbaijan is home to a Jewish population of around 20,000, most of whom live in the capital Baku and a settlement area called Krasnaya Sloboda. I was fortunate to be one of the few outsiders also to visit the so-called “Mountain Jews of the Caucuses” in the remote Oghuz region who form yet another grouping. The vibrant Jewish community has had a presence in the country for 27 centuries and enjoys huge respect from the country’s 90 per cent Muslim majority which is genuinely reciprocated.
Milikh Ilhanovich, self-styled “King of the Mountain Jews” is proud of his Sephardi shul in Baku, a gleaming modern building he revealed was a “present from the government”. The state wanted to preserve the community and felt a new building might achieve that. Two mohelim, two shochetim, a kosher butcher and a Hebrew school are evidence of a flourishing community.
The Georgian Caucuses Jewish community is the least populous, so the government pays a dozen or so members to attend every Shabbat just to ensure a minyan is maintained in the event that visitors from the region want to attend a service.
Following Shabbat prayers at the Ashkenazi shul with the ebullient Rabbi Shnoer Segal, the country’s Chief Rabbi, and his lively and surprisingly-young congregation, I walked back to his apartment for lunch. At least six times on our short journey the rabbi was stopped in the street by local Muslims who wanted to shake his hand. While European Jews are increasingly fearful of displaying visible signs of their faith, in Baku there is nothing but respect, tolerance and even affection.
I asked Rabbi Segal how he spent his days. His astonishing reply was that every morning a group of Muslims wait for him at the shul entrance for his blessing! Azerbaijanis are superstitious. If a local thinks he’s been cursed there is a belief that only a rabbi’s blessing can lift the curse.
The settlement of Krasnaya Sloboda was founded as a haven for Jews in 1742. Members speak their own language called Juhuri (akin to a mixture of Persian and Hebrew) and have their own customs, such as putting images of the deceased on graves.
While the Jews in Krasnaya are considered affluent, the community in Oghuz is the opposite, consisting mainly of nut farmers who originated from Syria, Iran and Dagestan. Yet it still manages to maintain two small but neat shuls in just one tiny village nestling in the hills miles from the nearest city. Needless to say, the open hand of the ever-generous Azerbaijan exchequer is never far away. Jews and Muslims here share a local custom of supplying food to the whole community, regardless of religion, following the death of a loved one – a tradition pre-dating Islam that helps to bring both communities even closer.
Despite being subject to enormous pressures to distance itself from Israel, Azerbaijan has been developing ever-closer defence and intelligence ties, upon which Israel’s security may one day depend. In an increasingly-radicalised world where religion is too often associated with conflict and terrorism, it’s good to be able to present a positive tale of a country setting a standard of tolerance for other nations to emulate.