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Azerbaijan’s Jews revive community

BAKU, Azerbaijan, Feb. 1 (JTA) — When Samir Salimov returned from Israel to his hometown of Baku last week, his mother could instantly tell from his smile that she had made the best choice for her son.

Three months earlier, she had sent him off to a high school program in Israel.

A short drive around this economically depressed city, with endless rows of gray, decaying Soviet housing blocks, makes it easy to understand why the Salimovs see Israel as a promised land.

It also explains why a family is willing to endure the pain of sending a soft-spoken 15-year-old boy abroad to an unknown country on his own.

Hosting a group of American Jews last week in their cramped living room, the Salimovs explained that they are monitoring their son’s progress before they decide whether they too will leave for Israel.

“Samir has discovered his Jewish gene and he likes it,” explains Anna Salimov, his mother, who herself is not Jewish but feels she has joined the Jewish people through her husband and son. “He has been exposed to an entire new world of Jewish tradition, Jewish history and Jewish heritage, and we like it as well.”

Yet the Salimov family’s rediscovery of their Jewish roots at home, while they consider a future in Israel, illustrates the two separate mindsets that mass immigration from Azerbaijan is creating for Jewish organizations.

Though all agree that the primary goal is to encourage immigration to Israel, there is a growing debate over the value of investing in building communities whose numbers are rapidly declining.

Last week more than 90 Jewish federation leaders witnessed the work of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Baku on their annual Voyage of Discovery mission. Jewish federations in North America funneled the bulk of $300 million spent overseas last year to these two groups, with the agency receiving the lion’s share.

Over the past decade, these funds have helped finance the immigration of more than 835,000 Jews from countries of the former Soviet Union, and provided crucial relief and community services for those who stayed.

The flow of Jews from Azerbaijan continues, with more than 1,000 leaving for Israel last year and a similar number expected this year.

The Jewish Agency is also continuing to run an array of supporting operations, attended by 6,400 people last year, from youth clubs to Hebrew classes and student programs like the one attended by Salimov. Tens of thousands more participate in similar programs throughout the former Soviet Union.

This is true even in Baku, with 14,000 Jews among the 1.7 million population, which has been a unique home for Jews over the past century compared to other cities in the former Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan’s dwindling Jewish community has fallen from 55,000 in 1989 to about 17,000 Jews today.

About 90 percent of the community is made up of Mountain Jews, an ancient Sephardi community, which some scholars say traces its roots to a group that fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Most of the rest are Russian Ashkenazi Jews who arrived over the past two centuries, as the Russian empire expanded and the oil-rich city grew.

Despite their small numbers, Jews have consistently played prominent roles in the city’s professional and cultural life.

Over the decades, the city’s Jewish community also produced prominent figures, including Lev Landau, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1962, and Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion.

Most importantly, say Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Baku, the city has always been ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan, and was particularly tolerant of all minorities. Jews faced none of the hostility that was commonplace in other parts of the Soviet Union.

“I have lived here for 75 years and never heard anyone call me zhid,” says Leonid Veyseyskey, 75, citing a common anti-Semitic slur. “We were all Bakuvians.”

Today, he and his wife, Frida, are sadly on common ground with their non-Jewish friends and neighbors. They are all equally poor.

Before perestroika, or the restructuring of the Soviet economy and society in the late 1980s, Leonid was an agricultural and construction engineer. He earned about 500 rubles a month, worth roughly $500 at the time.

Now, after the economic collapse of the region, the couple together takes home a monthly pension of just $50.

Once, they used to take vacations regularly. Now, in the drab yellow light of their lifelong home, the Veyseyskeys’ only escape from boredom is an extensive library of music and books, including Russian translations of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Yet as the can of coffee from Israel on a shelf indicates, their lot is somewhat better than that of their neighbors.

The JDC provides food and medicine for them and another 2,700 Bakuvian Jews through the Hesed Gershon welfare agency. The Hesed organization feeds some 190,000 people in 1,100 cities and towns across the former Soviet Union.

Many of their friends and family have moved to Israel, but this is not an option for the elderly ailing couple. “It would be very difficult,” says Frida Veyseyskey. “God does not want us to go.”

The situation is not much better here for the younger generation. Despite massive offshore oil deposits that have attracted some of the world’s biggest energy companies, unemployment is rampant and per capita annual income is about $600.

Few local residents believe that future profits from oil income will filter down to the street.

It is not surprising that Moshe Becker, president of the Baku society of Ashkenazi Jews, says the economy is the biggest issue for the future of the Jewish community here.

Although he hails a revival of Jewish life in the city, when asked what he would like Jews to do for the community, Becker says, “Money needs to be invested in the economy so that there will be employment opportunities.”

Ultimately, predicts Steve Schwager, director of the JDC in the former Soviet Union, enough Jews will remain here to warrant investing in community building. He estimates that about 85 percent of the 1.5 million Jews across the former Soviet Union are completely detached from the Jewish people, and the challenge is to reconnect them.

“Aliyah will continue,” he says when asked about the future of Baku. “But on the other hand there will be a vibrant active community here.” The JDC wants to continue bolstering its services by building more Jewish community centers as meeting places for Jews throughout the former Soviet Union.

It is a mission, he says, that is directly linked to the Jewish Agency’s agenda. “To have aliyah, you have to have Jews,” says Schwager, adding that the JDC’s community building programs are designed to “create Jews.”

But Jewish Agency activists in the area are unconvinced. Although they support the relief work, some say it is a lost cause.

“There is no place here for a Jewish community,” says Arye Resnick, the Jewish Agency’s emissary to Azerbaijan, speaking on the sidelines of a winter camp where 160 children sporting balloons and singing Hebrew songs give the impression that perhaps there is a future for this community.

“This generation may be the last generation that can keep the traditions from their parents,” he says. “All of the things we do here are a trigger to get them out.”

The dual strategies of community building and promoting aliyah could soon emerge as a central theme as the groups vie for funds under the new structure of the United Jewish Communities, which will give individual federations more power over overseas allocations.

Salai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency, insists that aliyah should be the top priority because it is the best alternative for individuals and for Israel. He hopes there will be no competition between the agencies.

“I hope we would not, as a global Jewish community, lose sight of our priorities,” he says. However, as Meridor looks at the dwindling Jewish community of Baku, he cannot avoid concluding that within 20 years there will only be the “remnants” of a Jewish community.

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