BAKU, Azerbaijan (Sep. 5)
The Ashkenazi Jewish community of Baku originally hoped that its new synagogue would be ready in time for Rosh Hashanah.
Now they hope it will be ready in time for Chanukah.
The project was expected to take six months when ground was broken on Feb. 15, but it is still far from completion — and the community has run out of funds to finish it.
Despite the delay, community leader Gennady Zelmanovich is optimistic about the project.
“If there is money, it will be done quickly,” he adds. “If there isn’t, it will be done more slowly.”
The 1,000-square-yard, white-stone-clad building will have three stories and space for 300 congregants, plus a kosher cafe seating 70, classrooms, and a library of Hebrew books, of which the community has about 1,000.
It will also have a large outdoor space for building a sukkah, Zelmanovich says, adding that the community does not yet know where it will build one this year.
Things might have gone differently if the community had been able to implement its original plan to renovate its existing synagogue.
But that building, a former army storage space given to the Jewish community in 1946, was not worth saving, experts said. Roughly 100 years old, it did not have proper ventilation and was not earthquake-proof, a serious concern in this part of the world.
“When the architects were called in, they said there was no point,” Zelmanovich says. “They said we should just build a new synagogue.”
The new structure will alleviate such problems for the city’s 10,000 Ashkenazi Jews.
The decision to build a new synagogue came in August 2001. Within six months, the community raised roughly $100,000 from sources including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish communities in Moscow and Prague, and individual donors such as Moscow-based businessman Telman Ismayilov, who was born in Baku.
A local cement company donated $6,000 to $7,000 worth of cement, Zelmanovich added.
Unfortunately, it turns out that finishing the project will cost another $100,000.
Zelmanovich has asked Berel Lazar, one of the two chief rabbis of Russia, and Alexander Mashkevich, the head of the Jewish community of Kazakhstan, for support. Both have promised funds, he says.
Zelmanovich anticipates a grand opening ceremony in December. He hopes it will be attended by such luminaries as Azerbaijan’s president, Heydar Aliev; Lazar; the heads of the Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities of Azerbaijan; Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Eitan Naeh; and members of the Knesset.
It will be the first synagogue to be built in Baku in nearly a century.
The last new Jewish house of worship was completed in 1910, on land donated to the community by the city.
That building project, too, was a significant milestone in the city’s history, Baku historian Fuad Akhundov says.
Nearly 5 percent of the rapidly growing city’s population was Jewish at the beginning of the 20th century, when oil turned the former provincial outpost into a cosmopolitan metropolis.
“The Jewish community could have afforded to buy the land,” Akhundov says.
“But if they had bought the land, the municipality would have had to report the number of Jews living in Baku to the authorities, and because the city was outside the Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to live in Tsarist Russia, the city decided to simply donate the land,” Akhundov says. “That shows you something about the attitude toward Jews here.”
Indeed, when the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared at the end of World War I, Jewish pediatrician Yevsey Guidness became minister of health.
That 1910 synagogue was turned first into office space and later into a theater in the Soviet period. It is still being used as a theater today.
“At least it was not demolished,” Akhundov says.
Many religious buildings in Azerbaijan were destroyed during the Soviet era, including the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Muslim Bibi Heybat Mosque, which was rebuilt in 1998.
The Ashkenazi community, meanwhile, prayed in a converted storage basement from 1946 until this year.
Even being allowed to worship there was something of an accomplishment, Akhundov says.
“As far as I know, that synagogue and the Mountain Jewish synagogue around the corner were the only religious buildings consecrated in the Soviet period — not a single church and not a mosque,” he says.
The Mountain Jews are a group whose origins are unclear. Some scholars believe they have been here since the Babylonian exile 2,500 years ago, while others trace them back to the 17th century.
The Ashkenazi community is the most populous of the three Jewish communities in the capital of this oil-rich former Soviet republic in the Caucasus.
There is also a small community of Jews from neighboring Georgia, who will share the synagogue with the Ashkenazi community.
Azerbaijan is nominally a majority Shi’ite Muslim country, but in practice it is largely secular after generations of Russian and Soviet rule.
Akhundov, who is not Jewish, says it is important that a synagogue is under construction in Azerbaijan at the moment.
“It is very nice, especially given events in the Middle East and anti-Semitism in the world today, that a new synagogue is being built in a Muslim country today,” he says.