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(photo credit: Yaakov Katz)
Driving through the streets of Baku, one is constantly under the gaze of President Ilham Aliyev. His face - alongside that of his late father, a former KGB general and Azerbaijan's first president, Heidar Aliyev - is plastered on every street corner. And their smiles shine down on the residents of this impoverished city lined with crumbling Soviet architecture.
For the Jews of Azerbaijan, life is good - or so they say. At every meeting, they praise their president for guaranteeing them eternal safety and protection from anti-Semitism which, they say, doesn't exist in this Muslim country.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American-Jewish Organizations (COP) visited Azerbaijan in early February for talks with government officials and to visit the unique Jewish community, parts of which claim to have settled in this land thousands of years ago.
Landing at Baku's international airport, named like almost everything else in the city after Heidar Aliyev, one is struck by the cold gray streets on which there are only two types of cars: Mercedeses for the rich, and Ladas for the poor. Baku has much to offer the former, such as the handmade silk carpets that are an Azeri specialty, and jazz clubs, grand hotels and upscale European-style clothing shops.
As Muslim countries go, Azerbaijan is unconventional. It has troops based in Afghanistan and Iraq; and though it doesn't have an embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel has one in Baku, established in 1993 and manned by American-born Ambassador Arthur Lenk. As well, it is about to become rich, as plans to pump a million barrels of oil a day out of deep reservoirs in the Caspian Sea off Baku's coast are already in the final stages.
The COP's visit here is twofold - to enhance relations between Baku, Washington and Jerusalem, and to look into the welfare of the Jewish population, estimated at 30,000.
Run by Meir Bruk - a hefty, outspoken and personable rabbi from Rishon Letzion who was sent to Baku as a Chabad emissary - the Jewish community consists mainly of those who have decided to remain in Baku and for whom aliya is of no interest.
"The Jews who wanted to move to Israel have already done so," one Jewish official said. "Those who are here don't plan to leave."
That anti-Semitism is practically non-existent, asserted a member of the community, means the Jews don't have a reason to leave. And as long as there is work, he said, there is life.
Bruk arrived in Baku five years ago and found, he said, "more rats than Jews in the local synagogue."
After receiving funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and from his biggest benefactor, Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS President and philanthropist Lev Leviev, Bruk rebuilt the synagogue. Today, it is attended by 150 regulars every Saturday.
Bruk has also built a Jewish school - named "Ohr Avner" after Leviev's late father - that now has 400 pupils. The school is part of the Leviev-funded FJC, an umbrella organization that runs more than 150 educational institutions in more than a dozen countries.
The city also has a Jewish school called "Va'ad Hatzala" which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. On a wall of the rundown school building hangs a picture of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who, on his way back to Israel from a state visit to Japan in 1997, had stopped in Azerbaijan and met with Heidar Aliyev.
Some of the school's graduates spend a year in Israel after completing their studies; others continue on to local universities.
While the school is Jewish, its goal, according to one instructor, is more encompassing. "We teach them about Judaism but also about what it means to be good citizens of Azerbaijan," he said.
Bruk's school is one indication of the lack of interest among Azeri Jews to immigrate to Israel. Ten percent of its students are children whose families made aliya and then returned to Baku after failing to acclimate in Israel. Amit, 10, moved back to Baku from Netanya after living there for nearly nine years. "We were afraid of the constant terror attacks [in Israel] and life [in Baku] was safer," he said.
Though Bruk is free to teach whatever Jewish subjects he wants, he is forbidden from holding prayers inside the school. Azerbaijan, he explained, is a secular country that believes in the separation of religion and state. If his school were to hold prayer services, he said, then extreme Muslim groups - backed by Teheran - would push to conduct their own prayers in the state-run schools, to the dismay of Aliyev's government.
THE SECOND largest Jewish community a two-hour drive to the north from Baku in a small town called Quba, home to the Mountain Jews who trace their roots in the eastern Caucasus to 722 BC. Called the "Jerusalem of the Caucuses," Quba has several synagogues, a yeshiva and a Jewish elementary school.
Most striking are the Jews' homes - mansions with columns and statues reminiscent of old Roman palaces.
"This has always been a rich community," claimed Yitzhak Mardachaev, a teacher in the yeshiva. "And when there is money, life is good."
Mardachaev, who smokes American cigarettes and wears a cuffed French shirt and pin-stripe pants, typifies Quba's younger generation of Jews - who neither works for a living nor has an interest in moving to Israel. Mardachaev studied in a yeshiva in Jerusalem for a year, but quickly returned to Quba to be with his family.
As Quba is a town void of local businesses, most of its Jews have family members - usually fathers or brothers - who work in Moscow and send money home, visiting on holidays and during the summer.
"Why should I move to Israel?" challenged Quba's assistant rabbi, Eliezer Nisimov. "In Israel, they give away land to Arabs, and that is not the type of place I want to live in."
At a luncheon in Quba, hosted by the local Jewish community, we met Azeri Parliament member Yavda Abramov, who said that though he is a Jew, he is foremost Azeri.
"I am Jewish and take care of my people," said Abramov, who has a son currently serving in the IDF. "But we, the Jews, are part of the Azeri nation and any problems for Azerbaijan are also our problems."
THE COP visit was arranged in conjunction with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, a political body directed and funded by Alexander Mashkevich - a billionaire who holds Israeli citizenship but who, according to his aides, "lives out of his private jet."
Mashkevich, a 52-year-old Kazakhstani with close ties to the Azari government, said Azerbaijan sets a perfect example for the world in the way it treats its Jews.
"Aliyev says Jews are like his brothers," Mashkevich said. "There is no differentiation here between Muslims and Jews. All are equal."
COP Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the visit.
"The message from here has been clear," Hoenlein said. "Azerbaijan takes its relationship with Israel very seriously and they could play a key role in the Iranian showdown."
Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told the COP that Azerbaijan plans to enhance its trade relations with Jerusalem. However, he said, Azerbaijan's complicated geopolitical situation, its proximity to Iran and its membership in the Organizations of Islamic Conferences prevents Baku from opening an embassy in Israel in the near future.