Jewish school opens new campus in Azerbaijan

Iran’s next-door neighbor hosts Israeli dignitaries at inaugural event for $10m. Baku center.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
October 5, 2010 05:08
2 minute read.
Azeribaijani President Ilhem Aliyev and Rabbi Ama

311_Azerbaijan, Aliyev and Leviev. (photo credit: Tal Rabina)

 
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BAKU, Azerbaijan – About 200 people, including Azerbaijani President Ilhem Aliyev, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and businessman Lev Leviev, gathered in the capital of this moderate Muslim country just north of Iran on Monday for the inauguration of the new campus of a Jewish school.

The Chabad Or Avner school, which was built at a cost of $10 million donated by Leviev and other philanthropists, is spread out over 15 dunams of land overlooking the Caspian Sea and has about 400 students. The premises also include a Jewish community center and a sports facility, which will cater to the country’s estimated 12,000 Jews.

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“Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for a long time, and for generations they have shown how well they get along with other people,” Aliyev said, addressing the crowd at the ceremony. “We call on all other nations to treat minorities, like we do, with respect.”

The ceremony illustrated the importance that the government of this strategically located country sees in its ties with Israel and the Jewish people.

Azerbaijan is more than Iran’s next-door neighbor. For centuries it was part of greater Persia, until it was conquered by Russia 200 years ago. There are currently more ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran, where they make up 25 percent of the population, than in Azerbaijan.

However, two centuries of separation have led to significant differences between the two groups, which both speak Azerbaijani and adhere to Shia Islam.

Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan when it declared independence in 1991, and the two have had diplomatic ties ever since.



President Shimon Peres recorded a statement ahead of the event, thanking Aliyev for supporting the country’s Jewish community.

“I want to salute you, your courage and wisdom on upholding the value of building schools and centers for all religions so that no book is lost and no prayer goes unheard,” he wrote. “I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, on the traditional way you treat the Jewish people and Israel.”

Leviev was greatly influential in bringing about the opening of the new school campus through his ties with the late Heydar Aliyev, the former leader of Azerbaijan. In 2005, he flew to Baku to personally ask the father of the current president to prevent its closure due to a lack of permits.

“He asked me, ‘Why don’t you invest money in our country?’” Leviev recalled. “I replied, ‘How can I invest in a country which doesn’t like Jews?’ He was surprised, and said that many of the teachers and doctors were Jewish, that he was very fond of Jewish people... During the press conference, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll build the school,’ and also asked that I return on Hanukka and invite him to light a candle.”

The elder Aliyev died in 2006, but Leviev said his son was following in his father’s footsteps and had donated the land on which the new Jewish school stands.

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