A two-way street from Acre to Azerbaijan

With some 9,000 Jews from Azerbaijan, Acre has the largest concentration of the so-called Mountain Jews, or Kavkazi Jews, in Israel.

A memorial to Heydar Aliyev, the 3rd president of Azerbaijan and a revered national figure. (photo credit: HERB KEINON)
A memorial to Heydar Aliyev, the 3rd president of Azerbaijan and a revered national figure.
(photo credit: HERB KEINON)
‘It moved me,” Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri said after emerging from afternoon prayers in the nicely restored synagogue in Quba, the historic heart of the Jewish community in the Caucasus.
Taken to the synagogue as part of a tour of the area, he insisted while there that a minyan (prayer quorum) be put together and the Minha service recited. Educated in the religious education stream, the Likud mayor does not wear a kippa. He also does not eat non-kosher meat, and speaks fondly of a daughter – who became engaged to be married while he was touring Azerbaijan – as a hozeret bitshuva (one who has returned to observance).
Lankri said he was moved because of the thought that here, in a Muslim country in Central Asia, Jews were standing in front of an ark with the same inscription adorning the synagogues in Acre – “I have set God before me at all times” – reciting the same prayers about returning to Zion.
Lankri was the head of a small Israeli delegation brought to the country by offices of the Azerbaijani government.
His selection to lead the delegation – comprised of himself and a top aide, four Azerbaijani-Israelis prominent in the community of some 70,000 in Israel, a PR man and two journalists – was not random.
With some 9,000 Jews from Azerbaijan, Acre has the largest concentration of the so-called Mountain Jews, or Kavkazi Jews, in Israel. Lankri has just built the ground floor of a community center for them in his city, and is in the process of building a second floor – to be named for Heydar Aliyev, the current president’s father – that will serve as a cultural center and focal point for the country’s Azerbaijani Jews, a project for which he hopes to get some funds from the Azerbaijani government.
For Lankri, going to Azerbaijan, taking an interest in the country and providing for the social and cultural needs of Azerbaijani Jews in his city, is smart politics – a way to win the support of a significant voting bloc in his town. But he also says he believes in the strategic importance of Israel’s relationship with the country.
In Azerbaijan, he came out squarely in various meetings with government officials on the side of the Azeris in their long-simmering conflict with the Armenians. Asked whether this might not cause negative diplomatic fallout for Israel in regard to its relations with Armenia – or with Armenia’s chief backer, Russia – Lankri, who did not receive any briefing from the Foreign Ministry before the visit, said he was visiting as a mayor, not as a minister.
“When I come as a minister,” said Lankri, “I will get a briefing from the foreign minister on what things to be careful about saying. But I am not there yet. I have a big Azerbaijani population in my city, and my first obligation is to them.”
Azerbaijani Jews started to come to Acre in 1992, shortly after the massive wave of immigration. There was no special reason; it’s not as if the city reminds them of Baku, but rather that once one family came, they pulled in others.
What has struck him about members of the community, he said, is the degree to which they always speak positively about the country of their birth.
One such man is Nekhamia Shirin Mikhaeli, the head of the Azerbaijan Mountain Jewish Community in Acre.
An Acre city councilman, he was a driving force in getting Lankri to visit. He too was in the delegation, and this was his first trip to Azerbaijan since he immigrated to Israel in 1991, in the midst of the massive aliya wave from the former Soviet Union.
“Life was not bad here,” he said of his family’s decision to leave 26 years ago. “We were not millionaires, but we had a home, a business, my father supported us well.”
His family decided to leave not because of persecution, but because there was a “feeling of aliya in the air,” and due to uncertainty regarding the future, as the Soviet Union was falling apart.
He added that although his family was not religious, he felt moving to Israel was his destiny.
“We would go to school and learn all about the ‘isms,’” he said of the village where he was raised in central Azerbaijan. “We learned about communism and socialism, and I would come home and my parents would teach us that we are Jewish. ‘Your way is to be Jewish, and one day you should go to Jerusalem,’ they would say. My father would come home everyday and raise a toast, and say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Not only on Passover, but every day.”
Mikhaeli said he stayed away for 26 years, “not even visiting the grave of my beloved mother.” This was not because he had bad feelings about Azerbaijan, but because he did not want to return only as a visitor, but rather as someone who had something to offer the country.
“I wanted to come back with achievements, not only to visit, but to help – as a Jew who came to Israel and now can help the Azerbaijani people, even though they are strong.”
And the way he thinks he can help? By building links between the two countries – the one he left, and the one he left for.