The Jewish community of Azerbaijan includes various subgroups, mainly Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as Kurdish Jews, Bukharian Jews, among others. The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan are neither Sephardim (from the Iberian Peninsula) nor Ashkenazim (from Germany and Eastern Europe) but rather trace their lineage to the Jews of the Persian Empire. Mountain Jews tenaciously held to their religion throughout the centuries, developing their own unique traditions and religious practices, which are infused with teachings of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. The Azerbaijan affiliate of the World Jewish Congress is the Baku Religious Community of European Jews.
Baku Religious Community of European Jews
President: Gennadi Zelmanovich
The Mountain Jews community has its roots in the Persian Empire, dating back to the 5th century of the Common Era. Their language, called Judeo-Tat, is an ancient Southwest Iranian language which integrates many elements of Ancient Hebrew.
It is believed that they had reached Persia from Ancient Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. They continued to migrate eastward, settling in the mountainous areas of the Caucasus. The Mountain Jews survived numerous historical vicissitudes by settling in extremely remote and mountainous areas. They were known to be accomplished warriors and horseback riders.
Mountain Jews never experienced anti-Semitism and lived in peaceful and respectful coexistence with their neighbors and thrived, especially in Azerbaijan where their main settlement and religious center, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, also called the Jerusalem of the Caucasus, is located. In Russian, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, believed to be the oldest Jewish town outside of Israel, was once referred to as Yevreskaya Sloboda (Jewish Village), but during Soviet times it was renamed Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Village).
Mountain Jews are distinct from the Georgian Jews of the Caucasus Mountains. The two groups are culturally and ethnically different, speak different languages, and have many different customs and traditions.
The first Ashkenazi Jews settled in Baku in 1811. Their immigration was relatively steady leading them to outnumber the local Mountain Jewish community by 1910. They settled mostly in the booming oil-rich city of Baku. The Caspian-Black Sea Company, one of the leading oil companies in the Russian Empire, was established in Baku by Alphonse James de Rothschild, a member of the French branch of the Rothschild banking family. Jevsei Gindes served as Minister of Healthcare and Social Security of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918-1919, and is considered the founder of modern pediatric medicine in the country.
Many Ashkenazi Jews emigrated from Azerbaijan in the post-1972 aliyah, with the result that by the mid-1990s Mountain Jews were the country’s largest Jewish group.
Like many immigrant communities of the Czarist and Soviet eras in Azerbaijan, Ashkenazi Jews appear to be linguistically Russified. Most Ashkenazi Jews speak Russian as their first language with Azeri being spoken as the second.
During the Soviet era, many Jews in Azerbaijan married outside their community. In 1989, 48% of the country’s Ashkenazi Jews and 18% of Mountain Jews were married to non-Jews.
Beginning in the 1960s, Azerbaijan's Jewish community experienced a cultural revival. Jewish samizdat publications started being printed. Many cultural and Zionist organizations were reestablished in Baku and Sumqayit since 1987, and the first legal Hebrew courses in the Soviet Union were given in Baku.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a yeshiva opened in Baku in 1994, and an Ohr Avner Chabad Day School was established in 1999. In 1994, Hebrew was studied at one state university and offered as a course choice in two secondary schools. On May 31, 2007, a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Ohr Avner Chabad Centre for Jewish Studies took place in Baku.
Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that the Azerbaijan Jewish community numbered between 8,600 and 16,000 as of 2009.
Azerbaijan Jewry has no umbrella organization. There are 10 to 15 Jewish bodies in Baku, including Zionist groups, youth associations, and an Azerbaijan-Israel Friendship Organization.
The Jewish Community of Azerbaijan was affiliated with the WJC at the organization’s 13th Plenary Assembly in 2009. It is also affiliated with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
In 2007 there were three synagogues in Baku: a Mountain Jewish congregation, which is the oldest and largest of the Jewish houses of worship, an Ashkenazi synagogue, and a Georgian one. There are two synagogues in Qırmızı Qəsəbə near Quba, and one in Oğuz. There are eight Jewish religious communities registered in the state: five in Baku (the “Azerbaijani Jews” community, led by Chabad representative R. David Mirov, a community each of Bukharian, Ashkenazi, and Georgian Jews, and the Jerusalem community) and one each in the Krasnaya (Evreiskaya) Sloboda settlement in the Quba region, Sumgait, and Oghuz.
Since 1996, Jewish communal life in Azerbaijan has flourished. There are women’s charitable organizations in Baku: the humanitarian Association of Jewish Women (est. 1992) and Hava (est. 1996) – which have assumed the responsibility of providing medical care, material and other support to Jewish families in need.
There is a total of five Jewish schools in Baku and Quba (including a day school) with a total enrollment of 1,450 students.
The Va’ad le-Atzala helped open a yeshiva and a school in Baku in 1999-2001, and another yeshiva in Krasnaya Sloboda. Another Jewish school and kindergarten was opened in Baku in September 2002 (receiving their official license in 2003) with the aid of the Or Avner Foundation. In May 2010, the Chabad Or Avner learning complex in Baku moved into new, specially built premises.
In December 2005, a kindergarten was opened in Krasnaya Sloboda, also within the Or Avner network. In October 2006, an educational center was opened by the Jewish Agency office in Baku. There is an active Maccabi sports organization with over 300 members.
There are four monthly Jewish magazines published in Baku: Nash Izrail (Our Israel, published by the Jewish cultural center of the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan); Or Shelanu (Our Light, published by the Jewish cultural center of the Joint); The Tower (published by the Hillel youth club); and Chesed-Gershon (published by the welfare center of the same name). In November 2004, the Chabad-Lubavitch community of Azerbaijan launched a website called Jews of Azerbaijan: www.jewish.az
Since April 1992, Israel and Azerbaijan have maintained strong bilateral relations, making the Asian country one of only a handful of Muslim-majority countries that have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. Azerbaijan has forged a fruitful relationship with Israel despite the criticism from their Muslim neighbors like Iran and Turkey.
The strategic relationship includes cooperation in trade and security matters as well as cultural and educational exchanges. Relations entered a new phase in August 1997 during the visit of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku. Since then Israel has been developing closer ties with Azerbaijan and has helped modernize the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan.
Between 2000 and 2005, Israel rose from being Azerbaijan's tenth largest trading partner to its fifth. According to U.N. statistics, between 1997 and 2004, exports from Azerbaijan to Israel increased from barely over $2 million to $323 million, fueled mostly by the high price of oil.
Israeli Embassy in Baku
1033 Izmir Street
Telephone: +994 12 490 78 81
Telephone: +994 12 490 78 82
Fax: +994 12 490 78 92