At an impressive event in Berlin, members of the Azerbaijani Jewish community marked the 10th anniversary since the establishment of the Caucasus Jewish community in Germany, a community that continues to preserve its unique centuries-old traditions of its mother community in Baku. The event was attended by various Rabbis and public figures, as well as hundreds of members of the community who came from several cities around Germany. Attendees included Dr Gideon Joffe, the President of the Jewish community of Berlin; Avi Shefatiya, Chairman of the Jewish Caucasus Jewish community in Germany; Nasimi Aghayev, the Azerbaijani ambassador to Germany; and representatives from the World Jewish Congress and the Central Council of Jews. The event took place in cooperation with the International Foundation of Mountain Jews, STMEGI, headed by Dr Gabriel German Zakharyayev.
In a congratulatory speech, Rabbi Avichai Apel, who serves as Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt, Chairman of the German Rabbinic Organization, and Vice-President of the Conference of European Rabbis, said that “In Germany, we are celebrating a decade of the Mountain Jews in Berlin, a community that has become part of the impressive mosaic of communities of Germany, and whose members contribute enormously due to their traditional practices and connection to Jewish life. In their country of origin - Azerbaijan, Jewish life is bustling and lively, thanks to an accommodating and generous government that is an outstanding advocate of religious freedom and supports and encourages as much as it can. As a result, the esteemed community of Mountain Jews is flourishing. The thriving community that has developed in Berlin is not an offshoot of Azerbaijani Jewry, but an integral part thereof. To paraphrase the poem of Rabbi Yehuda Halevy, “I am in the East but my heart is at the ends of the West.” The Azerbaijani community can feel their western surrounds, but their hearts are in the East, in Azerbaijan. They are physically in Germany, but their hearts lie with Baku and Krasnaya Sloboda. And their souls are the combined Jewish soul that yearns for – and dwells in Jerusalem. The Jewish community from Azerbaijan will eventually find their hearts in the West.
Rabbi Apel continued explaining, saying that “The people of Israel are undergoing one of the most difficult periods of their history, when Amalek has once again risen against us to destroy us. Amalek, a kingdom of heresy, fought a war with the Creator of the world, and therefore he also fights with the people of Israel. He tried to dampen the faith in the Creator and tail the people lagging at the back – those whose faith had dwindled because of hardships on the road during the exodus from Egypt. It was a spiritual struggle that began then, and continued throughout the generations. It was an attempt to freeze the hearts of the believers. In this spiritual war, we were commanded to eradicate the memory of Amalek, that is to say, to remove every trace of Amalek.
Today the Jewish people face many other kinds of hardship: In Israel, Hamas conducted an attack on October 7th to undermine existing security measures; anti-Semitism is on the rise all over the world. Around the globe, there is increasing hatred of the world for the people of the world, and the Jews are being forced to play down their Judaism. Amalek wanted us to feel the difficulty being Jewish and therefore feel the futility thereof. But I must make mention of one country that not only does not harass our people, but its citizens don’t even harass the Jews on its streets. To the contrary - it empowers Jewish identity and widely supports Jewish religious life. Muslim Azerbaijan does not only advocate and practice freedom of religion, but goes above and beyond. Azerbaijan is a bright spotlight in a time of darkness and dimming light. It is a projector of light which it radiates and spreads, scattering away the darkness.”
Rabbi Apel went on to stress that “for Jews, memory is fundamental. Many of the practical commandments are a ‘remembrance of the exodus from Egypt,’ a ‘remembrance of the act of creation.’ It is not an casual type of remembering, such that we suddenly get a flash reminder, but a memory that guides and shapes us. We are therefore obligated to remember evil: ‘Remember what Amalek did to you,’ so that we can protest beneath the heavens against his acts that try to instill heresy within us. However, as Jews we are obligated to be grateful to our benefactors and remember the good that Azerbaijan showers on its Jewish citizens.”
The rabbi of the Georgian Sephardic community in Azerbaijan, Rabbi Zamir Isayev, who is one of the leading rabbis of the community and head of its educational institutions, as well as a member of the international division of the Conference of European Rabbis, also delivered a speech. He added that “The approaching festival of Purim reminds us that in the Persian city of Shushan, they rose up to destroy us, while many years later, in the city of Baku, which is not far away, we are embraced. In the name of freedom of religion, they help us cultivate our faith and way of life.” He also highlighted that “Specifically in Azerbaijan, the community exists in light of a long tradition that has lasted generations, so the spirit of Amalekite heresy is weaker. Yet this is precisely why it should be a reminder to the young community in Germany to be careful of the heretic spirit of Western Europe, which can affect the tradition of the younger generation, which we must ensure to preserve.”
In this context, Rabbi Apel pointed out that the event was taking place on the 136th anniversary of the passing of the great leader who shaped German Jewry, Rabbi Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch, a righteous man of blessing, the savior of German Jewry during its great spiritual war. Rabbi Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch was not only a commentator. In the merit of the depths of his understanding, he could see into the distance, like a prophet, a seer. He understood the origins of the events of his time and the difficult confrontation between faith and the heresy that German Jewry faced at the time. He knew the secret to the spiritual survival of the Jewish nation and the foundation of its existence. Therefore, his statements which became his writing, are a timeless message for the generations.
“We are approaching Purim, when the Jewish people faced the decree of Haman ben Hamdata the Agagite, the most famous descendant of Amalek. The Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor, on which we read and remind ourselves what Amalek did then, in order to blot out the spirit that seeks to uproot the Jewish people from its Judaism. Let us quote a little from the writings of Rabbi Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch.”
These were words of reinforcement from Rabbi Apel to the members of the community that flourishes in its own right on the one hand, but also integrates and is a part of Germany. He quoted the following words: “It would be an evil mistake if we thought that the way to acquire the friendship of the nations would be by withdrawing from the set of our unique traits. Because this is where the head of the ancestral lineage of Haman struck Israel, before they had even accepted upon themselves the laws from Sinai, that set them apart from all the other nations. Hence, even if we abandon the legacy from Sinai, which was passed down to us, and shrink, diminish, and undermine the positive side of our Judaism, a tiny hint will be enough, a thin shard of Judaism will place its mark on you – and it will even be purely the name, ‘Jew,’ – that will have Amalek and Haman rise against you and enhance their hostility towards you in every generation.”
Rabbi Apel called on the community to remain strong in their ancient tradition, which they have observed and clung to, and not give in to the atmosphere of the time and place, including German soil: “The Mountain Jews have been privileged not to have dealt with the problems and tension between Israel and other nations. In contrast to the German Jewish community, which dealt with the advent of assimilation, the Mountain Jews have deep roots and have always held on to a solid trunk whose leaves have adhered to the tradition of our forefathers. Only those whose roots are short shed their leaves, and those with deep roots stand forever. With roots like these and water – “There is no water but Torah” – there is no doubt that this beautiful community which has completed a decade, will add additional layers to a Judaism that is strong, and they will flourish.”
The Chairman of the German Rabbinic Organization gave a second address and thanked the State of Azerbaijan for its freedom of religion and assistance in supporting the Jewish people, that didn’t require Jews to abandon their set of special Jewish qualities in order to gain the friendship of the Azerbaijani people and its government, and who provide wonderful hospitality and aid the Jews in being proud in their host country. Additionally, he made mention of a diplomatic error and expressed his consternation at the American State Department, which in a special report pointed out “deficiencies” in freedom of religion in Azerbaijan, a country that alongside its commitment to the safety of all its citizens, its government extends goodwill to all religions.