Baku and Istanbul: A Tale of Two Cities

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The author visits a retired Jewish engineer with respiratory problems in Baku through JDC's Hesed Gershon welfare center.

The everyday lives of Jews in the State of Israel and throughout the Middle East are at constant risk – a risk that is political, cultural, spiritual, and existential. Thankfully, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and its affiliated agencies such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel are there to help. 

I recently took part in the Jewish Federations of North American National Young Leadership Cabinet study mission to Baku, Azerbaijan and Istanbul, Turkey. Jewish communities in the United States should care about these countries because they neighbor Iran, they are important allies of the U.S., and they are home to Jewish minority populations of approximately 20,000 within almost entirely Muslim populations.

Since Azerbaijan obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, this oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea has successfully developed the massive Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to the West. As a result, Azerbaijan’s GDP has exploded from $8 billion to over $67 billion in the last decade. Although the political leadership has been accused of authoritarianism, Azerbaijan has progressively directed oil and gas revenues toward poverty reduction and infrastructure investment. Azerbaijan bears many similarities to Dubai and its coastline, Neftchilar Avenue, is lined with five-star hotels, designer boutiques, and luxury cars. The skyline is dramatized by the 600-foot Flame Towers, three skyscrapers outfitted with 10,000 LED lights. 

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev is a friend to Israel and to the local Jewish population.  In fact, over 40 percent of Israel’s oil is supplied by Azerbaijan, and Israel recently agreed to sell $1.6 billion worth of weapons to Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the Azerbaijan constitution provides for religious freedom, and the Synagogue of Baku recently received its first Torah scroll, which was funded in part by a special grant from President Aliyev. 

Our group of 75 North American young Jewish leaders visited Azerbaijan’s Kuba Mountain Jewish community (population of 3,000), which includes a secondary school and a synagogue. We then visited the Hesed Gershon welfare center and took part in a visit to the home of a retired Jewish engineer with respiratory problems and a dismal monthly income of $232. JDC, a JUF-affiliated humanitarian assistance organization, supports this retiree with a bank card for food purchases and with winter relief.

We also met with young Jewish leaders who previously took part in summer camps sponsored by the Jewish Agency and saw the flourishing Chabad Day School where we were welcomed with a student choir. Our meetings with senior U.S. and Azerbaijan officials supported this country’s warm relations with Israel and its local Jewish community. 

With a population of 74 million and a GDP of $789 billion, Turkey is a power player in the Middle East. The vibrant ethos of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (3,000 shops with over 250,000 visitors) reflects the country’s influences of the west and the east. 

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarian moves have triggered a series of mass protests within this split society searching for a modern identity. Discontent is based on rumors of corruption within the ruling ranks, demands for improved health and housing services, disagreements about separation of religion and state (Turkey has 82,693 mosques), and restrictions on freedom of the press (with bans on Twitter and YouTube). Nonetheless, Turkey is an important U.S. ally based on shared interests in regional security and economic cooperation. The relationship with Israel, however, is still recovering from the 2010 "Gaza Freedom Flotilla” raid.    

In Istanbul, we visited the Jewish Day School, toured the JDC Assisted Old Age Home, and attended Shabbat Services at the Sisli Synagogue. A particularly gloomy stop on our trip was the Neve Shalom Synagogue (the largest Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul), which was attacked by terrorists in 1986 and 2003. We engaged in active discourse with numerous members of the local Jewish community and met with the Israeli Consul General. We also saw firsthand the massive demonstrations on Taksim Square on May 1, the Labor and Solidarity Day in Turkey.

With the recent overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and with Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine, the daily conditions of the local Jewish communities in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe should be of primary importance to all of us. The intimate bond of the Jewish people transcends all borders – Jews will always respond to human suffering because it is our responsibility to do so. Fortunately, JUF and its affiliated agencies in Baku and Istanbul are serving in the spirit of tzedakah,tikkun olam and klal yisrael to build bridges to Judaism and Israel through education and to preserve the value of every single Jewish life.

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