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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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”
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.