(JNS) — A Jewish Cultural Center will be constructed in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku near the city’s main synagogue, Azerbaijani officials announced on Thursday.
The center will include Jewish and Bible classes, a Sunday School for kids, classes in Hebrew, English and Juhuri, the ancient language of the Mountain Jews, as well as a kosher restaurant.
The state-funded project comes amid burgeoning relations between Israel and Azerbaijan, as the centuries-long affinity between the two countries develops into an unprecedented strategic partnership.
The 10-acre plot upon which the four-story center is to be constructed was gifted to the Jewish community by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, who is covering all the building costs as well, according to Rabbi Avraham Yakubov, the spiritual leader of Baku’s ancient Mountain Jews.
Construction is expected to begin in the coming months, and to be completed by the end of 2024, he said.
“In the world there has not been a place like this [Azerbaijan], where Jews have always lived at peace with their [Muslim] neighbors and where we have never once experienced antisemitism,” Yakubov told JNS. “The blossoming relations with Israel have only made it even better for us here.”
An ancient history
It is believed that Jews first arrived on the territory of Azerbaijan following the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
Azerbaijan today is home to three distinct Jewish communities: European Jews, who settled in the area during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and during World War II; Jews from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, who settled mainly in Baku during the early part of the 20th century; and Mountain Jews, the most sizable and ancient group, who have inhabited the Caucasus since the fifth century CE.
At a time of heightened antisemitism across the globe, Azerbaijan — home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world — is considered free of such animus, with the country’s 25,000 to 30,000 Jews living in harmony with their predominantly Muslim neighbors, who have formed a special friendship and affinity towards Israel.
The city, which is seeking an influx of Israeli and Jewish tourists from around the world, has three synagogues, two Jewish schools, a just-opened kosher restaurant and hotels that cater to strictly kosher groups.
This fall, hundreds of European rabbis from across the continent will be gathering in Azerbaijan for the biennial convention of the Conference of European Rabbis, at the invitation of President Aliyev, who will serve as the honorary host. The event will mark the first time such a conference has been held in a Muslim nation.