"Actually, we didn't have enough funds to finance the project, but we stepped out in faith," explained Zelmanovich. "Our principle has always been: 'Let's go ahead and build and somehow, somewhere, we'll find the money'. There are still bills to pay, but I think that individuals as well as Jewish organizations will help us."
In Azerbaijan the Jewish population is estimated to be about 25-30 thousand people. The community can be divided into three main groups: the Ashkenazi / European Jews, Mountain Jews, and Georgian Jews. Another significant community of Mountain Jews resides near Guba, a town north of Baku near the border of Dagestan.
"Jews in Azerbaijan are expressing a great interest in their own traditions," Zelmanovich said. "After being subject to the Soviet information blockade and restrictions on religious freedom, many Azerbaijani Jews are unfamiliar with Jewish traditions. Now they are starting to learn Hebrew and celebrate the Jewish holidays." On Jewish holidays, the newly built 250-seat hall is overflowing with celebrants.
Guests at the synagogue's opening ceremony included Abbas Abbasov (Azerbaijan's First Vice Premier), Hidayat Orujov (President Aliyev's Advisor in National Politics), Rafig Aliyev (Chairman of the Committee of Religious Education), Sheykhulislam Allahshukur Pashazade, (Chairman of the Religious Administration of Caucasian Muslims), Bishop Alexander of Baku and the Near Caspian. Many members of the diplomatic corps attended the ceremony including ambassadors from Israel, Poland, Russia, Germany and the United States.
Other honored guests were Alexander Antonovich Mashkevich (President of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress), Berl Lazar (Head Rabbi of Russia), Telman Ismayil (famous businessman and one of the sponsors of the construction), and Gennadiy Khazanov, (People's Artist of Russia).
In order to educate the Jewish population in Azerbaijan, two American organizations, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC) and the World Jewish Agency Sokhnut have been active in spreading awareness of Jewish culture and traditions. Also the Israeli Embassy has played a major role. These American organizations along with Jews from Baku living abroad have helped sponsor the construction of the new synagogue.
The new synagogue has two prayer halls: the smaller one for Georgian Jews and the larger for Ashkenazi / European Jews. The building also has a kosher dining room that can accommodate 70 people. There is also a study center and a library for religious books. Meir Bruk has been assigned as the congregation's rabbi.
Gennadiy Zelmanovich, Chairman
of the Baku Religious Community of European Jews, was interviewed
by Arzu Aghayeva. Contact Zelmanovich: Tel: (994-12) 98-02-47,
Fax: (994-12) 98-02-50 or firstname.lastname@example.org.