Euroasian Jewish News
New center aims to preserve traditions of "Mountain Jews"
The Association of Mountain Jews Community Center opened recently in Moscow under the sponsorship of well-known Russian businessmen God Nisanov and Zarakh Iliev. This event was important for the entire community, a way of uniting the diaspora and giving them a place to gather for socializing and prayer. The center will help preserve the unique cultural and historical traditions of Mountain Jews, which is one of the main focuses of the charity work of Nisanov and Iliev.
Mountain Jews have very ancient and rich traditions. Historically, Mountain Jewish communities have been located mainly on the territory of what is now Azerbaijan and Dagestan. Nisanov and Iliev own Kievskaya Ploshchad, one of the largest property development companies in Russia, come from Azerbaijan themselves. They were born and raised in a unique town called Krasnaya Sloboda, which has been one of the centers of Orthodox Judaism in Azerbaijan since about the middle of the 18th century.
The first Jewish immigrants, who would later be called Mountain Jews, arrived in Azerbaijan about 2,000 years ago, and the residents of Krasnaya Sloboda today still honor and preserve Jewish traditions. The town originally had synagogues on almost every block with people gathering to read the Torah and pray. To this day, the descendants of those villagers recall their ancestors' stories, passed down from generation to generation, about how Jews lived together in Krasnaya Sloboda in ancient times. Although the size of the community has decreased greatly over the past quarter century, this village is still one of the largest communities of Mountain Jews in the world as well as a place of pilgrimage for people whose families have long since moved to other countries.
The spiritual unity of the Mountain Jewish community has been maintained, largely due to the fact that the locals have been able to preserve their ancient Juhuri language. It is also important that the villagers can take pride in their fellow townsmen who have achieved success in various fields. God Nisanov, for example, was elected vice president of the World Jewish Congress in 2014, uniting the communities of 115 countries. It is noteworthy that he became the first ever individual from the Mountain Jewish community to join the WJC leadership.
While it may be easier for a community to organically maintain its cultural identity in a relatively small village like Krasnaya Sloboda, it is much harder to do so in a large metropolis like Moscow. Many of Nisanov and Iliev's charitable projects in Russia support the unity of the diaspora and help preserve the language and unique traditions of the Mountain Jews for the next generation.
In Moscow, for example, one of Nisanov and Iliev's important initiatives is to support traditional Jewish education. New schools for children and adults are being opened where people can study and familiarize themselves with Jewish traditions and the Torah. For a long time, the cheder system was the basis of classical Jewish education. At one point in history, it was almost lost, but it is being revived in many countries in the 21st century.
Cheder Menachem at the Jewish Educational Center is an elementary school for children from religious families. The school is designed for 250 children to learn in small class sizes. They have access to the most modern equipment, and the school prides itself on its small and large synagogues as well as its extensive library.
In 2015, Nisanov and Iliev celebrated the grand opening of Cheder Menachem, affixing a blessing and a mezuzah (traditional parchment with verses from the Torah) to the front door. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who also attended the ceremony, remarked that there is a Jewish commandment to constantly strive to bring joy to others. “As you can see, by helping others have the joy of receiving an education, our benefactors comply fully with what is written in the Talmud,” he emphasized. The same year the school was opened, Nisanov and Iliev received a prestigious award from Russian Jewish communities for their support of educational projects.
A New Life for Historical Sites
By no means are the charitable activities of these well-known business executives limited to supporting the diaspora of Mountain Jews in Moscow. They also do a tremendous amount for their homeland of Azerbaijan. In particular, Nisanov invested in the reconstruction of a cannery in the Quba District, practically rebuilding it and equipping it with modern equipment. Over 200 new jobs were created as a result of this modernization. In addition, with the support and leadership of Nisanov and Iliev, a large logistics complex for processing and storing agricultural products is being built in the Khachmaz District near the border with Russia. Construction is scheduled to be completed next summer. After it opens, exporters will be able to optimize the logistics of delivering to Russia.
The business executives are also developing projects aimed at increasing tourism in Azerbaijan. One way they are doing this is with the world's first Mountain Jewish museum in Krasnaya Sloboda, the construction of which will soon be completed. The project was launched in 2017 at the initiative of Nisanov, Iliev, and the STMEGI charity. It will be opened in a restored synagogue that will feature the world’s only major collection of Mountain Jewish household items and cultural heritage.
In one way or another, many of the projects implemented by Nisanov and Iliev recently in Russia can be said to preserve cultural and historical heritage. During the reconstruction of a hotel in Moscow, they restored a unique collection of paintings by masters from the era of socialist realism. In March 2019, the business executives opened the state-of-the-art Depo gastronomic district in the Russian capital at the site of the former Mius Tram Depot, the oldest such depot in the city and a cultural-heritage site. All the buildings there, which were built in the late 19th century, were restored and preserved in their original form. At the same time, the site was reinvigorated in a new format.
Nisanov and Iliev are also currently working on a complex project that will consist of the construction of a hotel near Zaryadye Park. It will be built according to the original blueprints of the 19th century buildings.
These projects allow the businessmen to give cultural and historical monuments new life while preserving their importance and passing on traditions to the next generation. Similarly, the new Mountain Jewish community center will become a place of unity, where each member of the diaspora will be able to feel a part of their people's ancient culture and spiritual values as well as to become an emissary of that culture.
It is no coincidence that the center was opened in the month of Elul, when the selihoth repentant prayers are recited. In Nisanov and Iliev’s hometown of Krasnaya Sloboda, this tradition is given special significance. Even after electricity was introduced to the village, people did not stop bringing lanterns with them to the synagogues, symbols of enlightenment through repentance. These lanterns now illuminate the community center in Moscow.