When Azerbaijan’s Askenazi chief rabbi invited a young Moscow rabbi to run Baku’s Jewish youth programs, he jumped at the chance to work with one of the largest and most active youth communities in Azerbaijan, despite offers from other European countries.
Rabbi Nakhshon Yunaev was the young rabbi from Moscow who came to the Azerbaijani capital just over a month ago. Rabbi Yunaev worked at the Moscow Jewish Community Center, where he initiated Yeshivot Erev, a Torah-study program for students and young adults. He recruited 40 students in the program’s first year, exceeding all expectations. Since arriving in Baku, Rabbi Yunaev has settled in with his family and become familiar with his new surroundings. As he gets ready to begin his new role, he says that friendly relations between Russia and Azerbaijan make Jews feel comfortable in all parts of Azerbaijani life.
“We raise the level of Jewish self-awareness and explain what it means to be a practicing Jew and teach lessons from the Torah. Because of the pandemic, we have very small group classes, as well as online classes, but despite the challenge, we’ve already gotten to know many members of our community. It’s nice to see plenty of young people at our events who are interested in the Jewish way of life, who want to learn more about our traditions and customs. We motivate them to look within themselves to find the human traits of helping others, solidarity, and brotherhood and try to develop their inner talents. We also organize various seminars, lectures, and Shabbat programs. The scope of our activities is constantly growing. For me, being a Shliach means being fully devoted to working with Jewish youth”, says Rabbi Yunaev.
Before the pandemic, Jewish students from Azerbaijan regularly took part in seminars and trips to Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the US. Recently, a group of young Jews from Azerbaijan and Russia visited Dubai. There is already a Chabad center operating there, and several weddings have taken place there as well.
Choosing Baku was partly a personal decision, Rabbi Yunaev explains: “Although I grew up in Moscow, I am a “Mountain Jew.” I finished my first yeshiva there, then continued my education in Israel and the United States. I received job offers from Germany, Israel, Cyprus, Estonia, and other countries where Russian-speaking rabbis are needed, but it was an honor for me be invited to work with the Chief Rabbi of Azerbaijan, Shneur Segal. I think the locals also prefer to have a rabbi who grew up with the same traditions they grew up with. Also, my wife Eden is originally from Baku, and is a graduate of the local Chabad Or-Avner school, and her family lives here. Now she runs a Jewish home and organizes events for girls.”
The families of Rabbi Shneur Segal and Eden Yunayeva have known each other for a long time. The head of the Ashkenazi community met Nakhshon before his wedding to a girl from Baku. Back then, Segal and his wife led the young couple to the Chupah; now the Segals are helping them in their professional and spiritual development. We spoke with Rabbi Shneur as well.
“He is one of the most promising young Russian-speaking rabbis, and he has the right experience for the job. Of course, it’s an advantage that he comes from a family of “Mountain Jews;” his wife was born and raised in Baku and is a graduate of our school. They understand the local culture, its mentality, traditions, and customs, giving them a common language with the local youth. It would normally take a lot of time for a new rabbi to adapt and understand, but Nakhshon was able to get his bearings very quickly.”, says Rabbi Segal.
The main goal of Rabbi Yunaev will be to establish personal contact with the youth community, build confident communication. The Jewish community in Azerbaijan is the largest among countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. Local community leaders are trying to create conditions for people to live a Jewish way of life. There are now more than 350 young people between the ages of 18 to 35 who participate in community events. Rabbi Yunaev will have to involve them in community life so they feel part of it, while at the same time, encouraging them to give back to their community. Besides participating in different events, young people are engaged in volunteer work, such as helping the elderly.
Rabbi Yunaev decided to move to Baku despite the recent military conflict, which affected many residents of Azerbaijan. “My wife’s relatives told us about what happened here. We know that everybody was ready to help and support each other during those difficult times. It did not stop us from coming here. On the contrary, in situations like these, people need additional support, and we are ready to provide it. For us, it was important to know that we were going to help the Jews of Azerbaijan”, he says.