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Saying Psalms in a Mosque: A Jewish, Muslim, Christian Collaboration

In an era of increasingly incendiary divisions  —  creating bridges becomes even more important.

Marking the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Khojaly massacre, a group of Jews, Muslims and Christians gathered at a local mosque to offers prayers and words of consolation over a tragedy that occurred half-way around the world. We did so to show solidarity with the victims, survivors and the people of Azerbaijan and to demonstrate that religion can be a powerful force for compassion and healing.

The event, jointly sponsored by the King Fahad Mosque, Pico Shul Synagogue and Azerbaijan’s Consulate in Los Angeles, marks the second annual event in Los Angeles commemorating Khojaly. The first event was held last year at Pico Shul Synagogue. We were honored to have the participation of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leadership including Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of the Centro Cristiano Bet-El, Father Eamon Kelly, L.C., Vice Chargé at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, Hypin Im, President and CEO of Korean Churches For Community Development; Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, President Emeritus of the Academy Of Jewish Religion; Steve Gilliland, Director of Interfaith Outreach for the Church Of Later Day Saints; Reverend Oliver E. Blue of Holman United Methodist Church; Rabbi Dov Cohen, Veterans and Prison Chaplain; and Imam Abdul Hafiz, Federal Muslim Chaplain of the Society to offer Prosperity & Peace. This remarkable collection of leaders and personalities is thanks to the dedication, friendship, and devotion to tolerance of Azerbaijan’s Consul General in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev and Mahomed Khan of the King Fahad Mosque.

Seated left to right: Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of the Centro Cristiano Bet-El and Mahomed Khan.

Seated left to right: Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez of the Centro Cristiano Bet-El and Mahomed Khan.

Standing in the mosque and reciting Tehillim, Psalms, I looked out at a large crowd assembled in the sanctuary. The diverse group included dignitaries from elected officials, Consul Generals, Honorary Consuls, FBI and LAPD representatives, as well as members of various ethnic communities.  There were Jewish and Muslim children whose parents want them to see that they should not fear diversity, but respect other’s religions.

The facts of the Khojaly massacre are tragic. On February 26, 1992, Armenian armed forces attacked the town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. Witnesses and survivors have described in details the massacre, during which six-hundred unarmed civilians, including women and children were murdered. It was the largest massacre in the conflict. To this date, none of the perpetrators of this massacre of civilians have been tried, and even some hold positions of leadership in Armenia.

After hearing from a survivor of the event Ansar Usubov and watching a filmed interview with Durdane Aghayeva, another survivor, we stood together in silence and then prayer. I recited a Hebrew prayer in memory of the victims standing together with a Bishop, Imam, and a Catholic Priest.

After the event, we sat down together for a meal in the mosque’s social hall. One table with a Halal dinner and another table with Kosher catering. We dined and discussed the event and strengthened our resolve to speak out against intolerance and hate, and work towards forging ties of peace and harmony.

While we can never bring back those who were gone, hopefully this event will help prevent future tragedies and bring healing to Azerbaijanis and the world.

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Bar Mitzvah in Baku

I recently traveled to Azerbaijan to speak at the 6th International Conference on Multiculturalism at Baku Slavic University. Azerbaijan is a developing country in the Caucuses on the Caspian Sea, rich in oil and agricultural resources, and committed to building a secular Muslim society tolerant of minorities. They enjoy good diplomatic and trade relations with Israel and America. Yes, Israel and America.

While admittedly I was nervous about what I would find once I reached Baku, my experience working with the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles had been so pleasant that I could not imagine anything other than a warm welcome. In fact, I spent the next three days as a reluctant VIP, in a whirlwind of activity, with touring, interviews, meetings, celebrations, teaching, and a boat ride on the Caspian Sea. This is part one of a series on my visit to Azerbaijan.

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David looks as nervous as any other 13 year old boy wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, standing on the bima in front of the torah on a Thursday morning. The rabbi coaxes him, and he recites the blessing before, and then the blessing after the torah reading. The candies rain down from the women’s gallery above as we break out in singing “siman tov, u mazal tov”. David is smiling, his father is beaming, and the joy in the synagogue is tremendous.

However, David is not in my synagogue in Los Angeles, but in the Mountain Jews Synagogue in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a Muslim country in the Caucasus.

It was my second morning joining the Mountain Jews for services. And like at other synagogues on a Thursday morning, identifying those those who were there for the Bar Mitzvah was easy: they came bearing gifts and food, and had yarmulkas perched awkwardly on their heads. Everyone was dressed-up for for the occasion. Unlike the previous day, the women’s gallery above was now full with women of all ages, their heads wrapped with colorful scarves. During David’s aliyah, when he was called up to bless the Torah, the women held lit candles.

This synagogue was built by the government in 2011 to replace their aging old synagogue, through the goodwill of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The floors are covered in colorful rugs, and there are even small rugs on many of the seats. (I would be given a gift of some of these small rugs to take home later by the head of the community.) I was honored by the rabbi to stand with him on the tall bima in middle of the room during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

The Jewish community of Azerbaijan lived in relative peace for centuries — some say thousands of years — before the Soviet Union began to destroy synagogues and repress Jewish life. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that Jewish life in Azerbaijan had a chance to breath again. Many Jews left for Israel, Moscow or America. But thousands stayed and are building Jewish life in Azerbaijan.

Like the rest of the country emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Baku is also in development. There are hundreds of children attending two Jewish day schools in Baku. The largest is Or Avner which is operated by the local Chabad emissary Rabbi Shneor Segal, who is nearing completion on a new kindergarten building on the campus of Or Avner (also donated by the government). There are Jewish clubs and other organizations. In addition to the Mountain Jews synagogue there is an Ashkenazi and a Georgian Synagogue in Baku.

After the Bar Mitzvah and morning services, I joined the community and guests in the synagogue basement for a celebratory meal including vodka, tea and pomegranate juice to accompany the breads, salads, olives, omelettes and pastries. I sat with synagogue’s head rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov, who I had previously met when he visit LA with a delegation of Azerbaijani Jews. We conversed in Hebrew about the weekly Shabbat meals that he supervises which the synagogue serves, and other community and charity work that he is doing. Then Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Mountain Jews community in Azerbaijan, offered blessings and toasts in Azeri and Juhuri, the local Jewish language.

I made a few l’chaims, ate some pastries, and then had to run — a car was waiting to take me Kultura Plus, a Azerbaijan TV station, for an interview. However, you cannot just run out empty handed in Baku, that’s not the way it works. Two men quickly assembled a plate full of local sweets and a gift bag for me to take, and I wished everyone Mazal Tov!

Photos to accompany by article about David's Bar Mitzvah in Baku.

Posted by Rabbi Yonah on Thursday, May 21, 2015

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Yizkor for Khojaly: Sharing Sorrow and Hope

On February 21-22, Pico Shul, our newly established spiritual community in Los Angeles, organized a “Solidarity and Commemoration Weekend” with local Azerbaijanis and the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan. These are some of my reflections.

On the world stage, Jews and Muslims are viewed as mortal enemies. This weekend in our synagogue we demonstrated that not only do Jews and Muslims have the capacity to be at peace — they can even be friends.

For millennia, Jews have enjoyed unparalleled security, peace and friendship with the people of Azerbaijani. Jews who were persecuted in other areas found refuge and safety within this predominantly Muslim nation. With Azerbaijan’s rebirth as an independent nation after the fall of Soviet Union, that friendship remains, and in many ways has even grown.

But we did not gather to discuss geopolitics, or the latest advances in trade and relations between Israel and Azerbaijan. We gathered because, in the words of my friend Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, friends are there for one another when things are going well and when things are down.

Twenty-three years ago, in February 1992, Armenian militants and soldiers in the town of Khojaly murdered six hundred and thirteen innocent Azerbaijani men, women, and children during the Nagorno-Karabakh War and injured hundreds more. Thousands of residents of the town were made homeless. Supporters of Armenia dispute the number of dead, the identity of the perpetrators, and many issues surrounding the event. However, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers back the Azerbaijan account.

We listened to Anar Usubov as he told his painful story of survival. He lost 27 members of his immediate and extended family in the massacre. When he showed a Google map aerial view of his old home – now in ruins – we all felt his deep, permanent sense of loss.

But when we watched the video testimony of Durdane Aghayeva, who gave a detailed account of the massacre, her torture and captivity — that is when we cried. Durdane was a 20 year old girl when she was caught by militants fleeing the massacre. She was assaulted and tortured over eight days. She was placed naked in a tub of ice-water for hours at a time. She was tied to a chair, and had cigarettes extinguished on her knees because she refused to speak. They beat her so often and so mercilessly that she couldn’t walk.

But through sharing those stories, bearing witness to tragedy, and mourning together – we are planting seeds of hope. For here, in this Jewish house of worship, we had Muslims and Jews demonstrating solidarity, not strife.

When I recited Yizkor, the most solemn Jewish prayer of remembrance, I did not feel we were two antagonistic groups. Rather, we all felt a powerful unity of faith and humility as all children of the same God.

Jews are grateful for the friendship of the people of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Azerbaijan, both with the State of Israel and Jewish communities across the world. I pray that our friendship continues to grow and deepen, bringing peace and prosperity to our peoples.

May God comfort the mourners of Khojaly, may we see peace soon in Nagorno-Karabakh, and let Muslims, Christians, and Jews search for pathways of reconciliation to overcome darkness with light.

Shalom, Sülh.