Ancient Jewish Community Embraces Full Time Rabbi


January 3, 2005

The city of Derbent, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, is home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the Caucasus region of Russia. With its unique set of Jewish customs, the origins of Derbent's Jews, also known as Mountain Jews, is a matter of some speculation. Possibly, they are descendants of Persian-Jewish soldiers who were stationed in the Caucasus by the Sasanian kings in the fifth or sixth century; some say they are of the lost tribes of Israel, and others claim that Talmudic mention of "Terbent" refers to this city.

But whatever their origins, the estimated 5-8,000 Jews of this seaport city in the Russian province of Dagestan, now has its own resident rabbi, a first in 70 years, according to a report on the Federation of Jewish Communities website,

With the sponsorship of the Rohr Family Foundation, Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and Derbent community chairman Miir Mishiyev invited Rabbi Ovadya Isaakov, a native of Derbent, to serve as the city's full time rabbi.

A graduate of the Chabad Lubavitch Yeshiva in Moscow, Ovadya studied in Israel, has experience teaching the Talmud and Jewish philosophy, and worked as a tutor at Moscow's 'Mesivta' High School. He is also a fine artist, whose works on Jewish themes are exhibited at the Moscow JCC.

Rabbi Isaakov is joined by his wife Esther, a native of Ukraine and a graduate of the Beit Chana Jewish teachers college in Dnepropetrovsk.

Today, Derbent' community includes a Talmud Torah, a Youth Club, Library, Women's Club, a historical museum, Jewish Burial Society, and a Jewish cemetery. Derbent is home to nearly 600 Jewish children of school age who as yet, do not have a Jewish day school of their own.

In 1917, Derbent’s Jewish community boasted 11 synagogues. Today, only one, the Great Synagogue remains. Having acquired possession of this building, the Jewish community is now raising funds to renovate it. With its 500-square-meter prayer hall still bearing original architectural and decorative details, the synagogue will be renovated to include a mikveh, a community center and Sunday school classrooms.

Rabbi Isaakov has visited Derbent several times during his studies and organized this year's Chanukah festivities. He has also discovered many rare books and Torah scrolls stored in the Synagogue, part of which he took to Moscow for restoration.

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