AJA Students Take Mitzvah to Central Asia

Despite ethnic differences, Judaism spiritually connected students


“There is a difference between learning in the classroom and using one’s knowledge to create an impact in the world,” Devorah Chasen told the AJT about her recent trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, with fellow Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School junior Esther Benschitrit and sophomore Zoe Sokol to package matzah for the Jewish community.

The students, including a second sophomore who asked not to be identified, joined AJA alumnus George Birnbaum and Judaic studies curriculum coordinator Rabbi Reuven Travis, spent a week in Baku learning new customs, interacting with their Azerbaijani peers and packaging 13,000 boxes of matzah to deliver to Jewish families in the former Soviet republic and in neighboring Iran.

The participants were selected among 23 student applicants through a process that included essays, examinations by school counselor Pam Mason and head of general studies Joel Rojek, and input from the participants in AJA’s first matzah mission to Azerbaijan last year.

Jonathan Nooriel, who participated on AJA’s first trip to Baku in 2016, said the impact of the experience lasts. He cited a memory of serving as an impromptu translator: “A Persian man who arrived in the community one day possessed little to no knowledge of English or Hebrew. Yet, thanks to my Persian heritage, I was able to speak Farsi with him and facilitate a conversation. It was quite amazing, knowing that I was able to make a such a big difference and bring people together, despite their language barrier.”

While traveling to Azerbaijan over five years, Birnbaum often found himself at Chabad Rabbi Shneor Segal’s house for Shabbat or Sukkot and learned about the shortage of matzah for 20,500 Jews living in Iran.

Birnbaum saw the opportunity for AJA students to have a huge impact and gain an amazing educational and leadership experience.

“I am so proud of the community and the students’ efforts to raise money toward the trip,” he said. The students raised $6,000 for the matzah. “Planning and strategizing are part of the growth experience, and the students will use the new skills they gained for the rest of their lives.”

During the trip, the students connected to a different culture while sharing similarities within Judaism. “The Jewish community beyond that of Atlanta has always been a mystery to me, and I haven’t had the opportunity to visit many places outside Israel,” Zoe said. “I was eager to learn about new traditions within the Jewish faith while experiencing a new country.”

Azerbaijan is wedged between Russia and Iran and is a place where Muslims and Jews live in harmony, Birnbaum said.

Rabbi Travis said he felt more comfortable walking around Baku in a kippah than he did last year in Paris, where he felt the need to wear a baseball cap.

According to Rabbi Segal, young Jews in Baku have a tenuous relationship with practicing Judaism, but having the opportunity to see other Jewish youths changes their perception. “It means a lot to them when they realize you don’t have to be a rabbi to enjoy the religion.”

Programs such as Enerjew help students in Baku connect to Judaism.

“It was really cool to see this because, although a lot of the teens were not observant, they are still very involved in the Sunday school program and wanted to be engaged in Jewish spirituality. We were singing and learning, and all of them were so involved,” Zoe said.

“During Shabbat services, the girl sitting next to me was reading and singing the prayers in Russian, and you could tell how spiritually connected she was. Despite our ethnic differences, Judaism connected us all and became our common language,” Esther said.

Besides packaging matzah, the AJA students played a soccer game, had a private language class in Azerbaijani and visited a carpet museum. They also enjoyed a meal with the Chabad rabbis and their families.

The Atlanta students gained an understanding of the Baku community’s daily struggles to maintain a Jewish lifestyle. The Jewish school there has 200 students, who attend free. Interfaith marriages in which the mother is Jewish and the father is Muslim are common, but each household works hard to preserve Jewish customs.

“Baku is growing rapidly, which has led the Jewish community to disperse, yet the school and shul serve as a hub for Jewish experiences. In America, the beit knesset is defused, yet in Baku the synagogue is the beit knesset and the focal point of the community,” Rabbi Travis said.

Chabad helps a lot to preserve the religion before it disappears.

The faculty and students at AJA are raising the funding for another trip next year and are hoping to welcome Azerbaijani Jewish students to Atlanta.

“You have to live and experience life to learn about it,” Birnbaum said. “Seeing another Jewish community and the similarities we share is important, and spreading tikkun olam doesn’t always have to be within your own community, but outside the box you live in. The kids not only traveled to a foreign country, but one that is predominantly Muslim, to perform an enormous mitzvah. In doing so, they brought everything they learned from AJA, which could not have been accomplished without the school and faculty.”

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