In Azerbaijan to tout his country’s ties with the predominantly-Muslim former Soviet republic, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman toured FJC’s Or Avner Chabad day school in the capital of Baku, meeting with various Jewish organizations one day after sitting down with President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
“Whenever he is on a trip, he likes to visit the local Jewish communities,” said Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shneor Segal, chief rabbi of the Eurasian country, which despite bordering Iran, maintains strong diplomatic relations with Israel.
Before heading off to Switzerland, where he was due to meet with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter in Bern, Lieberman pronounced the state of bilateral relations to be excellent.
“Relations with Azerbaijan could not be better,” Lieberman told reporters. “They are trusting and productive.”
While in the capital, Lieberman also presided over the opening of the Israel and Middle East Research Centre at the University of Foreign Languages in Baku.
The two countries have maintained diplomatic relations since Israel become one of the first nations to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lieberman’s visit to the Ohr Avner school, a 4,200-square-meter complex in the heart of the capital that was inaugurated in 2010 by Aliyev, follows a visit last December by Israeli Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon.
Like Kahlon, the Israeli foreign minister was impressed by the vibrancy of a Jewish community so close in proximity to Iran, but so welcomed by its moderate Muslim neighbors. The school serves a student a population of approximately 450 pupils.
The minister watched as kindergarteners drew pictures depicting key Jewish concepts such as love of another, and while older students studied classic Jewish texts.
“He was very touched to see so many Jewish kids learning,” said Segal.
Built on almost four acres of land, the school was a project of businessman and Ohr Avner Foundation founder Lev Leviev, who ensured the cooperation of the late President Heydar Aliyev and his son, the current president.
A year after its opening, a new synagogue – with a sanctuary accented by high ceilings and towering windows, a luminous chandelier and an ornate ark to house the synagogue’s Torah scrolls – was built for the so-called Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan with government funding.
Lieberman toured the synagogue during his first official visit to the area as foreign minister.
But seeing Jewish children learning in a high-quality Jewish school made Lieberman especially proud.
“As a boy growing up in the former Soviet Union, having a big impressive school like this was just a dream,” said Lieberman.
Segal, who came to the region in 2003 on behalf of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union, called the meeting very successful.
“This signals the importance of our Jewish community,” said Segal. “We hope that we will continue to be a place of Jewish pride.”