The Art and Healing of Rabbi Ovadia Isakov of Derbent

Three years after his near assassination attempt, Dagestan’s rabbi is back working—and painting

By Dovid Margolin   |

It was after midnight when the rabbi of Derbent, Dagestan, drove up to the gates of his apartment building. It wasn’t strange for Rabbi Ovadia Isakov to be coming home at that time, especially in the summer months when evening prayers don’t begin until late. On this late July evening in 2013, Isakov had also been slaughtering kosher meat for Jews in the overwhelmingly Muslim republic in Russia, and so was pulling up at nearly 1 a.m.

He got out of his car to manually roll the gate open. From the corner of his eye, he saw a young man follow him into the building’s dark courtyard. Isakov became suspicious; the stranger stayed in the shadows, and his face was obscured. The rabbi walked back out onto the road, where the streetlights brightened the darkness. The stranger hurried after him, looking to see that no one was around. Then he pulled a gun out from his belt, pointed it at Isakov and fired.

For a time, the Rabbi of Derbent hung between life and death. Doctors operated, Chabad-Lubavitch officials in Moscow worked the phones, and Jewish communities worldwide prayed.

Three years later, Isakov, 43, is is doing well, and together with his wife, ChayaMiriam, remains co-director of ChabadLubavitch of Derbent. Dagestan is a hotbed of Islamic extremism and a growing provider of recruits for ISIS, which claims an affiliate in the region; thus, for continued safety reasons, the family lives in Moscow. Still, the rabbi travels to Derbent at least once a month, and is joined by his wife and five children for Jewish holidays. A number of operations and months of therapy—much of it in Israel, where Isakov was taken in the hours after the assassination attempt—have helped the rabbi navigate the long path of healing.

“After I was shot, I wanted to return fully to my physical self,” says the soft-spoken rabbi. Before he became religious, Isakov had been an accomplished artist, but mostly stopped painting after he went to yeshivah. Recuperating for a year in the mystical city of Safed in Israel’s north, Isakov suddenly had the time and inspiration to pick up a brush again. Back in Russia for the last two years, Isakov exhibited his latest work last month at Moscow’s municipal Center of the Arts.

“I wanted to heal completely,” says Isakov. “Painting was a part of my healing.”

From Dagestan to Moscow and Back Again

The Jews of the Caucuses, called Mountain Jews, are believed to have migrated from Persia more than a thousand years ago, living in relative peace and isolation for centuries. During Soviet times, their isolation proved to be a lifeline, and the Mountain Jews remained relatively connected to Jewish life, celebrating Shabbat, baking and eating matzah on Passover, and strictly marrying fellow Jews.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Dagestan’s neighboring republic of Chechnya—both heavily Muslim Russin republics—proclaimed independence and began fighting a devastating war with Russia. Chechnya’s fighters proclaimed their struggle a holy war, as did Dagestan’s when the latter declared independence in 1999. War, religious extremism and ensuing economic struggles have led the vast majority of Dagestan’s Jews, once numbered at 33,000, to leave the volatile nation.

Mountain Jews have settled around the world, and have a very large presence in Moscow. Meanwhile, terror attacks continue to spread throughout Dagestan, a place where Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months becoming radicalized; today, it’s considered far more violent and volatile than Chechnya.

Isakov’s family is from Derbent, and he grew up in the region’s capital, Makhachkala, where he began drawing as a child and joined local art clubs. After graduating, he attended an art institute in Makhachkala before spending six years at the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry, one of Russia’s oldest schools of industrial, monumental and decorative art design.

Coming from Dagestan, instructors told Isakov that as an Eastern artist, he ought to connect to the stylistic themes of his homeland.

“I needed to find myself,” says Isakov. “But although I was from Dagestan, I knew I had to turn within myself and discover my Jewish roots.”

Working on his graduate project, Isakov went to the Bolshoya Bronnaya synagogue in central Moscow, a Chabad center helmed by the venerable Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan. A wedding was taking place, the traditional chuppahcanopy held up by four people in the synagogue’s street-facing courtyard.

“It was a beautiful scene,” remembers the rabbi. “And under the chuppahweren’t young people; it was an elderly couple, and their children were holding it for them. That touched me. It was before Rosh Hashanah and they blew a shofar, and that also awakened my interest; I wanted to know and understand what was going on.”

The next seven years were spent at Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim, Chabad’s flagship yeshivah in Moscow. Interested only in studying about the heritage he otherwise knew little about, Isakov neglected his art. His teacher there, however, quoted the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—that he needed to be utilizing his skills to enrich the lives of others and the world around him, and not allow them to languish.

“He told me that if I had this special ability it was for a reason, and I couldn’t just let it go,” says Isakov.

In 2005, the Isakovs were sentas Chabad emissaries to Derbent, Ovadia becoming Dagestan’s chief rabbi. Slowly and patiently, they worked to nourish a dwindling Jewish community in the rough atmosphere of a dusty frontier town. Isakov revived the daily minyan, gave Torah classes, started a local Stars Jewish youth club (today called Eurostars) , performed Jewish weddings and slaughtered kosher meat.

In 2010, Derbent’s Jewish community saw the grand opening of a beautiful synagogue complex that includes a wood-paneled sanctuary and Russia’s southern most mikvah. The opening was attended by Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, and the Republic of Dagestan’s then-president Magomedsalam Magomedov.

“The opening of a Jewish community center in Derbent will help to preserve the traditions of the Jewish people, who are an integral part of the culture of Dagestan,” said Magomedov at the time.

Isakov was not the first Chabad emissary to toil in Derbent; he had been preceded by Rabbi Avraham Ilyaguyev, who currently leads the Mountain Jewish community in Moscow, which dwarfs that of Dagestan itself. Chabad’s work in the city goes back at least to the beginnings of communism, when, in the winter of 1921, Rabbi Nochum Shmaryahu Sossonkin was sent to Derbent to open a cheder by the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. He taught Torah to 15 children before being forced to leave due to hunger. In the 1930s, Rabbi Simcha Gorodetsky arrived in Derbent under dangerous circumstances and opened a Jewish school that grew to 360 students.

Despite the long preceding history, Isakov’s position in Dagestan was precarious, as was that of the Jewish community, which has shrunk to around 2,000. In 2007, the rabbi’s home was vandalized by assailants while he and his family were in their bedrooms. In 2012, a bomb was thrown into the synagogue’s courtyard, though it didn’t injure anyone.

During the week before the attempt on his life, Isakov remembers waiting at a red light in his car when another car pulled up alongside him. “They made a gun sign with their hands and pointed at me,” he says.

The threat was not an empty one.

‘That’s a Miracle’

When the gun flashed at close range on that dark summer night, Isakov did not immediately realize that he had been shot. He began shouting for help, his pleas getting louder when he felt his shirt growing hotter and wetter. Neighbors heard his calls, including a few young Jews who had participated in Isakov’s youth programs, and came running. Knowing a phone call wouldn’t elicit the necessary response from underpaid and underequipped local paramedics, one neighbor ran on foot to call an ambulance in person, which arrived 15 minutes later and rushed him to a local hospital.

Meanwhile, Lazar and the staff at Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FJC) were awakened and began working frantically to help their fallen colleague. An emergency operation in Derbent miraculously stemmed the bleeding coming from Isakov’s badly damaged liver before a helicopter transported him to Makhachkala.

Working with the international unit of the ZAKA emergency service team in Israel, Lazar arranged for a chartered airplane with Israeli doctors to fly Isakov to the Beilinson Medical Center in Petach Tikvah, all of which was funded by the FJC.

The attempt on Isakov’s life had not been street crime; it was a planned and sophisticated terror plot. Russian investigators later found hours of video surveillance of Isakov and his family by the perpetrators, mapping out in detail the rabbi’s regular schedule. The main suspect, who was reportedly killed in a gunfight with police, was a bomb maker who police said was behind at least 20 previous terrorist attacks.

“One of my doctors in Israel told me I was lucky and named a long list of things that had gone right for me,” says Isakov. “That’s not luck; that’s a miracle.” After being released from Beilinson, Isakov spent a yearrecovering in Safed, where he began painting once again. It took some time to polish his technique, but the talent remained. Moved by the city of the Kabbalists, Isakov painted Safed’s narrow alleys, landscapes of the Holy Land, and scenes of Jewish tradition and imagery. He brought his work back to Moscow when he returned and continued painting. The recent exhibit of his work is the third since he came back.

“I see my art as a part of my mission,” says the rabbi, who aside from his regular commute to Derbent (where he has constant security), is very involved with the Mountain Jewish community in Moscow. “People are surprised when they hear, ‘The artist is the rabbi of Derbent.’ They don’t see rabbis in that way.”

About 60 people—Jews and non-Jews—attended the opening of Isakov’s exhibition, during which the rabbi spoke about some of the symbolism found in his paintings, including the famous pre-High Holiday parable comparing accessibility to G‑d in the Jewish month of Elul to a king who greets his subjects in the field.

“A Jewish tourist from Siberia was in Moscow and came to the exhibit,” says the rabbi. “She was not going to go to a synagogue, but to see a rabbi who is an artist; that was something she was interested in.”

It’s been a turbulous road back to his creative skill, but along the way he’s discovered other talents based on serving the Jewish community. “I want my work to bring people closer to G‑d,” he states simply. “Art is a unique path for that, and I feel blessed to be alive and doing this.”

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