DERBENT, Russia – The Jewish community of Derbent, one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the Caucasus region, welcomed their first resident rabbi in seventy years. With Jews comprising 8,500 of the 110,000 residents in Dagestan's second-largest city, there was a sizeable number of people waiting for this historic moment.
This year, Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar and Derbent community chairman Miir Mishiyev proposed that Ovadya Isaakov, a native of Derbent, become the permanent Rabbi of the city. 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 brilliant artist, whose works on Jewish themes are exhibited at the Moscow JCC.
His wife Esther who is joining him on this life journey, is a native of Ukraine and a graduate of the Beit Chana Jewish teachers college in Dnepropetrovsk.
Today, the Jewish community of Derbent is experiencing active growth, operating a Jewish Sunday School, a Youth Club, Library, Women's Club, historical museum, 'Chevra Kadisha' Burial Society, and a Jewish cemetery. Derbent is home to nearly 600 Jewish children of school age; however, no Jewish school has been established here as of yet.
Of the 11 synagogues in 1917, only the Great Synagogue remains today in the city. The Jewish community has gained tenure of this building, with its 500-square-meter prayer hall. The building required full reconstruction to incorporate a Mikva, a community center, a rabbi's office, and Sunday school classrooms. Local donors have contributed part of the funds required for this, but a good portion still needs to be raised.
Rabbi Ovadya 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.
He will be supported by an ongoing grant by the Rohr Family Foundation of New York headed by Mr. Sami and George Rohr, which also supports hundreds of other Rabbis throughout the Former Soviet Union.