By Mendy Chitrik
Ninety-five percent of world Jewry lives in just nine countries, which is less than ten percent of the world’s nations. And yet, there are active Jewish communities in most of the remaining 186 countries.
Dedicated rabbis make enormous personal sacrifices to serve these congregations. Such rabbis play an outsize role of epic importance. Often, they do much more than enable fragile communities to continue, and their members to sustain their faith and connectivity. Indeed, such rabbis are uniquely positioned to interface with host governments at the highest levels to nurture a hospitable environment in which Jewish life can flourish. In so doing, the local rabbis also have a unique role to play in fostering peace and universal brotherhood. As the Talmud teaches [in Brahot 64a]: “Rabbis bring greater peace in the world.”
Jews form an integral part of the Islamic World. Most people would be surprised to learn that not only are there Jews in most Islamic states, but quite active Jewish communities in a number of them. For instance, one of the largest Jewish communities in these states is the Ashkenazi community of Azerbaijan.
Some of the Jews in Muslim countries are the remnants of communities with centuries, even millennia-old roots where they live. Others, increasingly, find themselves in these remote locations for a variety of personal or professional reasons.
It is worth noting that Jewish men and women who might normally have little active interest in Jewish life, desire a more meaningful connection to their roots and traditions precisely when they are far from the major Jewish population centers. For this reason alone, it is so important to have rabbis ready to serve in such remote outposts.
The Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS) was created to connect and support the activities of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chabad, and communal rabbis serving Jewish communities in predominantly Muslim countries. At present, the network of ARIS comprises of rabbis in Albania, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, UAE, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Nigeria and more, as well as rabbis serving in communities of other Muslim majority regions, such as North Cyprus, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.
The significance of this cannot be overstated.
Rabbis have played such a role in Islamic societies for centuries. Their counsel had often been sought by kings and ministers – precisely because they were apolitical – to help mitigate delicate issues of international significance. As such, we are continuing the noble tradition of rabbis as peacemakers.
Like myself, our network comprises of full-time residents in the countries we serve. We support local Jewish life and visitors while also leading initiatives to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. And, as a united voice, we provide a powerful model for mutual respect and the quest for interfaith deference.
Having served such countries for some two decades, I often ponder whether Jewish philanthropy sufficiently reaches these communities. Indeed, how can we embrace the historic Abraham Accords to foster new interfaith ties?
Afterall, investing in Jewish life and leadership across the Islamic world is a Jewish asset, and I would even argue, a global Jewish responsibility – since such communities rarely possess the means to support a full-time rabbi as well as the rituals for our festivals and traditions.
So, while we celebrate the miracles of our time, and the bold steps towards progress and normalization with Israel in an increasing number of these states, – Rabbis across the Muslim World recommit daily to communal service, fostering Jewish life and promoting peace.
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik is the founder and chair of ARIS. He lives in Istanbul Turkey where he serves as the Ashkenazi Rabbi to the Turkish Jewish community.