DERBENT, Russia — Accustomed to the sound of gunfire at night, neighbors of Rabbi Ovadia Isakov were not particularly startled when a shot rang out on Pushkin Street on July 25.
But unlike the volleys that partygoers often fire heavenward in this lawless corner of the Russian Caucasus, the shooters outside the rabbi’s door had a terrestrial target.
As Isakov walked from his car to his front door, a bullet struck his chest. Neighbors heard his cries and called emergency services. The next day, the rabbi was airlifted to Israel for surgery.
Isakov, 40, is still recovering in Israel from his near-fatal injury. Meanwhile, Russian authorities continue to hunt for the Islamist separatists they believe attacked him as part of their 13-year struggle to control the Russian republic of Dagestan, where about 2,000 Jews live among a predominantly Muslim population.
Isakov says authorities have obtained a picture of one of the suspects and are “making serious efforts” to catch the culprits. But despite the government’s responsiveness — not to mention the recent opening of a flashy Jewish community center and the deep cultural roots that Jews have established here — the shooting is prompting Derbent’s 1,200 Jews to reconsider their options.
“There is no future for Jews here,” said Angela Rubinov, head of the Derbent office of Atzmaut, a nongovernmental organization funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “It seems that every day there are explosions or violence. I’m staying because someone needs to turn off the lights.”
Jews have lived in relative peace in this Caspian Sea city for more than a millennium. At one point, the community was said to have numbered at least 19,000 and, according to community archives, the city’s three main streets were predominantly Jewish.
But decades of communist repression reduced the Jewish community to a shadow of its former self. Now a simmering Islamist insurgency threatens to weaken it further.
“The shooting has made many young people realize we’d better leave sometime in the very near future,” said Hava, 20, who asked that her last name not be published. “I would not want to start a family here.”
Under communist rule, inter-ethnic tensions in this fractious region were kept under a lid. But with the fall of the Iron Curtain, local identities began to reassert themselves and a nationalist movement seeking independence from Russia gained steam.
“People who lived in the mountains, rural and deeply Muslim folks, came to the city,” Rubinov said.
In August 1999, local extremists and their Chechen allies killed several Russian troops in a cross-border raid. Ever since, Russian troops and separatist Islamist groups have been engaged in a guerrilla war that has claimed hundreds of lives, according to a report by the World Security Network Foundation.
In the ensuing instability, additional militant groups have resorted to persecuting religious minorities and moderate Muslims.
Last October, unknown assailants detonated a bomb in the interior yard of Derbent’s main synagogue. Nobody was hurt in the explosion.
Rubinov says a few men shattered the windows of her office six months ago while shouting, “Jews inside, stones away.”
But it was only after Isakov’s shooting that “things became very serious,” according to Rubinov. Several Jewish families put up their homes for sale and, in the past few months, two of Rubinov’s nephews have left for Moscow. Her 17-year-old son is planning to join them next year.
In 2000, Derbent had only one mosque. Now there are five adjacent muezzin that erupt into a syncopated cacophony five times a day. One large new mosque features neon green lights that shine far into a city with 120,000 residents and few functioning streetlights.
The radicalization in Dagestan is so powerful that it is spreading to neighboring Azerbaijan, according to Rabbi Elezar Nisimov of Krasnaiya Sloboda, an Azeri-Jewish town located 50 miles south of Derbent.
“You can see that the people who return to Azerbaijan after living in Dagestan are stricter, they are bringing in dangerous zeal,” said Nisimov.
In the basement of the new community center, Rabbi Yusuf Mishutov helps maintain a small museum showcasing the traditional costumes of Dagestani Jewry, known as Mountain Jews, descendants of Persian Jewish migrants who arrived here some 1,200 years ago.
Built in 2010 with donations from affluent Mountain Jews from around the world, the three-story center does not suggest a community in imminent fear of its own extinction. The facility houses a synagogue, kindergarten, wedding hall, guesthouse and mikvah.
“We endured everything. The wars, the pogroms, the communists,” Mishutov said. “We will endure anything.”
Mishutov said relations between Muslims and Jews in Derbent are “fine and without fear,” and he disputed the notion that Isakov’s shooting was motivated by anti-Semitism, saying the assailants may have just been criminals. Asked why criminals would target a rabbi, he shrugged and steered the conversation back to the costume display.
In his eight years in Derbent, Isakov, a Chabad-trained rabbi, had helped to bring many closer to Jewish practice. According to Rubinov, the community now has 25 men capable of reading prayers in Hebrew, compared to only a handful of boys a few years ago.
In Isakov’s absence, only 10 men showed up for evening prayer on a weekday late last month.
“The Muslim population in Derbent has moved toward religion, but so has the Jewish one,” said Mikhailov Victor Siyunovich, editor in chief of Vatan, Dagestan’s Jewish monthly.
Isakov said he plans to return to Derbent when it is safe and he is well enough to travel. Olga Avrumovna, who runs the Jewish kindergarten, has told her 30 students as much. They have become attached to Isakov thanks to the lessons he has given them on Jewish customs, she said.
“He is a sensitive man with a permanent smile and endless patience,” Avrumovna said. “Life here isn’t the same when he’s gone.”