BAKU, Azerbaijan — About one year after Bella Regimov’s two children left their native country for Israel along with many of her friends and relatives, she began feeling socially isolated.
On her own in Azerbaijan’s family-oriented society, the 76-year-old was losing “the will to get up in the morning” following their immigration in the early 2000s, she said.
But in 2006, things turned around. That year, she started volunteering at the Jewish community center that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, had opened two years earlier in this capital city of the Caucasus republic.
“This became my home, my real home,” Regimov said of The Jewish House, a crumbling building on a busy street bordering the Baku Railway Station. “I come here first thing in the morning and I stay to close the place.”
Since she started volunteering, Regimov has come to depend on the center for social interaction, a sense of purpose and even exercise: She walks at least two miles a day to the center and back to her home in Baku’s old Jewish quarter. In the summer, she walks briskly to minimize her exposure to the scorching sun, slowing down only under the shade of the buildings featuring the city’s ubiquitous beige sandstone tiles.
But this month, Regimov and dozens of others of elderly Jews in Baku will have to leave the building that houses the city’s only Jewish community center. JDC has sold it to streamline its expenses in a city with a dwindling Jewish community.
The sale is part of a broader effort by JDC to respond to shifting Jewish community demographics, the New York-based group said. In the case of Baku, whose Jewish population has shrunk from 16,000 to 8,000 since 2000, JDC will move its offices to a much smaller space, a JDC spokesperson said.
Many Azeri Jews have left for Russia and Israel in search of opportunities unavailable under the nepotist economy of Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country where many residents nonetheless live in abject poverty.
As the community shrinks, Regimov and other elderly Jews value even more the institutions that have been their solution to loneliness.
“Please tell them not to take this away from us,” she said. “It’s my reason for getting up in the morning, and I’m not the only one.”
The Jewish House, at 13,000 square feet, includes an auditorium, workshop rooms, classrooms and space for exhibitions. JDC said the new space is about five times smaller, but will have space for activities and a day center for seniors.
Still, Shaul Davidov, who has headed The Jewish House since its opening, said the change means the “end of an era” for his community.
The organizations that run Jewish communal activities in Baku will find a new address there, he said, but “it means a painful loss” for Regimov and dozens of elderly Jews who come to The Jewish House daily to play cards, participate in arts and crafts lessons and study Hebrew.
“I don’t think they’ll come. It will not be the same,” he said.
Arnold Zeligman, an 86-year-old volunteer teacher of Hebrew at The Jewish House, is determined to resume his activity in the new space.
“But where will we have concerts? Where will we have a festive kabbalat Shabbat?” he asks. “I don’t see it happening, and it’s a very big shame.”
The Jewish House’s annual upkeep costs about $60,000, Davidov said.