DERBENT, Russia — For the Mountain Jews of Dagestan surviving history has often meant performing a balancing act. Today is no different.

Security is tight and tension high here as Russian troops saturate the region in the aftermath of a military crackdown on Islamic separatists who attempted this month to secede from Russia.

The rebels' declaration of Dagestan as an independent state, accompanied by a call for a holy war against Russia, prompted one of the most serious outbreaks of violence in Russia since the Chechen war ended in 1996. Russia responded with a show of military force not seen since that time. Dagestan authorities, as well as more than 95% of the two million people comprising this state, wish to remain part of Russia.

The small but distinct Jewish minority here has managed to survive throughout both international and inter-ethnic conflict by maintaining a largely apolitical stance, while quietly keeping to their own observances and community. Nevertheless, the recent fighting has caused many Jews here to consider leaving their centuries-old ancestral home.

[Just a few days ago a Jewish man was kidnapped by a rebel faction who are demanding a high ransom of the Jewish community.]

But for others who are staying on, immersion into Jewish life is just beginning.

Next week the Jewish children of Derbent will be welcomed into a newly-opened Jewish school. Children and adults are regularly reached through the passionate, all-out efforts of young Rabbi Avrum Ilyaguev, who is also the founder of the school.

Rabbi Ilyaguev, 24, is a native of Derbent who studied at the Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in Moscow, and returned here in 1995 to bolster the strength of Jewish practice among a people that has long protected its adherence to its traditions.

An interesting migratory route, from Israel and the Middle East, through Persia, to the Western Russian region of the Caspian Sea, is believed to have brought the original Mountain Jews to the North Caucasus in the eighth century. Living for centuries as a small minority among Muslims and Christians, and isolated by geography and distance from other Jewish communities, the Mountain Jews steadfastly clung to the laws of the Torah, eating matzah on Passover and marrying within the religion.

They developed their own language known as "Tat," a combination of Persian (Farsi) mixed heavily with Hebrew. Today Derbent's population of 3,000 Jews (within a mostly Muslim population of 100,000) maintains its own Tat Theater and Tat-language newspaper.

The community managed to survive World War II and 70 years of anti-religious Soviet rule. But immigration, particularly to Israel, has diminished its numbers greatly in recent decades. Derbent's population, for example, dwindled from 30,000 Jews 15 years ago to 3,000 today. And though none of the fighting of the past two weeks took place in areas where Jews live, it prompted many families to begin the process of moving away, mostly to join their predecessors in Israel.

Rabbi Ilyaguev is there for those who remain.

He joins a small group of rabbis in offering opportunities for Jewish education to re-introduce and explain the religious meaning behind practices that were rendered purely cultural in Soviet times. Rabbi Ilyaguev, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to the region, continues to expand his efforts here.

This September Ilyaguev will add a first and second grade to the school he has been running for several years for kindergartners. Classes will open in a newly rented school building. The school is part of Chabad-Lubavitch Ohr Avner network of 30 schools throughout the Former Soviet Union.

"Whoever is not leaving, we will be here for them. We must provide a school for the young, " says Rabbi Ilyaguev.

It is not unusual to see Rabbi Ilyaguev explaining Jewish law in broadcasts on Dagestani television. He'll also expound on Jewish texts and philosophy when visitors come to watch practice sessions of his Jewish band, in which he plays drums. Rabbi Ilyaguev also prepares boys for their bar mitzvah, and immerses the many guests at his Sabbath table in the flavor of "Yiddishkeit", or Judaism.

The community here has long considered itself to be Orthodox practitioners of the Jewish faith, since their observance has strayed little from their historical ways of practice. Rabbi Ilyaguev is working to sharpen the community's understanding of and adherence to Jewish laws. Several young men influenced by his teachings have gone on to study in yeshivas, or institutes of more intense Jewish learning, and some of the region's school-age children just returned from Moscow where they attended the Gan Israel summer camps run by Chabad-Lubavitch.

Rabbi Ilyaguev also makes a point of visiting each of Derbent's surrounding Jewish communities before and during holiday times to teach classes on the practices involved, even in the face of personal danger.

The beard he wears because of biblical injunction has put him at risk lately as he travels in the region. The Chechen rebels have beards and Rabbi Ilyaguev has had rocks thrown at him in this largely partisan region by people who believed he was a Chechen.

In the meantime, Rabbi Ilyaguev tries to reach out to the Jews of his region and proud heritage. Two thousand Jews still live in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, and 37 families live in Bunask fifty kilometers from the latest fighting.

For those who want to leave Ilyaguev helps them with passports and Hebrew lessons.

In all of his activities Ilyaguev works closely with the representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency. "Everything we do is done jointly," he says.

Some observers have said that the future is questionable for the world's less than 100,000 Mountain Jews. Half live in Israel, and their culture is being absorbed into the larger culture of that country, where Mountain Jews no longer need to fiercely guard their separateness in order to maintain their Jewish identity. But Dagestani Jews cite their 12 centuries of survival as proof that their culture will live on.

With a boost from Rabbi Ilyaguev and those he is teaching, the culture of Mountain Jews appears as if it will not only continue to survive, but to thrive.