The eight boys in the popular B’nei Levi choir in Azerbaijan are taking a break from their hectic performance schedule to practice for some very important solos: In the coming year, the 12-year-olds will publicly read from the Torah in front of family and friends at their Bar Mitzvahs.

But even though most of the boys – who all attend the Chabad-Lubavitch run Ohr Avner school in the former Soviet republic’s capital of Baku – have been singing Hebrew melodies since they were eight years old, learning the intricacies of chanting from the Torah is proving a challenge.

“Right now, we’re concentrating on the blessings, and the proper way to stand at the Torah,” relates Baku’s Chief Rabbi Meir Brook, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who arrived in the Eurasian country nine years ago. “They’re also learning some short sections.”

After morning prayer services on Mondays and Thursdays – when Brook himself reads from the Torah – the boys go over all of the notes.

Brook is confident that his students will master the skills necessary. They’ve already earned a small amount of local fame – their hit song “Azerbaijan” has been played on television more than 150 times in the past five years – and Brook says there’s no reason not to expect the very best from them.

Pride Through Song

Some of the choir’s members could barely even read Hebrew when they joined four years ago. Today, says Brook, they fulfill an important function as public representatives of the small Azerbaijani Jewish community.

One boy’s mother used to tell him that while the family was Jewish, they didn’t see much value in proclaiming that fact. But after joining the choir, the boy reconnected with his religious identity, and in consultation with his parents took on a Hebrew name. Today, the boy’s father participates in Shabbat prayer services.

Named for philanthropist Lev Leviev – who founded the Ohr Avner network of Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union – the B’nei Levi choir was started by Brook as a way for local boys to express their Jewish pride. A guitarist and pianist, Brook writes the songs and also sings along with the boys.

According to the rabbi, the choir’s success has also raised awareness of the community among the republic’s Muslim majority. The music video “Azerbaijan,” the only one of the choir’s numbers to be sung in their native language, features Jewish ritual items such as a mezuzah and tallit. More than 8,500 of the choir’s compact discs have been sold.

“We did the song to show our love to the country,” says Brook, emphasizing that the country’s Jews have historically been spared from entrenched anti-Semitism.

“Being Jewish has become ‘in,’ ” he adds. “Nowadays, kids from the school walk around downtown with their skullcaps on, and the non-Jews condone it.”

Click here to listen to their music.