Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Adar 5759 - Feb. 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Story of the Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel

By Moshe Musman

Part Three: Sowing and Building

This is the third section of the story of the efforts of the Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel in the former Soviet Union, that began with the trip of Mr. and Mrs. Mordechai Neustadt to Russia in June 1976. In those days of Soviet totalitarianism, the tasks and techniques of the rescue work for Soviet Jewry were very different from those that presented themselves once Communism faded away less than ten years ago. This part discusses that transitional period.

The first two parts appeared in the European edition of Yated last summer in the editions of Parshas Voeschanan and Eikev, and in the American edition, in condensed form, somewhat later.

Introduction to Part Three

"For years, the Vaad had been sending its shelichim to teach and to succor, to encourage and to counsel, to nurture as best it could, the tiny but robust flame wafted into being by the Herculean efforts of Eliyahu Essas. . . With the coming of Glasnost and the partial opening of the prison gates, a radical change set in. A visitor from abroad could no longer expect to find groups of potential talmidim awaiting him. More and more, there was less and less to do. An era had ended. The courage had to be found to break with tried and true -- but now ineffective -- methods and to strike out on new paths. How would these be found? Where would they lead?

"From the very start. . . there was one small window of hope which allowed some measure of escape. . . During the summer weeks, together with their families, they would [relocate] to a dacha in the country. . . Over the years these retreats became a fixture, gaining in importance as work in the cities became more difficult. . . With the need to find new. . . activities, it was perhaps natural that thoughts should turn to this highly successful model. At an impromptu meeting of several former shelichim. . . the suggestion came up. Perhaps, with appropriate adjustments, a similar haven of constructive teaching could be established for the winter. Perhaps this was the direction in which to go" (Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, "Dawn Breaks Over Yurmala," Jewish Observer, April 1990).

With the initial easing of the situation inside the Soviet Union and, eventually, its dismantling, the story of the Vaad undergoes a radical shift of gear. For six or seven years, everything revolved around an ever increasing flow of shelichim. However, with the departure of those who had been these visits' focal point, the need for this particular type of activity lessened. At the same time there were large numbers of Jews who were eager to make their first acquaintance with the heritage that they had been denied.

Although the atmosphere inside the Soviet Union had grown more relaxed, it was unclear what kinds of projects could be launched and on what scale they should be attempted. With regard to work inside the Soviet Union, the ensuing three years were something of a hiatus. During this time, several new ideas were tried out and proved themselves to be very successful.

By this time too, there was a growing workload elsewhere. Follow-up programs were organized in Eretz Yisroel and the United States for those who had already managed to leave. These continued to provide the necessary moral and material assistance that would enable the ex-refuseniks to realize the dreams for which they had already made such remarkable sacrifices.

The almost unbelievably swift and silent final collapse of Communism cleared the way for both outreach work on a larger scale and for the establishment of Torah institutions in the former Soviet Union. The Vaad's activities expanded and multiplied. From being a semiformal "rescue" commission, it became the pivot of an entire network of individuals, institutions and initiatives. A number of new "directors," who were located in several countries, assumed informal command of some of the Vaad's expanded "departments."

The early experience which the Vaad's older members had gained in working with Russians enabled them to extend guidance and counsel to a host of newcomers to the field. A number of the eminent roshei yeshiva and rabbonim, whose involvement with the Vaad's activities had hitherto necessarily not been widely publicized, could become publicly involved. They were now joined by additional rabbinic and communal leaders. The Vaad had truly become the orchestrator of the American Torah community's response to the monumental challenge of facilitating the reunion of Jewry of the former Soviet Union with the rest of Klal Yisroel (see accompanying box).

A full chronological account, detailing the progress of the above mentioned metamorphosis, would surely fill the pages of at least one thick volume. Here we propose to offer brief surveys of some of the Vaad's major areas of activity, using them to focus upon two main points: first, the different ways that have been adopted in order to expose Russian Jews to Torah and second, the impact of individuals upon each other, which is ultimately the most effective catalyst to an acceptance of Torah life.

Light and Darkness

In 1986 and 1987, International Book Fairs were held in Moscow. For the first time, a booth at the fair had been obtained for an American. This provided an opportunity to bring the sight of undreamed of Jewish books to the Soviet Jewish public (who did not differ from their gentile counterparts in the characteristic Russian passion for all kinds of books and literature).

Perhaps more importantly though, it afforded the chance to bring large quantities of seforim into the Soviet Union, presenting them for what they were, instead of trying to pass them off as tourists' luggage. The books, it was hoped, could at some later stage be distributed in unprecedented numbers. This could not exactly be done openly though, since not all the books that were allowed to be exhibited at the fair were actually accessible to ordinary Soviet citizens, and Jewish books were of course, a case in point.

Through some risky cloak and dagger tactics, involving the American couple who manned the Jewish booth and some brave Soviet citizens, virtually all of the books on display were successfully smuggled out of the premises where the fairs were held. They thus reached the secret nationwide network of groups of ba'alei teshuvah, to whom the shelichim brought supplies and encouragement, and who also remained in contact with each other, circulating their material and spiritual resources. Could such a bold endeavor have been risked two or three years earlier? Was the operation's success a reliable gauge of a continuing easing of the situation?

Despite these successes, the plight of many refuseniks and the harassment of shelichim continued, with no end in sight. While certain individuals were gradually being allowed to leave, many remained behind in limbo. New efforts were launched to relieve the predicaments of some of them by the arrangement of official "marriages" between shelichim and veteran refuseniks. Here is one of these fact-is-stranger- than-fiction stories.

A Young Man with a Future

A young activist, approximately twenty years of age, had put himself in great danger. His public protests at being refused a visa for emigration to Eretz Yisroel had already resulted in his being arrested three times. As he refused to go either to the work that had (presumably officially) been designated for him, or to the Russian army, his situation was precarious indeed.

Although he was then only a beginner in Yiddishkeit, the Vaad shelichim who met him were struck by the potential they saw in him. At a meeting, possible avenues of rescue were investigated. It seemed that the only way to guarantee his physical safety would be by obtaining an American visa for him, for he would then be guaranteed protection by the American Embassy. However, he would still be in need of an exit visa and the KGB had sworn that he would never receive one.

The bold idea was proposed of arranging a fictitious marriage between the young man and an American citizen, in the hope that the authorities might relent and allow the "couple" to reunite in America. Two lady teachers were sent on shelichus, to try to work something out. Straight after the young man and one of the teachers had become "engaged," they visited the American Embassy and spoke to one of the officials there in the hope of procuring an American visa for the "chosson." The employee, who happened to be Jewish, was very excited and was willing to help. (To this day it is unclear whether or not he knew the truth.) He even hosted what was a very emotional "engagement" party in his apartment.

The "kallah" was advised to leave the country and return after the three month period that Soviet law required engaged couples to wait before marrying. Together with a friend, she then returned to the officials and a civil wedding was performed. The "chosson" was indeed released and a fortnight later, he was accepted into Yeshivas Shevut Ami in Yerushalayim. He learned there for many years and today he serves as rosh yeshiva for one of the yeshivos for Russians in Eretz Yisroel!

In 1988, the annual summer Dacha program was held in a town on the outskirts of Moscow, under the leadership of the late Rav Mordechai Shapiro z'l, of Miami. This was the prototype of the many highly successful summer and winter programs that would follow in the years that lay ahead.

A number of "pioneers" were in attendance that year, such as the Reisz family from Vilna, the Steingart family of Moscow, the Mankitovsky family and Eliezer Kadiso, a baal teshuvah who had left the Soviet Union two years before and who had now returned from Yerushalayim to teach. All of them were to play important roles in the subsequent development of the Russian chareidi community, both in and outside of Russia.

As well as some experienced shelichim, the American contingent included Rabbi Naftoli Cukier of Lakewood, who became the main organizer of the later seminars. On his first visit to the Soviet Union as a shaliach of the Vaad, Rabbi Cukier was so impressed by the single-minded dedication that he witnessed, that he became convinced of the need for kollel yungeleit like himself to become more involved.

But although this was the most ambitious program that had yet been attempted, located near Moscow, with forty-seven local participants and a full roster of visiting teachers, there was still an unpleasant reminder that the potential dangers were as grave as ever.

One day, police at a roadblock stopped Rabbi and Mrs. Shapiro in their car, which they claimed had been involved in a fatal hit-and-run road accident. The Shapiros were placed under house arrest and were interrogated for hours by a number of KGB officials, who told them that they knew what the purpose of their visit was and also berated them for spending time with a certain righteous young baal teshuvah who, the officials claimed, sought to malign and destroy the country that had been so good to him.

A Song and a Hope

The Dacha, like the groups that met year round to learn in secret, attracted the handful of intrepid neshomos who were prepared to put their security, perhaps even their safety, on the line in order to pursue the eternal truth of Torah that they had but briefly glimpsed.

No contact had yet been established with the ordinary Soviet Jews, who bowed to the harsh realities of their lives and blended in, to one degree or another, with their grey surroundings. What, if anything, could be done for them? Was the Vaad able to help? While it had been clear from the outset that the Vaad would have to focus its efforts upon those who showed the potential for developing into leaders and teachers for their fellow Jews, now that things seemed to be easing a little, perhaps some way could be found to expose larger numbers of Jews -- those who possessed little more than their Jewish identity and who had yet to take the first step back -- to their heritage.

One response to these questions were the six concerts of Jewish music that were held in April 1989 in Moscow and Kiev. Some months earlier, two shelichim had made an application to the Soviet Ministry of Culture for permission to hold a number of concerts of Jewish music. That their request was granted was another sure sign of the times. One of the applicants, Mendel Goldberg, a veteran shaliach, had long before envisaged Jewish music as a means of stimulating Soviet Jews of the rank and file into deepening their identification with Yiddishkeit.

While Jewish music was not completely outlawed as a permissible means of expression, it was strictly a matter of culture, lacking a specifically religious message. The Vaad's concerts were planned as a means of conveying the beauty of Jewish life and the yearning of the Jewish soul for Hashem and the geula.

Led by Yigal Calek, the boys of the London School of Jewish Song moved audiences of over two thousand largely assimilated Russian Jews not only to tears, but to active participation, clapping and singing along. The right chord had clearly been touched, stirring distant memories for some of the older spectators and new longings in the hearts of many of the younger ones. The emotional outpouring of those evenings undoubtedly left a powerful and indelible impression upon the Russian Jews of all ages who attended them. And, judging by some of the immediate results, the comments of some members of the audience, and the thirst for Jewish education which some expressed, these events more then amply achieved their goal.

The Seminar Experience

The visits of the shelichim were characterized by all the poignancy of brief meetings between close friends, never long enough for saying all that needed to be said and tinged with the awareness that every time might be the last. A few days had to suffice for delivering shiurim, learning together, delivering supplies and answering shailos.

The Seminars, by contrast, allowed much more time for interaction between the local Jews and their visiting brothers and sisters and therefore, for a much wider exposure to the totality of Jewish life. On the other hand however, this did not mean any lessening of the emotional impact. The links that were forged over the Seminar weeks were usually just as deep and when it was time to leave, parting was just as difficult. Much more had been shared and as a result, there was much more in common.

Following another successful summer Dacha program in 1989, the idea of a winter Seminar was proposed, as related in the introduction. The ba'alei teshuvah that were by now to be found in all corners of the Soviet Union were the channels by which word of the proposed three week event was circulated and by which applications came in. The organizers were apprehensive about many things, notably, that a mid- winter program would draw far fewer participants than the eagerly anticipated Dacha which took place during the summer holidays. In fact, there were early signs that they had been far too modest in their estimation of the new framework's potential.

"We had hoped for ten or fifteen participants," wrote Rabbi Eisemann. "When reports came back of registration approaching the eighty mark, we were skeptical. . . In the end there were one hundred and eighty-one Yiddishe neshomos from twenty-four locations. The Ribono Shel Olom was telling us something."

The first Seminar, which was held in the resort of Yurmala, near Riga, Latvia, succeeded beyond the organizers' wildest dreams. Misgivings about the management of the large numbers vanished as the participants gradually progressed towards a full commitment to observance.

A number of deeply moving "special events" punctuated the routine of learning and discussion. At a festive lunch, fifteen bechorim fulfilled the mitzva of pidyon haben. Two married couples undertook to reshape their lives in accordance with halacha and stood under the chuppah for the first time. The celebration of their chasunos was marked by a special beauty and dignity. Girls lined up on Shabbos for a mi shebeirach as they adopted Jewish names. There was dancing until one a.m. on motzei Shabbos, followed by kiddush levonoh. And above all, the sense of unity and the spiritual serenity of the Shabbosos accomplished what nothing else can.

"When people ask, `What was your most touching experience in Russia?' I answer, `Bentching licht,'" wrote Mrs. Charnes, a veteran shaliach, who led the womens' division at many Seminars, when she recalled the Seminar that was held at Yurmala the following summer. "The candles -- approximately 150 in all -- were set out on the bar of our cafe. We made the brocho with each woman individually. . . I looked deep into their eyes and told them, `Now is the special time that a woman prays for all the people she loves. Ask Hashem for all that you want Him to give.' Most had to be coaxed to speak to Hashem. They had never prayed before. Some thought that praying was only allowed in Hebrew. Some pointed up and questioned -- how? And then we prayed together -- a woman who has never before spoken to Hashem and a woman who prays from habit. Many tears were shed each Friday night. . .

"I can't recall what specifically it was that made Shabbos so extraordinary. It certainly was not the herring and kasha, nor was it the spartan cafe we ate in. I can only remember the women sparkling with anticipation as the men arrived from davening, the aura in the silence before Rabbi Cukier made Kiddush, the joy on each face when the cafe rocked with zemiros and table banging. Each individual in Yurmala had made an effort to make the Shabbos special. And this brought down a tremendous siyata diShmaya to feel the mei'ein Olom Haboh."

Throughout the week, there would be endless shiurim, conversations and discussions. On the island of sanctity that the Seminar had created, souls opened to one another and ageless ideals were explained and absorbed. As the days went by, "skills developed, the laborious tying on of the tefillin became less of a chore. Halting reading of the siddur soon [progressed] into forays into mishnayos. Earnest conversations, lasting deep into the night, yielded. . . decisions for fashioning new futures. . . yeshiva and seminary metamorphosed from hazy images to tangible options. Sober planning for the nitty-gritty of religious living in the hostile environment of the many home- towns began to take center stage. . . They had beheld a vision -- nothing would hold them back" (Rabbi Eisemann).

A Changing Clientele, an Unchanging Goal

Over the ensuing years, such scenes repeated themselves many times as the Seminars became regular fixtures on the Vaad's list of activities, for roughly six weeks each summer and four or more weeks in the winter.

Central Seminars were held again in Yurmala, in Kiev (the camp was organized by Stoliner chassidim, with madrichim supplied by the Vaad), Kishinev, Kovno and in St. Petersburg. Hundreds of Russian Jews flocked to each Seminar, from all corners of the country.

With the passage of time, more and more native Russian bnei Torah who had left and spent a number of years in yeshiva were available. They were the ideal people to convey an understanding of Yiddishkeit to their brethren. Russian was their native tongue and they had undergone the same changes in their own lives that others were trying to make. Their return, to participate, to lecture and to teach, was a crucial factor in the decision of large numbers of participants to continue full-time learning after their experiences at Seminar.

As well as mechanchim and mechanchos, bochurim also arrived from the United States. They were able to conduct one-on-one chavrusas with Russian Jews whose learning skills had progressed sufficiently (as were some of the more knowledgeable local participants), and they also greatly added to the unique ruach of the Seminars.

"All the Americans who came were involved voluntarily," Rabbi Cukier says, noting that the Vaad is the only organization known to him that operates on that basis and citing this as one of the reasons for the extraordinary success of the Seminars, which was visible to all who took part in them.

Although they would arrive with modest expectations, participants found their lives changed to a far greater extent than they dreamed. After a few weeks, Russian Jews who had arrived knowing next to nothing about Yiddishkeit walked out as bnei Torah, capable of learning mishnayos and even gemora. Their tremendous excitement made a deep impression upon their "teachers," many of whom felt themselves responsible to remain involved in this work after having seen the amazing results.

Newly made friendships endured after the principals had to part. Back at home, bochurim maintained close connections with their pupils after they had left Russia and were often able to help them in their new lives. Their devotion to the cause continued, as they helped in raising money for their own or others' future trips.

In the summer Dacha programs, groups of ba'alei teshuvah had been provided with intensive Torah learning, aimed at continuing their development into bnei Torah who would later teach others. With the expansion of the framework, it was necessary to start from the basics, while still keeping the same ultimate goal in mind.

With the passage of the years, the Seminars were modified to provide specialized outreach to different types of Russian Jews. They would be divided into sessions for families, for single men and for single women. Teenage students, a new generation of whom had grown up since work began, are also attracted. For them, going to yeshiva in Moscow and later departing for Eretz Yisroel is relatively simple.

The session for families at the Seminar held near St. Petersburg in 1993 included a course for parents of children who had taken on mitzva observance, whose aim was to elicit their understanding and support of their childrens' choice.

Virtually all of the Seminar participants leave Russia, and virtually all of those who leave go to Eretz Yisroel. In the earlier Seminars, this was because they had already been planning aliya before joining up. In the period just prior to leaving, when economic and ideological ties to an alien society have been broken and the pressures of a new life have not yet been encountered, they were at their most receptive. It was the ideal time to introduce them to Yiddishkeit.

More recently, in the vacuum left by the collapse of the old order it has become far more acceptable for Jews and gentiles alike to acknowledge the stirrings of faith. The urgency is to expose Jews to their own heritage before cults, missionaries or other lifestyles manage to interest them. Even those who do not elect to leave immediately eventually reach a point where they realize that it is only possible to lead a truly observant life, and to reach their true potential in Torah learning outside Russia. Eretz Yisroel is the place of choice for in many respects, they have far better opportunities for building their futures there as bnei Torah than in the United States.

The Seminars, which have now been operating regularly for ten years, continue to give the participants their first real exposure to Torah learning and Jewish living. Over the years, they have been, and they continue to be, the conduit through which many young Russian Jews and Jewesses arrive at yeshivos and seminaries both in and outside Russia. No less importantly, they have also served as invaluable opportunities for lifelong yeshiva and seminary students to give of themselves and to experience the intense satisfaction of leading their peers to Torah and mitzvos.


Rarely, if ever, do events take place in an orderly, progressive fashion, so that the relation of one to another can be grasped in a single glance. They tend rather, to flow and ebb. The triggers of events which are visible at waters' surface must be sought among underwater undercurrents and eddies, which are harder to identify.

The task facing the chronicler or historian is thus far more complicated than that of the on-the-spot reporter. Something can happen that is not truly a beginning but is useful in highlighting a process that has already been underway for a long while. A quiet period can turn out to have been a mere lull before an upsurge in demand, not a sign of its lessening. And a trivial occasion can have significance that extends far beyond the moment of its taking place.

The opening ceremony of the new Moscow office of Agudas Yisroel in March 1991 was an event of the latter type. Reb Mordechai Neustadt found that the modest gathering recalled to him the founding of the Cleveland branch of Agudas Yisroel. Despite notices having been placed in newspapers, just two people showed up: HaRav Elya Meir Bloch zt'l, and the secretary. The branch was opened on schedule nonetheless.

In a report on his visit to Russia however, Rabbi Moshe Sherer z'l, viewed the event in a much wider context. He found a comment of the Arizal applicable, namely, that when a person carries out a mitzva in accordance with the teaching of a great man, his soul is connected to that of the man whose tradition he is continuing and the latter is actually present when his teachings are being fulfilled.

Thus, wrote Rabbi Sherer, he felt the presence of the great geonim who had led all the different streams of Russian Orthodox Jewry together, as one grouping, in preparation for national Jewish representation under the Menshevik regime. Although the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks meant that body never convened, the episode was a successful, if rare instance of unity among Torah Jews, to protect and advance their common ideals.

The ceremony in 1991 was intended to continue that same ideal, representing a coalition of the various chareidi groups that had by then begun working in a number of locations across the country. The idea of a Moscow branch of the Aguda was first mentioned by Rabbi Eliyahu Essas on the video he had made ten years earlier, that had been played at the Aguda Convention in 1981. Eight years later, a group of Russian ba'alei teshuvah presented Reb Mordechai Neustadt with a petition to open such a branch.

In relation to the more immediate past then, the new office represented the new awareness of Russian Jews of their rightful place in the global Jewish community, an eloquent symbol of the progress that had been achieved through the previous ten years' laborious but quiet work. (In fact, the office was of major importance in serving as the location of the highly successful Teacher's Seminary, which was run by Rabbi and Mrs. Yosef Amsel. The Seminary supplied many of the teachers who are teaching across Russia today.)

The second congress of the Agudas Hakehillos, which was attended by representatives of close to one hundred communities across the country, was also held in March 1991. The broad chareidi coalition was the first Jewish group to register with the Russian Government. When Reb Mordechai Neustadt reported to HaRav Shach about this, the rosh yeshiva was very pleased. Just how important the fact that the Orthodox had been the first to get organized work underway inside Russia, would become apparent in the ensuing years.

In addition to the ongoing provision of the intensive educational experience of the Seminars, for those who sought it, the need to organize Jewish communal life and provide educational institutions was growing, as were the opportunities to meet it. These two events thus crystallized the shift towards bringing Yiddishkeit to all the Jews inside Russia and the new republics. The fourth article in this series surveys the Vaad's work among the various communities and examines some of the issues involved in this area of work.


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