The Torah world lost a father figure just before Tisha B'Av
with the petiroh of HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber
zt"l, the head of Toldos Yeshurun institutions who was
fully dedicated to the task of bringing wayward Jews back to
Torah and mitzvas. A teacher and guide for thousands of
Russian immigrants in Eretz Yisroel, he passed away at the
age of 87 and was buried on the night of Tisha B'Av with
thousands on hand including gedolei Yisroel, roshei
yeshivos, rabbonim and thousands of his talmidim.
HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber was born a few months before the
Communist Revolution in 5677 (1917) in the city of Kazan,
Russia. His paternal great-grandfather was HaRav Dovid
Tzioni, who served as the rov of Lutzin (Ludzha), Latvia.
After his petiroh his son, HaRav Naftoli took over the
rabbinate and held it for over 50 years. HaRav Naftoli's
second son, Yitzchok Tzioni was appointed head of Kehillas
Razhitza at the age of 30 and many were drawn to his
teachings and leadership. In his old age he gave birth to
HaRav Ben Tzion, who studied at Yeshivas Slobodka and under
his grandfather, HaRav Yossele Kresselbar.
In 5673 (1913) HaRav Ben Tzion married Leah Gittel, the
daughter of HaRav Moshe Mishel Shmuel Shapira, one of the
leading talmidei chachomim of his generation in the
city of Rogov in the Ponovezh District. On the occasion of
their wedding the couple received letters from the Ohr
Somayach and the Chofetz Chaim, ztvk"l. As a young
avreich he studied at one of the branches of Yeshivas
Slobodka and after World War I broke out he was forced to
change his last name from Tzioni to Zilber to avoid getting
conscripted into the Czar's Army.
HaRav Ben Tzion Zilber and his wife had a son named Yitzchok.
At the age of eight in 1925, determined to come to Eretz
Yisroel on aliya, the young Yitzchok decided to go to the
Foreign Ministry, innocently asking for a permit to travel to
his relatives in Ponovezh and then on to Palestine, but when
the clerk threatened to arrest his parents for teaching him
to leave Russia he ran off before the officials could find
out his name and address.
Rather than sending the boy to the local school, which was
full of kefirah, his father decided to instruct the
young Yitzchok himself, starting with the Alef-beis
and progressing to Chumash, Mishnoh, Gemora and
Shulchan Oruch. Yitzchok never set foot in school,
which he described many years later as a genuine miracle
considering the compulsory education law imposed by the
Soviets. To ensure he did not fall behind his peers in
secular subjects for a time his father hired professional
teachers to teach him the material taught in schools. His
father also brought him to shul regularly and by the
age of six Yitzchok knew all of the tefillos by
The father and son learned Torah under severe conditions.
"Before and after work we would learn in a room rented from a
goy for tefillos," HaRav Zilber recounted in his
memoirs. "We would often stay until 11:00 at night. My
parents and I lived in a 100-square-foot (10 sq. meter) room
without heating and without a kitchen. During the war years
the cold was so harsh the water and potatoes would freeze. My
father and I would sit wrapped in coats up to our heads
learning. People would come to consult with my father, who
secretly served as rov. The neighbor ladies would come to my
mother to spill out their hearts and receive comfort."
On the way home from tefillas Ma'ariv one Yom Kippur,
HaRav Zilber heard his father and another Jew speculate
whether there would be a minyan in the city ten or
twenty years later considering the dire spiritual state of
affairs. Later HaRav Zilber revealed, "During the Second
World War I too begin to think in another 20 years there
might not be a Jew left in Russia who could read a page of
gemora . . . "
Soon after the Communist Revolution the Soviet authorities
closed all of the Jewish schools and exiled melamdim
to Siberia for the crime of teaching Torah. The roshei
yeshivos, rabbonim and talmidei chachomim who survived
Stalin's camps were killed by the Nazis and their
accomplices. Many risked their lives to teach Torah in
secret. Despite the ban against Torah by the age of 15 HaRav
Zilber was already giving shiurim in his city.
When his son Ben-Tzion was born, HaRav Zilber had to surmount
many obstacles to have a bris performed. To prevent
Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, a law was
enacted forbidding women from leaving the hospital until nine
days after giving birth. When HaRav Zilber went to take his
wife and child from the hospital on the eighth day he was
denied permission. He decided to go to the Health Ministry
where he found a senior physician who was willing to help and
not turn him in. He asked the physician to use her standing
and authority to call the hospital and instruct them to
discharge his wife that day.
Her non-Jewish husband was the health commissioner in the
city of Kazan. Eventually HaRav Zilber managed to obtain
permission. At 2:00 p.m. the hospital called, telling him to
come pick up his wife. "I went in to thank the physician from
the Health Ministry," he recalled. "She asked me why it was
so important to me to have my wife released on the eighth
day. I told her it was a mitzvah, that she had done a
mitzvah. She burst into tears, saying she was a Jew and as a
girl she had been taught to light candles and say
brochos, but after the communists came she married a
After World War II HaRav Zilber was tried and sent to a
prison camp for two years. Despite the inhuman conditions and
through extraordinary mesirus nefesh he managed to
keep Shabbos and would constantly evade the watchful camp
guards to snatch bits of time for Torah and tefilloh.
"Every morning and evening I would carry six buckets of
boiling water and I would help the hut commander wash the
floor, so sometimes he would let me hide behind a partition
in the hut. Miraculously I had managed to smuggle a miniature
Tanach and Mishnoh into the camp. I would try
to finish my work quickly so I would have time left to learn.
I always ran in the camp, which allowed me to do an hour's
work in 45 minutes, and then I would learn for 15 minutes.
There in the camp I learned maseches Kinim, the
hardest in the Mishnoh."
Following his release he returned to Kazan, where he would
not allow his children to go to school on Shabbos. As a
result the KGB wanted to deny him the right to teach. He fled
to Tashkent. He came to Eretz Yisroel in 5732 (1972).
By this time he had completed all of Shas several
times and his son, HaRav Ben-Tzion ylct"a, today head
of the Toldos Yeshurun network of kollelim, had
learned half of Shas by heart by constantly
outmaneuvering the system in the former Soviet Union. Upon
arrival in Eretz Yisroel, HaRav Zilber was shocked to see
widespread Shabbos desecration. Years later he would recall
that when he came, none of the Russian Jews kept Shabbos.
He decided to dedicate himself to outreach work. There were
times when his wife, the Rebbetzin, could only lay Shabbos
candles on the table minutes before candlelighting time
because until then a bris for new immigrants had been
held at the table. He would also help many Russian
agunos, traveling to far-off lands to obtain a
get from husbands who had vanished.
HaRav Zilber maintained close ties with maranan
verabonon, including HaRav Moshe Feinstein and HaRav
Binyomin Beinish Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir. He
would also consult regularly with Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom
Eliashiv, ylct"a, particularly regarding gittin
and agunos. Upon learning of HaRav Zilber's
petiroh HaRav Eliashiv spoke highly of his
tzidkus and mesirus nefesh.
HaRav Zilber also maintained ties with HaRav Aharon Leib
Shteinman and HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, ylct"a, who took
time to participate in Toldos Yeshurun conferences.
When he arrived in Eretz Yisroel there were essentially no
Russian-speaking bnei Torah. Over time a few did
teshuvoh and when the large wave of aliya began there
were already dozens of Russian-speaking bnei Torah and
teachers, many of whom were already known among the
immigrants from the former Soviet Union. All of them, without
exception, were talmidim of HaRav Zilber.
At the end of the 80s, with the big wave of aliya, hundreds
of young Russian-speaking Jews began to study in yeshivas and
at the end of 5750 (1990) several hundred Russian-speaking
bnei Torah arrived in Eretz Yisroel after learning in
some of the leading yeshivos in the US, Europe and Eretz
Yisroel for nearly ten years, many of them HaRav Zilber's
talmidim or talmidim of his talmidim.
During the surge in Russian immigration during the early 90s
that eventually brought one million immigrants, HaRav Zilber
used his talmidim who had been studying under him for
the preceding decade as young avreichim and lecturers
in outreach programs.
Meanwhile numerous organizations inspired by HaRav Zilber
began to operate under his leadership, bringing Judaism to
hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been totally severed
from their roots throughout the 70 years of communist rule.
Among the organizations that sprouted then and continue to
operate today are Yeshivas Shevus Ami in Jerusalem, Yeshivas
Toras Chaim in Moscow under HaRav Alexander Eisenshtadt and
HaRav Moshe Lebel, the Russian-speakers' division of Yeshivas
Ohr Somayach, groups of bochurim and avreichim
at Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel, Yeshivas Haran, Yeshivas Shovei
Hagoloh, organizations such as Machanayim, Ohr Avner, Shamir,
Shaarei Tzion and Aish HaTorah and Torah programs for women
at Beit Ulpana and Neve Yerushalayim. He himself served as a
ram for Russians at Yeshivas Dvar Yerushalayim for
For years HaRav Zilber was accepted by the Torah-true,
Russian-speaking community as the supreme halachic authority
and the leader of the Russian-speaking teshuvoh
movement. When his health began to decline five years ago he
spurred his young talmidim to organize classes,
lectures and new evening kollelim for immigrants from
the former Soviet Union. The burgeoning movement soon became
Toldos Yeshurun, a large network of study programs for middle-
Over 350 rabbonim, lecturers and melamdim work for the
organization, which was started by R' Avrohom Cohen under
HaRav Zilber's spiritual guidance, with HaRav Ben-Tzion
Zilber, ylct"a, serving as the main rosh kollel.
It began as an evening kollel with five pairs of
chavrusas learning at Beis Knesses Ezras Torah in
Jerusalem's Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood. Shiurim
were given by HaRav Zilber and his son. Within a few months
there were 50 weekly chavrusas made up of
avreichim learning with new immigrants.
The number of participants in the kollel grew quickly
and numerous requests were made to start learning programs in
other locations. Within a short time a similar program was
started in Beitar Illit, where avreichim study with
working immigrants in the evening. Kollelim were also
opened in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem's Neve Yaakov
Today Toldos Yeshurun maintains kollelim in Tel Aviv,
Haifa, Ashdod, Netanya, Ofakim, Netivot, Modi'in and other
locations. In addition to the men's programs HaRav Zilber's
daughter, Rebbetzin Chavoh Cooperman tlct"a runs a
network of shiurim for women.
The levayah set out at 11:15 p.m. on Tisha B'Av night
from Beis Knesses Ezras Torah, where he had given
shiurim for many years. Eulogies were given by HaRav
Shmuel Auerbach, HaRav Aryeh Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas
Mir-Brachfeld, HaRav Chaim Sarna, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas
Chevron-Geulah, HaRav Yitchok Ezrachi, one of the roshei
yeshivas of Yeshivas Mir, HaRav Heisler, the rov of Sanhedria
Murchevet, and the deceased's son HaRav Ben-Tzion Zilber.
Following the hespeidim a crowd of thousands
accompanied the mittoh to Har Hamenuchos, for a late-
HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber, zt"l, is survived by his
son, HaRav Ben-Tzion, and daughters married to HaRav Chaim
Ze'ev Zavdi, HaRav Avrohom Cooperman and Rav Yosef Shvinger,
as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren all
following in his footsteps on the path of Torah and
yir'oh, in addition to his thousands and thousands of
talmidim, many of them avreichim, rabbonim and
marbitzei Torah throughout Israel and other parts of