Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Moscow: The Cheder, the Yeshiva, the Kollel — and the Kehilloh

by Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

Part I

Red Square used to be a place for communist marches and for the Red Army to show off its muscles, but today boys wearing yarmulkes can be seen passing through on their way home from cheder. Once upon a time such a scene could only have been found in a caricature ridiculing Jewish life. Now Torah life is thriving in Moscow. Lo bechayil velo beko'ach ki im beRuchi omar Hashem (Zecharya 4:6). This is real strength.

Russia is now a whole new land bearing little resemblance to its recent past. But I did not come here to see the revival of the Russian giant as it sends forth its economic tentacles far and wide. Rather I came, at the height of the ice and snow, to witness the dew of resurrection rising.

My goal was to see how Moscow fulfills the command of vehigadeto levincho. The cheder is not based on the principle of at p'sach lo but on the answers for the chochom who asks, "Moh ho'eidus vehamishpotim?" That is, it is no longer just kiruv, but there is also an active, vibrant Torah community. And this is just a stone's throw away from the Kremlin.

Very little reminds me of what I saw on previous visits. The splendid figures that left deep imprints in the Russian snow have passed into the Next World. HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik and his close friend HaRav Wolf Rosengarten are no longer here. Those who laid the cornerstones for the real Russian revolution, such as HaRav Yitzchok Zilber, whose spirit still lingers here, are now enjoying their keren kayemes in the Next World. And now the second generation of the fruits of their labors is already ripening. The seeds they scattered on the poor soil of Russia drove roots deep into the earth and started to sprout.

Everything is new and different. Yeshivas Toras Chaim, which used to be in the village of Malchovka next to an officers' training school on the banks of the lake, has relocated to the village of Charifan, a suburb of Moscow. Nothing remains of the Communist pall once hanging over the railway station. Domodeidovo ("The House of Grandfather"), the airport where we landed, is also new.

The local Yiddishkeit I saw is making a comeback. Father was under the heel of Communism. Whatever bore any hint of Judaism was suppressed. Grandfather lived a full Jewish life, but Father was severed from his tradition. Thus local Judaism landed in Grandfather's house. A wide, sturdy bridge has been erected across the generations.

No longer is Moscow the city of the son "she'eino yodei'a lish'ol." Since my last visit here, the son has become wiser. Not only does he know what to ask, but he also knows what to answer, loud and clear.

The Jews of Moscow do not settle for the minimum. They were not content with merely a Jewish day school so they started a cheder. They wanted glatt kashrus and set up a kashrus system able to meet their demands. They have cholov Yisroel and pas Yisroel. They want the Chazon Ish mikvo'os that bnei Torah insist on around the world. They have a large Bais Yaakov school, to put girls on the right track, and many of its graduates have already begun Torah homes.

In the past, once they were brought to the light of Torah they would rush to make aliyah, but today many are choosing to stay. According to av beis din HaRav Pinchas Goldschmidt, an organization called Fourth Generation even tried to start a local newspaper for bnei Torah called Yated Ne'eman. The leading newspaper here used to be Pravda which means "truth," but today they are trying to give expression to the truth of Torah.

A new spirit can be sensed in Moscow. The air is crisp and clean. Temperatures are at the freezing point and a blanket of clean, white snow covers the city. "The wealthier Moscow becomes, the cleaner the return to Yiddishkeit becomes," says Dovid Granovsky, who picked me up at the airport. "In the past, there was no bread here. Some people who came were motivated by their will to survive, by hunger. But in many cases they took a peek and got hooked. Today the local Jewish community enjoys economic prosperity. Those who come are simply coming home, returning to their roots. They are not looking for bread. They are not in need of economic shelter. Thus, today the teshuvoh is cleaner."

As we drive down the freeway, the Moscow suburbs with their large lackluster buildings come into view. They look like dressers with hundreds of drawers each, faceless people living their lives in every drawer. Real Communist efficiency.

The river is frozen over. A ray of light shines through the clouds, unable to melt the ice. It all began with a few snowflakes. One snowflake and another snowflake until everything became white. Like the spiritual revolution I saw in the middle of the city. And it continues to gather until one day, be'ezras Hashem, the whole city will turn white as snow.

It doesn't take a mathematician to realize that a new formula is being applied here: a chareidi kehilloh, like the ones in Antwerp and London. Once every Jew whose heart began to warm up to Yiddishkeit packed his bags and went straight to Eretz Yisroel like a migrating bird sensing the first signs of spring. "Today we are staying here," they explain to me in Hebrew and English with thick Russian accents. For them, Yiddishkeit has become a part of daily life. Perhaps without even realizing it, they are heroes in an important chapter in history.

Conducting conversations with representatives of the local chareidi community provides a sense of what took place here, and hindsight allows a clear vantage point. Communism is dead. It was not murdered or toppled and did not commit suicide. It merely died of old age. Of clogged arteries. It ate and drank itself to death and nobody rose up to protect it. Russian-style rule—"workers of the world unite"—died childless. Russian capitalism, which eats up every Western idea, emerged from the ruins. Communism died alone. This is the fate of every false ideology, to die alone.

Only the Jew is not alone. Torah returns to its former dwelling place—"machzeres le'achsaniyoh sheloh." Jews can be different from one another in their appearance, culture, customs, clothing. But they have the same eyes: sad, wise, learned through experience, with a flash of dogged hope and a revolutionary enthusiasm and always trying to connect and return. Jews of the world, unite (at the base of Sinai)! And they are all responsible for one another. Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod.

Outside lies the snow and I still cannot see winter's end in sight! On my way back to the airport I left the kollel we have yet to discuss. Beyond it the street is dark and there are a few people who look like shadows. I saw a kehilloh that hopes to shine and hopes its current light will reach all who still walk among the shadows . . .


We came to Moscow because of the cheder. A cheder founded on kedushoh and tohoroh. So perhaps we should begin our visit by walking across the snow-white courtyard inside the Eitz Chaim complex. Each step leaves a new imprint. Even once the snow melts . . .

After 70 years of Communism, the local Jewish community was almost beyond hope. An entire generation severed from its roots. After the Iron Curtain rusted and split open, many wanted to reconnect but found their roots were made of air. The Eitz Chaim school was opened to provide a source of spiritual nourishment to allow the young generation to grow and thrive.

What the children here receive is not far from hashovas aveidoh. Within the walls of the classrooms, the Eitz Chaim staff was in a race against time to restore what had been stolen from the children. But as more and more bnei Torah joined the kehilloh, they began to demand education al taharas hakodesh. Not just another outreach school that could produce varying results. Bnei Torah want their sons to study in a cheder.

The cheder is located in a separate wing of the school complex. The melodious sound of the little boys learning the mishnayos of maseches Yuma is heartwarming. The rebbe, R' Alexander Zack, opens a volume marked Otzar Seforim — Cheder Moscow to Chapter Seven and hands it to me. "Kohen godol meshamesh beshmoneh keilim," begins Rav Zack with a booming voice and a glint in his eyes.

"There are six melamdim here," explains Rav Elisha Kaminesky, the life force behind the founding of the cheder and its operation. "Two of them are locals. Four came from Eretz Hakodesh. Today Russian Jews stay here. Because of the spiritual level, we cannot send our children to outreach schools. We need a genuine talmud Torah. Amoleinu eilu habonim . . . "

"The idea of opening Talmud Torah of Moscow did not come from the top down," says HaRav Moshe Lebel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Chaim, as he walks the children across Red Square not far from the Kremlin, the place where Big Brother oversaw the spiritual suppression of the people until their will eventually prevailed. This is the power of Torah. "We built the city into a mokom Torah and the light brings them back."

Toras Chaim

In the evening we traveled to Yeshivas Toras Chaim, now located on the outskirts of Moscow in Charifan. The drive is very long. Today's Moscow shows no trace of Communism. Capitalism has taken over the country. Dazzling signs of wealth appear everywhere. Stores are filled with an abundance of merchandise, the downtown area is lovely and the Lada, Cheka and Volga have been replaced with Lexus, Mercedes and Audi.

But as we drive further away from downtown the opulence dwindles and fades. The car trudges through the heavy snow and by the time we reach the yeshiva the hour is late. But a handful of bnei Torah still sit in a corner of the beis medrash engaged in rischo deOraisa. And a young man sitting in another corner did not even notice us enter.

During the morning session dozens of bochurim fill the beis medrash, their fingers stabbing into the air and sevoros flying as they toil over the Rishonim and Acharonim on the matter of "shtarcho beyodei mai bo'i." These baalei trissim don't let the Rosh Yeshiva relate his approach to the sugya without putting their two cents in as well.

The bren of learning fires up the temperatures in this smelting furnace. Only the thick Russian accents remind me I am in Moscow and not at Ponovezh, Mir, Chevron or Slobodka. The depth of the furrows on the foreheads reflect the depth of the kushiyoh or sevoro being presented. The Rosh Yeshiva and the maggid shiur, HaRav Tzvi Patlas, step out into the snow-covered courtyard as a band of students continues to engage them in the shaklo vetaryo of the sugya, their fiery dialogue breaking through the chill. And then the pshat becomes clear and the light of understanding flickers in their eyes.


Ariel Toledano of Bogota, Colombia is well aware of his family roots. Like every Sephardi Jew of distinguished lineage he studied in a traditional Jewish day school and spoke Ladino at home. "The Yiddish of the Sephardim," I remark offhand.

"No!" he replies with obvious pride. "Yiddish is the Ladino of the Ashkenazim." In defeat I continue to ask questions and hear about the holiday traditions preserved in his parents' home, of course in keeping with the level of observance of a faraway, severed Diaspora community.

As an intelligent, talented young man he was sent to a Madrid university to study physics. Though Judaism was a very peripheral concern of his, when Pesach approached he looked for a place to spend the Seder Night. His knowledge of Judaism did not extend much beyond that. Growing up, all he really knew was that his family did not celebrate the Christian holidays, because they were Jews.

In his final years in university he specialized in a field of theoretical mathematics. Because of his high academic level he received an offer that was hard to refuse. One of his instructors suggested he do an internship at Moscow's VGM University—the Harvard of Russian academia. There he could study under a certain professor of worldwide renown who was considered a groundbreaking figure in his field.

Thus he arrived in Moscow. Struck by a tinge of homesickness, again he searched for a Seder to go to. He began to look for a Sephardic beis knesses where he would find the nusach he was familiar with from home. Eventually he found his way to the Choral Synagogue on Archipova Street, a large beis knesses for Jews from the Caucasus Mountains. HaRav Zecharya Matityahu, today a rosh kollel in Haifa, was teaching Torah there at the time. He was also among the maggidei shiur at the kollel, a Torah center that Yeshivas Toras Chaim runs in the middle of Moscow.

During this period, perhaps the covering around Ariel's heart opened a crack. Perhaps the lure of academia appeared less glittering, or even dreary.

Ariel Toledano: I spent every holiday with him. For the first time I understood what Shabbos is, what a chag is, what the Torah is. I realized I was being drawn to this. I thought about finishing my degree and going on for a Master's degree. Along with my academic studies I wanted to set times for Torah study. But one thought gave me no rest: I couldn't let `the dough turn sour,' choliloh. If I continued with my studies I might miss my chance at learning Torah! This was something inside me. I felt like Pharaoh was banishing me from Egypt, that the sea was splitting open before me and that I was being led to Har Sinai to receive the Torah. And if I continued with my [university] studies I knew I would not merit learning Torah! I dropped everything and devoted my whole life to Torah."

From that moment, there was no going back. Today Ariel Toledano is at the top of his shiur at Yeshivas Toras Chaim. He also happens to be the only Sephardic ben Torah in the beis medrash who speaks Russian with a South American accent. In fact he may be the world's only ben yeshiva who fits this description.

We cannot recount the story behind every bochur, but one of these stories is particularly hard to overlook. Dovid Eliezer Reichman recently celebrated his bar mitzvah and is already studying in a yeshiva gedoloh. He was born near the Chinese border in the town of Havrosk. Later his parents made aliyah. His father was a businessman and his mother was studying at M.G.M., a college for diplomatic training and international legal studies. And when his father went to Moscow on business he remained with his mother in Ashdod.

In Moscow, his father made the acquaintance of a local baal teshuvoh who had a major influence on the family. They began to keep a religious home, but Dovid Eliezer was still enrolled at a secular school. When the parents moved to Moscow they began to keep Shabbos and kashrus and rented an apartment in close proximity to the beis knesses on Rechov Archipova. The boy began learning Torah at the kollel, hungrily gobbling down the taste of life— "ta'amu ure'u ki tov Hashem" (Tehillim 34:9). He was just 11 and the flame in him started to burn higher until it turned into a blaze.

Meanwhile, his parents also raised their level of observance. Dovid Eliezer's bar mitzvah was held at the main beis knesses but the seudah took place at the yeshiva. Like other boys his age he studied at a Jewish school, but periodically he would vanish for a few days until he was found seeking refuge in the yeshiva. A voice calling inside gave him no rest. At school his grades had been excellent, but he felt imprisoned until he was back at the yeshiva sitting and poring over the pages of ancient books like the other bochurim.

"My parents agreed that whenever I succeed in my studies I could spend a few days at the yeshiva. And that's not counting Shabbos," he says. But as a permanent guest Dovid Eliezer constantly wore a gloomy expression. Only when he came to the yeshiva and delved into the gemora did light come to his face.

Eventually he managed to persuade his parents. Now he only goes back to school for tests. "When he learns gemora he hits onto the kushiyos of the Rishonim," says his maggid shiur, HaRav Tzvi Patlas. "When Dovid Eliezer went to Eretz Yisroel for a short vacation he spent two weeks at the yeshiva in Kiryat Malachi. This boy has an internal spiritual magnet that draws him to the shtender. Like a moth he is simply attracted to light. And when he goes to his home in the center of Moscow, where his father sets fixed times for Torah study and his mother attends women's shiurim, he is the baal korei at Beis Knesses Archipova, like at the yeshiva.

Dovid Eliezer's face reveals glimpses of the secrets of the people who never surrendered and withstood all of the storms. Shaped out of generations of suffering, its solid foundation stones make the Jewish people into a building sturdy enough to stand up to any weather.

The Kollel

The kollel operated by Yeshivas Toras Chaim is located on Luchenikov Street, in the heart of the business district, not far from the former KGB building. Not far from the bank. The place where a statue of former KGB head Zhirinovsky once stood is covered with drifts of snow. Once even his bronze eyes made people tremble.

The cold chills to the bone until you step into the courtyard where snow and ice pile high. Like the old courtyards of Jerusalem surrounded by buildings on all sides, you turn to the right and start up the stairs. On the third floor, HaRav Alexander Eisenstat, one of the heads of Yeshivas Toras Chaim, studies Torah with a group of businessmen.

This place was founded as a spiritual center and a magnet for Muscovite Jews. This is where the first sparks are lit, where they hesitantly take their very first, wobbly steps. Many started learning Torah here and eventually made their way to the yeshiva. In effect it served as a gathering point for young men searching for Yiddishkeit but who could not go all the way to the yeshiva on the edge of the metropolis.

With the start of the Chavrusas Project, in which avreichim learn with baalei batim, the place is brimming with life during every hour of the day. As we left, the tranquility of night settled like a warm blanket. The city turned over in bed drowsily but in the kollel the lights were still burning and the sounds of Torah echoed in the hallways.

Yeshivas Ohalei Yaakov

You rub your eyes but it's not a dream. Throughout the course of history there have always been Jews who know how to spark a revolution. All it takes is one person who is both flexible and firm, sensitive and resolved, a dreamer and a doer. He who was graced with this combination of traits and is not being treated for a split personality is the right man for the job. But in Moscow there are several men who meet this description.

A sleepy ray of light cracks through the morning sky and a light Russian snowfall pricks at the grayness as we set out with HaRav Lebel to visit Yeshivas Ohalei Yaakov, located near the familiar yellow building of the Uzbekistan Embassy. Serving as rosh yeshiva is HaRav Akiva Yuscovitz, the son-in- law of HaRav Aharon Shraga Lopiansky, who is himself responsible for a spiritual revolution in Silver Spring and Washington DC that was plain to see during HaRav Steinman's tour of the US a few months ago. The Rosh Yeshiva's wife is the granddaughter of HaRav Beinush Finkel, whose mesirus nefesh for Torah courses through her veins.

The number of talmidim at the yeshiva, under the spiritual guidance of HaRav Eliyoh Svei, has grown and a group of avreichim is soon to join their ranks. The man behind the upswing is HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky, who has stood by the yeshiva from the start.

In a long conversation with the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Akiva Yuscovitz explains that its location in the center of the city has transformed it into a magnet for local Jews. "On Shabbos, dozens come, seeing the yeshiva as their own home. On Shabbos Night they come en masse to find refuge in a mokom Torah." HaRav Yuscovitz, who has been a part of the revolution from the start, notes that all of the chareidi figures cooperate synergistically to bolster the yeshiva as it grows and forms.

"The presence of the avreichim requires the establishment of suitable educational institutions here. The rebbe of the mechinoh is from the yeshiva. Until now, we sent alumni to Lakewood or Eretz Yisroel. But sometimes they find it hard to adapt and without Russian seminary graduates they find it difficult to build Torah homes. For all of these reasons it is essential that we institute a kehilloh here and fortify it."

End of Part I

The Secret Tape of HaRav Shach's Talk to the Refuseniks

"Believe me my friends, I am speaking to you through tears. One shouldn't envy others but I envy you . . ."

by Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

Moscow Airport looked dark to the two avreichim making their way into the terminal one day in the 1980s. This was not the first visit that Rav Eliyahu Meir Klugman and Rav Ezra Hartmann were paying to the Soviet Union. They already had several successful Torah teaching missions behind them. They knew though, that they were under scrutiny and that every step and every movement was being closely watched. The game was set in advance so as to be mutually acceptable and its rules had to be followed without the slightest deviation. They, of course, knew everything already. Just don't rock the boat.

The two arrivals parted, as though they were strangers, each headed towards a different side of the terminal. When one of them was about to leave by himself however, a policeman frowned and said, "Wait a moment for your friend!"

There were a few nerve-racking minutes at customs. "What's this cassette?" the officer wanted to know. He asked the two visitors to wait until he'd inserted the tape into an old Russian tape recorder and he pressed the "play" button.

Silence. He ran the tape forwards and backwards. Wherever he listened, silence. A blank cassette?

The officer examined the facial expressions of the two. They tried not to flinch so as not to betray their tension. He turned the tape around and tried again. Silence. Forwards, backwards — nothing!

The two avreichim let out sighs of relief after they'd finally left the building. Had the officer landed on the "strongly anti-Soviet" message that tape carried, their experience would have ended differently. What was the message? Who was the speaker whose words might have caused the two American-passport-holding avreichim to undergo extensive KGB. interrogation?

As mentioned, this wasn't the first time that the two had traveled behind the Iron Curtain. They had been previously to Russia, to teach Torah to the religious refuseniks, the first bold but fragile buds of the Russian teshuvoh movement. The group would meet on Tuesday nights in the home of Mrs. P. Koronova, who had engaged in underground work on behalf of Jewish family purity. In order to appear less conspicuous, they learned individually on other days but Tuesday was the night of what they called "the shiur kloli."

Before setting out for Moscow, the two avreichim traveled to Bnei Brak and went in to see HaRav Shach zt'l, whom they used to consult for guidance about their work in Russia. They placed a tape recorder on the table, pressed "record" and the Rosh Yeshiva began to speak to his "faraway friends," conveying a powerful message of encouragement. We present that heartfelt message here, as it was said, though obviously the written word cannot convey the strong emotion in the Rosh Yeshiva's voice, much less his tears.

Greetings to you, my faraway friends!

I address you and all members of the chareidi community who are observant of Torah and mitzvos, in the Russian State. It is hard for me to express myself briefly and I don't know whether there is anyone in the world who can portray in words the tremendous significance of what you are doing and the great obligation that you carry to engage in this work.

You, who remain in this country that is desolate with regard to the Jewish religion — you are few in numbers, the only ones withstanding the trial. You have withstood trials up to this point — and I understand that the trials until now have been difficult ones — in order to maintain Torah, to learn it and to fulfill it as we have been commanded by Moshe Rabbenu. "Blessed is he who upholds the words of this Torah!" (see Devorim 27:26) refers to you!

We chareidi Jews, believers descended from believers, have been told by Hakodosh Boruch Hu that without Torah the world cannot go on existing. Without Torah in the world, the world must destruct and whoever learns Torah sustains the world. "The world stands upon three things: on Torah, on avodoh and on practicing kindness" (Ovos 1:2). And you are the only ones in this area who continue without any assistance. (The Rosh Yeshiva's voice breaks and he continues in choked tones, amid tears.)

Believe me my friends, I am speaking to you in tears. One shouldn't envy others but I envy you. I have also been in Russia. You are in a destitute place, where Torah is uprooted, where faith is uprooted — and you remain the only ones! Avrohom Ovinu is known as Avrohom Ho'Ivri. The entire world stood on one side and Avrohom stood on the other side. You are descendants of Avrohom Ovinu!

Be happy! Be glad! Who can compare with you?!

You must strengthen yourselves more and more. Fortify yourselves as much as possible to increase your Torah study, to convey it to your children, your neighbors, your families and to whoever wants to receive it. The public's merit depends upon you!

The truth will ultimately be revealed. Faith is [after all] "faith" [i.e. it cannot be proven] yet it is the most intellectual thing that can exist. Without faith a person is - - "Man is born like a wild young ass" — a ferocious animal. How many millions of people have been killed and slaughtered in your country only because there was no faith in Hashem.

You are fortunate. You are fortunate. May you merit long life — may we see and may we merit the arrival of the Redeemer and then we shall see the truth openly.

Greetings to you . . .


That Tuesday, the refuseniks sat around the table with a camera recording the event. They listened carefully, their hearts open to the Rosh Yeshiva's words. The "voice of Yaakov," of the elder sage, the mentor of Yidden everywhere, echoed through the distant Moscow apartment and was absorbed by the "faraway friends" who now felt themselves very close indeed.

Years have passed. The participants of that illegal gathering have settled in Eretz Yisroel and established their own Torah homes. Over the years, the Rosh Yeshiva's message continued echoing in their hearts, while the original cassette was left in some forgotten corner gathering dust.

On my visit to Russia I met Rav Klugman, who had come to deliver shiurim in Yeshivas Ohalei Yaakov, where his brother served for many years as Rosh Yeshiva. We spoke for a while and in the course of our conversation he recalled this episode and told me about it. All I needed to do then was badger him and urge him to find it. He gave me the cassette that he recorded eighteen years ago at the yeshiva with his friend Rav Hartmann. I ran it forwards and backwards but like the Russian customs official, all I could hear was silence. I turned the tape over and ran it forwards and backwards. Then I ran it forwards again and my heart skipped a beat:

Greetings to you my faraway friends . . .


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