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14 Sivan, 5784 - June 20, 2024 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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A Reiner Mentsch, A Reiner Torah, — The Gaon HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l

By Moshe Musman

Hachnosat Sefer Torah at the Toras Chaim yeshiva

For Part V of this series click here.

For Part VII of this series click here.

Part Six: Yeshivas Toras Chaim — From Alef To Tov To Alef


Throughout the years, Reb Moishe always maintained a special interest in the welfare of Russian Jewry, for whom he felt an extra measure of responsibility due to his proximity. His feelings towards this massive group of the Diaspora, who remained largely cut off from the rest of world Jewry for two or three generations, are conveyed in a moshol he often repeated.

Imagine a father who has a number of children, one of whom is seriously ill and is lying unconscious. Naturally, the father spares no effort to relieve his child's condition. Time passes until one day when, boruch Hashem, the child begins to move his hands and feet. Soon afterwards, he opens his eyes. The father now redoubles his efforts to restore his child to full health.

Russian Jewry are Hashem's children, Reb Moishe would conclude, whom we now have a chance to restore to health. He would say that undertaking this work was the task of the generation's leaders.

Reb Moishe's early encounters with Russian Jews took place sixteen years ago. From Zurich, he despatched Russian speaking emissaries to the transit camp outside Rome where emigrants from Soviet Russia used to spend time en route to Israel or to the United States, with instructions to provide those Jews with every possible exposure to their heritage.

HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth of Antwerp and other rabbonim were also engaged in this work. Reb Moishe even paid a visit to Italy to survey the progress. Indeed, some of the mekurovim of that period would later fill important roles in the spiritual absorption of their brethren who began leaving the country in far larger numbers some ten years afterwards.

As soon as the doors of the Soviet Union began to swing wide open, some six years ago, Reb Moishe seized the chance to start working inside the country. At his behest, Rav Yitzchok Silver (who, since emigrating to Eretz Yisroel after successfully raising his own children as observant Jews in defiance of Soviet persecution, has been involved in reaching out to new Russian immigrants) and Rabbi Alexander Eisenstadt (who had worked with Reb Moishe on the aforementioned European project) travelled to Moscow to evaluate the possibility of setting up some kind of long term program.

During their two month stay, they rented a room in Moscow and advertised lectures on Jewish topics in the newspapers and student centers. These lectures were attended by ever increasing numbers of students and young people.

Stopping in Zurich on their way home to Eretz Yisroel (direct flights did not begin until three years later) they reported that the response to their notices indicated that there certainly was interest in what they had to offer.

Preferring to work alone rather than join forces with other organizations which were also at work in the country (his reasoning was that the wheels of an established organization tend to move at a pace of their own) Reb Moishe set to work and, within a couple of weeks, he had completed all the necessary arrangements for a project.

HaRav Moshe Lebel giving a shiur at the Toras Chaim yeshiva

His recommendation was that a beis hamedrash be opened, that would offer regular shiurim. After a time, the success was so great that a full time yeshiva was opened. A two room apartment on 42 Pierrlovka Street served the needs of the yeshiva. Rabbis Eisenstadt and Dovid Kruger were the first roshei yeshiva and as the number of students grew, they were joined by other Israeli and European avreichim who travelled out for a few months at a time. One of them, Rabbi Moshe Lebel, worked very closely with Reb Moishe and his recollections form the basis of this article.

When the crowding in the apartment got out of hand — the apartment eventually had to sleep forty bochurim — new premises were found on the outskirts of Moscow, on the grounds of a place that used to serve as a rest and recuperation facility for KGB personnel. Between forty and fifty bochurim are currently learning in the yeshiva and on Shabbos there are always extra visitors. Groups always leave for Eretz Yisroel and new talmidim arrive steadily, having heard of the yeshiva from their friends.

For the first two years of its operation, the yeshiva's existence was kept a closely guarded secret in Europe. Only when circumstances rendered it almost impossible to continue in this fashion did Reb Moishe consent to lift the veil of secrecy. The news was received with astonishment even by some of Reb Moishe's family members and close associates, who had absolutely no idea of what had been happening both in Moscow and upon their own doorsteps.

By this time, the yeshiva was well established and was raising bnei Torah who stand out among their counterparts who have been learning from childhood, in their dedication and love of learning.

HaRav Moshe Shapira giving a shiur at the Toras Chaim yeshiva

'Torah Will Bring Its Own Results'

How do you spark interest in Torah amongst young adults who have grown up in a wholly atheistic society, who have no background in Judaism whatsoever and who do not even know of the existence of Tanach?

This is the problem which is grappled with by all who are involved with Eastern European Jews (although there are important differences between the attitudes of those who have already emigrated and those who still remain in their native countries).

Of course, there are differing approaches to this problem, many of which are valid and which yield positive results. Reb Moishe's answer to this question was different again, simple yet profound: teach them Torah.

He advised against organizing special activities to attract them or offering preparatory courses to explain the fundamentals of Jewish faith, history, language, philosophy or outlook. A true appreciation of and delight in Yiddishkeit would only develop by fostering a love of Torah.

As soon as the students — who at some early stage metamorphose into bochurim — can read, they begin learning Chumash, followed by mishnayos and then gemora, following in fact, the path of traditional Jewish education traversed by Jewish children worldwide, if at a somewhat accelerated pace.

Reb Moishe directed the mechanchim that their task was to nurture a love of Torah among the talmidim by letting them taste the beauty of learning in depth, savoring the fineness and clarity of Torah ideas and concepts, as elucidated by the gemora, Rishonim and Acharonim, as happens in yeshivos the world over. To this end, he would advise that covering ground was not as important as introducing the talmidim to the profound depths of a sugya of gemora.

To those who had progressed sufficiently, he recommended teaching Minchas Chinuch because of the great breadth of Torah knowledge it contains as well as the depth of its content. Indeed, one of the maggidei shiur recalled an occasion when a university graduate, an aircraft engineer, interrupted a shiur on the sugya of Tokfo Cohen in great excitement and requested permission to express something that was troubling him. "I feel that I am not learning Torah lishmoh," he began. "I am enjoying this so much!"

Of course, even in the course of learning, some offbeat questions can get asked by beginners, and special siyata deShmaya is required in order to answer them correctly on the spur of the moment. However, it is a remarkable fact that during the shiurim, argumentation irrelevant to the learning is almost nonexistent.

Not everyone who arrives ends up staying, but on the whole, once the bochurim have taken their first few steps in the world of Torah learning and mitzva observance and have experienced Torah life first hand, a little basic hashkofo and independent contemplation suffices to commit them to the rich heritage they have discovered.

Reb Moishe took great care to ensure that the atmosphere in the beis hamedrash remained suffused with the pure ideal of learning Torah for its own sake. At one time, it was proposed that the yeshiva obtain permission to grant Russian government rabbinical certificates to its graduates. The yeshiva would have benefited from this scheme both financially and in terms of attracting more students.

Although no changes were being proposed in the yeshiva's program of studies, Reb Moishe vetoed the idea. He felt that the scheme would attract people who were only interested in obtaining the certificate and that this alone would alter the entire spirit of the yeshiva.

A Letter from HaRav Yisroel Gershon to his son Rav Moishe

From Zurich Until Moscow

Reb Moishe was constantly consulted about every aspect of the yeshiva's running. Whether there was an halachic query, advice as to how to deal with an individual bochur's problem or an issue that affected the yeshiva as a whole, Reb Moishe would convey his views in his own unique way.

Although he had very definite views about how things should be done, he would never lay down the law. He would examine the matter from all angles and then make his suggestions or recommendations. In practice, he always left the final decision as to how to proceed in the hands of the workers who were on the spot.

Though the yeshiva was very close to his heart and he would often undertake to fast over difficulties that were being encountered, he never evinced the slightest trace of anxiety over the problems, financial or otherwise. His oft-repeated response in difficult situations was that the yeshiva belonged to HaKodosh Boruch Hu and that He was perfectly capable of sustaining it, if He wished. Indeed, although the financial pressures were sometimes almost overwhelming, the necessary money for each month would always arrive just in time.

On one occasion, when the possibility loomed of the yeshiva either being evicted from its premises or being charged an exorbitant rent, Reb Moishe kept his cool. At first, he would dismiss his colleagues concern saying that there was still plenty of time left. Later, as time ran out and no solution appeared likely, he simply said that since they had done all they could, the matter rested entirely in Hashem's hands. Ultimately, the yeshiva was able to remain where it was and the rent was not raised.

Reb Moishe's deep trust saved him from any petty partisan feelings for the institution which he himself had built up. At one time, when the there was a dire need for an extra teacher, the committee members were overjoyed when an avreich close to Reb Moishe expressed his and his wife's willingness to spend several months in Moscow.

All was set for them to travel when a problem suddenly arose which cast doubt on whether their journey would take place at all. One of the committee members suggested the avreich speak to Reb Moishe, though from his demeanor — which transmitted the message, `It's too late now of course, you must go whatever!' — it seemed that this was being suggested as a mere formality.

Reb Moishe however, was unequivocal. While acknowledging that he had a certain partiality, his advice was, "For your own sakes, don't go." (In the end, the problem was resolved and they were able to go.)

The Swiss committee which managed the yeshiva's affairs consisted only of Reb Moishe and two close associates, Rav Wolf Rosengarten and Rabbi Alexander Loewenstein. For several years even some members of Reb Moishe's family and his fellow mispallelim had no clue of its existence.

The yeshiva in Moscow was not the only endeavor in which he was silently and invisibly engaged. It was his practice to keep things hidden. Although the precise reasons for the silence are not clear (breaking it would certainly have made fundraising much simpler), Reb Moishe's wishes were fulfilled. It is perhaps even more remarkable that news of the yeshiva did not spread from Moscow.

Only when the yeshiva was threatened with closure and there was no longer any choice, did Reb Moishe consent to the knowledge of its existence being made public and his name being linked to it. Besides fundraising, another problem which this alleviated was the entrance of bochurim into mainstream Israeli yeshivos. Beforehand, nothing very definite was known by these institutions about how new immigrants from Russia could have managed to progress to the point of seeking entry to a regular yeshiva and they were thus understandably reticent about accepting them. Once the full story of Yeshivas Toras Chaim could be told, the mystery was solved.

From afar, Reb Moishe became personally acquainted with the almost every one of the bochurim. There were often difficult domestic situations that required clarification and attention. Reb Moishe took an interest in each bochur's progress. Those who later left Russia for Eretz Yisroel finally had their chance to meet him when he arrived there on one of his regular visits. They discovered that he already knew them. When one of them became engaged and married, Reb Moishe presented him with a gift and rejoiced with him as if the occasion was taking place in his own family.

Who Is a Jew?

The first stage in a bochur's progress is, necessarily, establishing whether he is a Jew. All questions pertaining to this, and to related matters such as geirus and gittin, were referred to Reb Moishe by Rabbi Pinchos Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Reb Moishe maintained contact with the other Zurich rabbonim over these questions.

In most of the cases where one parent is Jewish, it is the father. One such bochur had suffered all his life from antisemitism. He burst into tears when he learned that his religion followed his mother's identity.

Once, two cases were submitted, concerning whether or not to convert two bochurim, who were brothers. Inexplicably at the time, Reb Moishe's response was to convert one but not the other. The second brother thereupon went to a different beis din who acceded to his request. For a short period, the two brothers continued side by side. Then, the one whom Reb Moishe had been reluctant to convert returned to his former way of life. Reb Moishe had somehow seen the signs earlier.

Kashrus was another area that required extensive consultation with Zurich. The origin of each item that was used in the kitchen had to be investigated and a decision made about its suitability for use. During the yeshiva's early days, when local food prices were low and there was steady funding, it would have been possible to maintain a higher than average material level. However, Reb Moishe advised against this for a number of reasons. He did not want to arouse the envy of the gentile population, especially those who worked in the yeshiva, nor to introduce extraneous considerations into what was still a genuine thirst for Yiddishkeit on the part of the students.

When he was asked whether it was preferable to employ a mashgiach for the kitchen or to introduce a rotation among the bochurim to do jobs such as checking vegetables for insects, Reb Moishe recommended the latter arrangement. Although their learning would be interrupted, it was valuable and important for them to receive practical training in mitzva observance.

'Each One Has A Righteous Grandparent In Heaven'

Once Reb Moishe remarked, "If you carefully investigate each bochur's forbears, you'll find that every one of them has a grandfather who was a tzaddik or a grandmother a tziddkonis in Shomayim. Each one has a special merit."

Indeed, it was not so much a matter of transforming the bochurim into something different from what they were, as simply introducing them to a dimension of themselves from which they had been separated and with which they instinctively identified.

On the single visit which he paid to Toras Chaim in the summer of 1992, Reb Moishe remarked that the atmosphere there was just like that in any other yeshiva the world over. The only remarkable aspect of this was that this yeshiva was situated in the middle of Moscow!

Reb Moishe was especially impressed by the tefillah in the yeshiva. The devotion and simple sincerity of the bochurim deeply moved him. Boys who for twenty or so years, had been unused to the whole idea of living in the presence of the Creator, were now standing before Him engrossed in slow, careful, contemplative and pure hearted prayer.

Not every aspect of life in yeshiva is entirely new. The intellectual level of the bochurim is already high. They are used to long periods of study and sitting and learning for a stretch of five or six hours is no problem for them. While some manage to continue studying while they learn, others have interrupted their studies or left careers in order to devote themselves to learning in the yeshiva.

When asked after a year or two what most attracted them to this way of life, most reply that it was the fine character and the genuine concern for friends which they witnessed in the yeshiva and which are so different from what they had experienced in the secular world. Indeed, on the social level, this is how Jews are commonly viewed in Russian society.

It is important to realize that there is a significant difference between Russian Jews within their native land and outside it (although a cautionary note must be sounded about hastening to apply this on an individual level). Those who left Russia en masse as soon as the Iron Curtain parted were largely motivated by considerations of material security or betterment, with the notable exception of the few whose appreciation of their Jewish heritage was sufficiently developed to render them aware of the spiritual bondage in which they were being held.

The current search for roots amongst the Jews who remained in Russia on the other hand, is a spiritual one. To be sure, not all are ready to become baalei teshuva, but the climate leans in that direction. Although other groups, such as Reform and Jews for J., are also at work among today's searching Russian Jewry, it is still easier to work in Russia than outside it. Transplanted to the fiercely secular environment in Israel, an irreligious Russian Jew who may not be very religiously motivated to begin with, is automatically swept up into the prevailing climate.

There is also a new found pride in Jewishness, which did not exist five or six years ago. For example, one of the bochurim was stopped by policemen one Friday night and asked to present his identification papers. He told them that he was Jewish and did not carry in the street on the Sabbath. To verify his story, he showed them his tzitzis, which one of the policemen had heard about.

Only a few years ago, such a bochur would have preferred to be taken to jail rather than to admit to being Jewish. Today, it is not only acceptable but respectable for a Jew to walk the streets of Moscow wearing a hat and jacket.


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