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No glory in abandoning Russian Jewry

Past Chabad leaders have lost their lives while defying the Russian government to serve local Jews. Painting today's rabbis as collaborators is beyond insulting
Rabbi Chaim Danzinger of Chabad in Rostov, Russia, prepares a Passover meal for hundreds of guests for Passover 2022 (copyright free, courtesy of Rabbi Danzinger via author)
A picture taken in a Rostov synagogue, with Rabbi Chaim Danzinger of Chabad in Rostov, and the seder he made this year. (courtesy)

The repeated attacks against Chabad and Rabbi Berel Lazar for servicing the Russian Jewish community should have each and every one of us asking: if our own country were taken over by a totalitarian war criminal who waged war against another country and isolated us from the world, what would we want our own rabbi to be doing. Packing up and running away would probably be the last option to cross our minds. None of us demand Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, the Chief Rabbi of Iran, abandon his community, nor did any British Jews judge German rabbis for not protesting in Berlin during WWI. 

Defamatory revisionist history propagated against Chabad in outlets ranging from Politico to Ha’aretz have led this false charge against Chabad for their crime of remaining in Russia and servicing more than 175,000 Russian Jews – a community larger than the UK’s Jewish community. As a nation with the vastest history and breadth of dispersion among the nations, the ethic of making sure Jewish life is viable and vital, wherever it may be, is essential to our history and existence. We cannot conflate servicing local Jewish communities with the actions of foreign governments. 

Mark Twain famously said: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” It defies logic and is a crime against history to imply in any way that Lubavich have entered a “Faustian Bargain,” in collaboration, or complicit in any way with the Russian government.

In addition to the underlying defamatory oped in Ha’aretz titled “Chabad’s Long Faustian Bargain With Russia and Putin,” the author Lev Stesin writes: “Had the Soviets accommodated the Rebbe’s very modest demands and thus preserved some semblance of Jewish religious life, as they did with most other religious groups, the life of Soviet Jews could have been very different.

But that compromise was not to be, as the Bolsheviks viewed Jews not as a nation but as a class to be eliminated. There would be no Berel Lazar taking pictures next to Lenin.”. The extent to which this is untrue is appalling.  

Personally, as someone whose family is on record fighting against Russia’s evils for more than a century, I find these repeated attacks against Chabad to be personally and historically unforgivable. 

My great-great grandfather was Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Spair, the Chief Rabbi of Saratov in Russia. After the Bolshevik revolution, he refused to comply with the Soviet demands to shut down Jewish life, and was wanted by the Bolsheviks. His son, Rabbi Yisrael Sapir, a rabbi in Petach Tikva at the time, noticed that his father’s life was in danger. After informing the British government of the danger to his father’s life, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Sapir was given a certificate and allowed to immigrate to Petach Tikva, where he lived the rest of his life. At this time, Chabad and other rabbis remained in Russia and continued to serve the Jewish community, often at the risk of their own life.

Israeli newspaper sharing the story of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Sapir’s escape from Soviet Russia and his arrival (courtesy of author, public domain)

My great grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer Poupko, was the rabbi of Velizh in the Smolensk Oblast. Despite the Bolsheviks taking power, he insisted on preserving Jewish life at the risk of his own life. Defying Soviet censorship, Eliezer Poupko began writing letters to rabbis and Jewish leaders around the world, letting them know of the dire situation of Jews inside Soviet Russia, a crime for which he would be sentenced to imprisonment in Siberia.

In those years, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was also engaged in vitalizing Jewish life in Soviet Russia and was being monitored and pursued by the Jewish section of the KGB, the Yevsektsia. My great grandfather traveled to St. Petersburg, where he met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and told him the KGB were pursuing him and that they had asked my great grandfather to pass him the message that so long as he kept to himself and did not advance Jewish life for anyone other than himself, they would not harm him. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak answered my great grandfather with a passionate exclamation in Yiddish: “Velizher Rov! Ich vil dos nisht tahn! Ich bin great tzu gein of mesiras nefesh! – Rabbi of Velizh! I will not do that! I am ready to give my life for this cause”. –[I heard this story from my cousin R’ Mordechai Ber ben Yitzchok Pupko, who heard it directly from Eliezer Poupko. This story is corroborated by a 1952 letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. See here too

Photo taken in Moscow synagogue on Rabbi Bernard Poupko’s visit to Russia in the 1960s (picture courtesy of his grandson/author)

Indeed that is what happened. In 1927 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson was arrested and imprisoned in Leningrad, where he was sentenced to death for his “counter-revolutionary activities.”

The idea that anyone would imply that Chabad has a history of collaborating with the Russian government when its leaders and the movement have literally given their lives in defiance of the Russian government, placing their highest and steadfast devotion to nothing other than Judaism and the Jewish people is beyond insulting. It is like accusing a fallen soldier of loyalty to the enemy. In the case of Rabbi Schneerson, thanks to heavy lobbying and international pressure–in which my family was honored to partake – he was released from prison and expelled from Russia. Yet there have been many Jews who followed his lead and the Chabad spirit and were the only ones left behind the Soviet Iron Curtain to fight for Jewish life in Soviet Russia. Many died in gulags, prison cells, and KGB torture chambers. It is unthinkable that anyone would tarnish their memory for the sake of political musings.  

The KGB caught up with my great grandfather too. Ultimately, he was tried for his defiance of the anti-religious Soviet laws and his letters to other rabbis in the West, appraising the Jewish world of the peril of Soviet Jews. His letters were intercepted, and he was arrested and sentenced to two years of hard labor in Siberia. 

Luckily his brother-in-law was Louis Raskas, owner of the Raskas Dairy Company in St. Louis Missouri, a politically connected philanthropist who was always there for others in need. He likely also helped apply international pressure to get the Lubavitcher Rebbe out, who paid the Raskas family in Missouri a visitone of the Rebbe’s first visits after arriving in the US. 

September 14, 1931, the St Louis Star reporting the arrival of my great grandparents. (courtesy of author)

In 1931, with the help of the Raskas family and the Joint Distribution Committee, my family was able to escape Russia into Poland and then to America. Despite reaching safe shores, we had never forgotten the plight of Russian Jews. 

In 1961, my grandfather Rabbi Bernard Poupko was one of the first Jews to visit Russian Jews in an official capacity. Representing the Rabbinical Council of America, and with the blessings of the US State Department, he was one of the first to report to the world on the state of Soviet Jewry. Despite the Soviet propaganda claiming there is religious freedom or lack of interest in Jewish life, my grandfather reported on the repression of Jewish life in Russia and the thirst of young Jews for true Judaism. His job was to report back to American Jews on the state of Russian Jewry, which report can be heard in part in the recording below starting 10 minutes in:

“My report will never be complete…there are some people who have done more than we did, and no one knows about it. And this is a tremendous group. Obvious reasons don’t permit me to tell what they are doing and how they are doing. But when the objective chronicler of Jewish history will write a chapter of what Lubavitcher Chassidim are doing and what the Lubavitcher Rebbe is doing, this will be one of the most fantastic tales in the history of this terrible chapter. I will not forget the two Chassidim, elegant millionaires in the airport in Milan…some come [to Russia] only for their commercial needs, and others remember that there are Jews in Russia. And you imagine what happens if they remember this. 

“What is being done and how will be a most terrible thing to discuss here right now. But I do say that their dedication, their resourcefulness, their steadfast mesiras Nefesh….these people don’t get any credit; you never see a story about them in the newspaper. What they are doing…this is not from a Chassid.”

My grandfather was not able to elaborate, but by now, it is well-known and largely documented.

1964 New York Times article documented some of the similarities and differences between my grandfather and the following Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson). Yet regardless of differences of opinion, they both successfully fought to put the plight of Soviet Jewry on the forefront of Jews around the world. 

Not all of my family interactions with Chabad were amicable. When my great grandfather was a senior rabbi in Philadelphia, Lubavitch wanted to establish a Yeshiva in the city. Knowing the tensions and competition from the rising power of conservative Judaism, my great grandfather and other orthodox rabbis were hesitant to allow for such a move that would bring up tensions in the city. Despite everything our family had done for Chabad and Eliezer Poupko being far senior to him, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson wrote him a direct and strongly worded letter urging the opening of a Yeshiva. Anyone who has been to a Chabad house even for a short amount of time knows that the beauty of Chabad is their ability to love and accept everyone, yet to compromise on nothing when it comes to being truthful to their Judaism. The implication that somehow access to power and government would sway this commitment is appalling. 

Calls on Rabbi Berel Lazar to do anything other than serve his community are in poor taste. No one questioned America’s Jews for not speaking out enough against the unjustified Iraq War, and no one should ask Russian Jews to do more than we ask any other Russian to do during this immoral war on Ukraine. From COVID in New York to Ukraine being bombed to a sanctioned Russia, I have seen Chabad Shluchim never abandon their communities, and for that, we must all salute them. 

Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, and Russia must be held accountable for its actions in Ukraine. This also means strong sanctions that will affect all aspects of life in Russia. Yet to demand that Jewish life disappear or that rabbis leave is to deny what being a rabbi is all about: being a rabbi is a calling of service; it is being there for others when they need you most, not because it is easy. Not because it is popular, but because that is your calling. That is what Chabad rabbis are doing in Russia. 

Sláva Ukrayíni, may God bless America, and may God bless Chabad Shluchim, who are doing God’s work no matter where they are.


About the Author
The writer is an eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network
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