Soviet Jewry; most would not have a clue about Yom Kippur or Chanukah, let alone other fundamental aspects of Jewish culture. Some might have heard about Passover or even gotten a taste of matzah. A small number were stubbornly educating themselves with whatever little material was available to them, and practicing religious rituals. The study, gatherings, and any other Jewish-related activities could take place only in the most discreet manner. Yet even then there were no guarantees of safety, as one of the participants could be a mole, planted by Soviet authorities to root out the illegal worshiping activities.
These Jewish daredevils had much to lose if they were found guilty of studying and practicing their religion. They could have been publicly humiliated in their place of work, followed by job termination. Their kids could have been shamed in school, while their parents could face social ex-communication and loss of career opportunities. Despite all this, brave individuals and their families persevered in the underground movement of returning to their faith.
Three Soviet women hold up images of their imprisoned husbands. They were guilty of practicing Judaism during the 1980s (photo credit: National Conference of Soviet Jewry).
In the meantime on the other side of the Atlantic, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, carrying the enormous burden of leadership beyond his immediate followers could not find internal peace. No amount of administrative and financial support would alleviate a gnawing pain that reached into the innermost chambers of his heart. He was agonizing for these very people. His tears were visible when the subject of Soviet Jewry would arise. His sobbing was witnessed by many of his Chassidim at numerous gatherings in his headquarters.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson weeps in 770 (photo credit: Crown Heights.info)
While the American Jewish community enjoyed their civil rights and religious freedom, their counterparts behind “The Iron Curtain” could only dream of such western notions. The Rebbe was not the only one pained by the plea of the Soviet Jews. Many individuals abroad wished for their freedom, yet the Rebbe took it upon himself to mobilize an ongoing network. He sent emissaries to ensure the pilot flame kept on burning. G-d only knows how many ways Soviet Jews were secretly assisted in their material and spiritual needs by the Rebbe’s relentless efforts.
Yitzchak Kogan (center) and his wife waited 14 years to receive permission to leave the USSR in 1986. In 1991 the Rebbe sent them back to Russia to assist in the Soviet Jewry movement (photo credit: Chabad.org)
While Soviet authorities worked around the clock to spy on, catch and prosecute the Jewish “perpetrators” who dared to maintain any connection with Judaism or Zionism, the Rebbe was doing everything possible to ensure those special men, women, and children could stay connected to their Father in Heaven.
I was a child during the 1980s as the Iron Curtain started to crack. I witnessed the great sacrifices of those who kept Soviet Jewry alive. Among them was my first teacher, and the current dean of Russia’s first post-Communism Yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) Rabbi Uri Kamishov.
In the 1980s Uri Kamichov persisted in his learning despite the dangers. He was taken to an insane asylum for practicing Judaism. By the early 1990s, he became a rabbi and dean of Russia’s first post-communist yeshivah (Uri Kamichov archives).
Rabbi Nochum Tamarin
was an underground yeshiva bocher in the 1980s. Currently, he is helping Ukrainian Jews scattered along with its regional towns with bare necessities.
Young Nachum Tamarin went on to become a notable rabbi helping Ukrainian Jews (Nachum Tamarian facebook
Rabbi Nochum Tamarin helps the Jews in regional Ukraine (photo credit COLlive)
Finally, there was a young teenager who refused to be intimidated by the KGB. He continued to learn Torah secretly. Now he is the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Rabbi Moshe Azman, and is currently at the forefront of assisting Jews and non-Jews in their struggle against Russian occupation.
Moshe Azman learns Torah secrets and develops compassion for others (Azman family archives).
Rabbi Moshe Azman is currently the Chief Chabad representative in Kiev. He is on the forefront of helping Ukranian Jews (facebook).
These faces from over 30 years ago are currently making some of the greatest impacts in the Jewish world, long past the life of the Rebbe who invested in them.
It has been 30 years since I embraced my religion. While I never met the Rebbe personally, the efforts he made toward Soviet Jewry have had a direct influence on my life, and the lives of so many. Today on the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, I reflect on what watered those trees and what nourished them in those challenging years – The Rebbe’s tears and his tireless efforts in keeping Soviet Jewry alive, individually and collectively.
May his memory be a blessing to us all…