Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Teves 5764 - January 21, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Journey to Far-off Jews in Far-off Lands

by Yitzchok Roth and Eliezer Rauchberger

Part I

It was the highlight of the annual journey in the Jewish kehillos of Eastern Europe, organized by the Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel of New York, founded and led by Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, with the Mashgiach of Lakewood as Nosi.

Here, beside the kever of the Chofetz Chaim, the dramatic journey attained a further dimension: a spiritual one. Here, from the little, remote town of Radin, today in the territory of White Russia, the light of the great Sage shone out to the Jewish Diaspora all over the world. Here stood a delegation from the Vaad LeHatzoloh and promised to carry on doing its utmost to bring the light of Torah to the Jews in far-off lands.

Someone noted, in an ironic aside, that when the Chofetz Chaim wrote his sefer in Eastern Europe about nidchei Yisroel, he had referred to the nidchei Yisroel in America. Today, Jews are coming from America to take care of the nidchei Yisroel in Eastern Europe. The wheel has come full circle.

And in the beis hamedrash of the Chofetz Chaim, a place once teeming with Torah and yir'oh, which the native gentiles have converted into a clubhouse and even a theater, Rachmono litzlan, the Mashgiach of Lakewood stood up and recited a lamentation for the Holy Site in which foxes have trod. But he could continue no further, for he burst into loud weeping, as did all those who were present at this awesome scene.


For a whole week a delegation from the Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel journeyed through the several Eastern countries where shlichim from the Vaad are active. Vaad chairman Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, who abounds with youthful energy which belies his advanced age, directed the trip. He was joined by Vaad Nosi HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, menahel ruchani of the eminent Lakewood Yeshiva, and HaRav Shraga Feivel Cohen who is among the major poskim in America today.

The delegation of activists, businessmen and friends of the Vaad from America, England, Belgium and Israel, launched their annual journey to uplift the spirits of Jews in remote lands -- and came back themselves uplifted. And encouraged. Much work is being done. But the Jews have an insatiable thirst for Judaism. They are begging: please, give us more Yiddishkeit, more Torah, more kosher food, another kosher mikveh.

The Mashgiach of Lakewood exclaims, excitedly: "Think what an impression these Jews are making on Shomayim. They are literally begging for their souls!"

HaRav Moshe Kashei, chief rabbi and av beis din of Azerbaijan and head of the shlichim of the Vaad LeHatzoloh in this country, was there to greet the delegation upon its arrival in the city of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. HaRav Kashei couldn't contain his excitement at the arrival of the delegation, and its being headed by HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, and he expressed it in an emotional speech at the reception for the delegation, held in the hall for VIP guests at the Baku airport.

"I am your shaliach here, your emissary to save Yiddishkeit in this state. Yaakov Ovinu sent Yehuda ahead of him to Goshen, and that is how I feel. You sent me on ahead, and now you have come here yourselves to give chizuk to all of us, to see with your own eyes, and get an impression of the extent of the operations being carried out here," he said.

HaRav Kashei thanked the mashgiach of Lakewood for exerting himself to travel to such distant countries to aid, encourage, and open up the hearts of the Jews there to Ovinu Shebashomayim. He thanked Vaad chairman, Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, "who does vast and wonderful work to spread Judaism and kovod Shomayim in the Commonwealth countries through the shlichim of the Vaad LeHatzoloh."

The state of Azerbaijan is largely Moslem; they constitute 84 percent of the population. The Jews, who make up 3 percent of the population, are accounted the largest foreign sector in the state. Azerbaijan has undergone significant changes in the last few years and has been swept by a veritable revolution. Up until about three years ago, it was a primitive, backward country. Poverty and deprivation were rampant everywhere and there were literally no indications of any modern Western progress.

An astonishing, sudden turnabout has occurred, and now the city of Baku is thriving and flourishing. Businessmen have uncovered the latent potential in the state, and in the last three years scores of modern, prestigious, and multi- story buildings have sprung up, which are easily on a par with those found in any western country. The city has developed and expanded the roads and means of transportation beyond recognition. New and luxurious hotels have sprouted up, with thousands of rooms to accommodate the numerous businessmen who are flooding Baku -- and they are almost always booked solid.

Foreign businessmen have simply seized control of the city. They are buying up factories and real estate, bringing a powerful momentum to the state through their investments of millions of dollars which are being brought into the country.

Baku now has proportionally more foreigners compared to local residents than any city in Europe -- or perhaps even in the world.

To illustrate how massive is the transformation that has swept Baku: a plot of land valued at about $10,000 three years ago, is today worth at least a million dollars.

This tremendous material advancement is on a par with -- lehavdil -- the immense spiritual progress that the city has enjoyed in recent years. Vaad LeHatzoloh Jewish operations in Azerbaijan, headed by HaRav Moshe Kashei, are extremely vast and extensive. Azerbaijan is not an easy place to cultivate a Jewish lifestyle in accordance with Torah and halochoh, and therefore all the work is carried out with pure mesirus nefesh and the highest level of kiddush Shem Shomayim.


Vaad LeHatzoloh operations in Azerbaijan began some 15 years ago, not in the capital city of Baku actually, but in a city called Kubah, a few hours journey from Baku. This was before the fall of the Soviet regime, when Communist rule dominated the whole country.

It all began when HaRav Yitzhak Zilber applied to Rabbi Ariel Levin, shaliach for the Vaad LeHatzoloh in Tbilisi, about two agunos whose husbands resided in the city of Kubah, Azerbaijan, and entreated him to take steps to attain gettin from the husbands. Rabbi Levin and the Vaad LeHatzoloh staff had no idea that any Jews existed in Kubah or even in the entire area of Azerbaijan, nor had they ever needed to go there. No one was willing to travel there alone, across the Dark Mountains.

Then one day, Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, chairman of the Vaad LeHatzoloh, together with HaRav Eisemann of New York, decided to take a trip to Kubah and see if it was possible to help the two women to get gittin.

Rabbi Neustadt describes what happened upon their initial arrival in Kubah: "We came to Kubah, and about 300 Jewish children were there to greet us. They were yelling to us, `Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, shalom.' Those were the only Hebrew words they knew. We were in complete shock. We had never imagined that in a city as remote and forsaken as this one there were so many Jews, and Jewish children.

"The Jewish community of Kubah stood transfixed at the sight of the two chareidi Jews from New York, tears glistening in their eyes. They had been certain they were the last remaining Jews in the world. That's truly how it was. They simply could not believe that Jews existed in any other place. That's the extent to which they were cut off from the world, behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union.

"Then and there we decided, naturally, that we had to send a shaliach of the Vaad LeHatzoloh to Kubah. And, indeed, shortly thereafter, our shaliach was already at work, teaching and guiding the children of Kubah."

It soon became clear that the small town of Kubah is, in fact, comprised mainly of Jews; it has a Jewish community of close to 5,000. Kubah is a solitary town located at the foot of the Caucuses mountains. The native Jews are nicknamed `the mountain Jews.' There are all kinds of conjectures about their origin. Some stubbornly insist that their roots date back as far as the churban of the first Beis Hamikdash. Others claim that the origin of the Jewish community, which came from Persia, goes back 300 years when they were cut off from their fellow Jews across the border.

Before the start of Communism, 13 shuls were active in Kubah; the remains of a few can still be seen today. The story of what happened to them goes back many years, to shortly after the Communists rose to power.

One Shabbos, a band of Soviet soldiers stumbled into Kubah. They wanted to buy cigarettes. When it dawned on them that all the stores were shut and not a single one of the residents was willing to open his store on the Sabbath to sell them cigarettes, they went on a rampage against the Jews. They immediately assembled all the local rabbis and led them out for execution, closed down all the shuls excluding one, and transformed the little town into a `kibbutz,' in the infamous Soviet style.

Despite the Soviet persecution, the native Jews continued to cling to their heritage to the best of their abilities, and to observe a Jewish lifestyle as they remembered it from their parents' homes. But as the years went by, Judaism receded further and further from their minds, until the native children had all but forgotten their origin. Until along came the shlichim of the Vaad LeHatzoloh and launched their activities in the area, the results of which members of the delegation had come all this way to see.

On the first day of the delegation's stay in Azerbaijan, its members paid a visit to the city of Kubah. Some members of the delegation were whisked there in a special helicopter, while another group traveled by bus. Upon their arrival in Kubah, scores of children and Jewish bochurim from the local yeshiva flocked to greet them. All were bedecked in their finest clothes, and bursting with excitement to greet the guests who had come from afar to boost their morale and give them the feeling that all Jews are linked one to another.

HaRav Kashei opened the reception, in which he surveyed all the operations being implemented in Kubah, and the achievements of the talmidim there.

Following his presentation, several talmidim spoke, and thanked members of the delegation, led by HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, for coming to such a remote corner of the world, and for everything that the Vaad LeHatzoloh had done for them through the years.

The audience was visibly moved, many even to tears, by the words of HaRav Salomon, as he praised the mesirus nefesh of the Jews in Kubah in keeping Judaism alive and observing the mitzvos, in defiance of all social trends and the forces of the environment.

"Your zchus is incalculable," said HaRav Salomon. "You are carrying on the heritage of the Jewish nation. We came here to strengthen you and you have ended up strengthening us. `Oh, let our eyes behold and our hearts rejoice' over what is unfolding in front of our eyes."

HaRav Shraga Feivel Cohn, one of the great halachic poskim in America today, and a former shaliach of the Vaad LeHatzoloh in Eastern Europe, asserted that the talmidim of the Kubah Yeshiva are "like a lily among the thorns." They spread a wonderful fragrance in every city through their Torah learning, which distinguishes them and sets them apart from the other young people of Kubah. They are led by their rosh yeshiva, Vaad LeHatzoloh shaliach Rabbi Adam Davidoff, who toils day and night to infuse the Jews of Kubah as a whole, and the youth in particular, with Torah and Yiddishkeit.

Following the speeches, the children and yeshiva bochurim of Kubah burst into spontaneous songs for the kovod of the Torah and in honor of the guests, and everyone was swept into the lively dance circles that quickly formed.

Next on the agenda, members of the delegation made their way to the local Bais Yaakov school. Although the school is housed in an old and derelict building, everyone's hearts went out when they went inside and experienced this great enterprise for the chinuch of bnos Yisroel in the path of our Jewish traditions. The school principal described the running of the school to the distinguished guests, and how the girls are educated to develop into Jewish mothers in the footsteps of their predecessors throughout the generations.

HaRav Salomon spoke in the school too, stressing the importance of the kedushoh of the Shabbos, the chinuch to shemiras Shabbos, and about how every girl should aspire to build a Jewish home in the future.

"Always remember to keep the Shabbos and observe the mitzvos of the Torah," he said, and blessed the girls that they should merit to build homes founded on Torah.

At the shul of the local kehilla, numerous Jews from the little town came to welcome the delegation and bask in their presence for the short time that was left of their stay. The large shul was filled to capacity when leaders of the community greeted the new arrivals and thanked them repeatedly for taking time from their busy schedules to support and encourage a community so distant and disconnected from any Jewish populace.

Next on the agenda was a moving pidyon haben for a 14- year-old boy from the community by the name of Yisroel Yisroelov. He has recently drawn closer to Yiddishkeit and Torah thanks to the efforts of the Vaad LeHatzoloh. There was also a ceremony for a bar mitzva boy as he put on tefillin for the first time, and many pairs of tefillin were given out to boys who had recently become bar mitzva, as presents from the Vaad.

Members of the delegation were profoundly moved by these proceedings, and could not conceal their admiration at the awesome and devoted avodas Hashem that was being practiced, both for the boys and yeshiva bochurim, and for the Bais Yaakov girls.

That overwhelming joy and excitement was expressed in the enthusiastic dancing which exploded in the shul right after mincha, when everyone joined hands with the bar mitzva boys who had received the tefillin and put them on and the bechor who had had the pidyon.


Vaad LeHatzoloh only began its operations here in the capital city of Azerbaijan after quite a few years of working in Kubah. Once, on its way to Kubah, one delegation which included the Admor of Novominsk currently Rosh of the American Agudas Yisroel, passed through Baku. Since they had to stop there for a few hours, members of the delegation went searching for a shul.

When they finally found one, it consisted of a few elderly Jews who barely made up a minyan. When these congregants suddenly saw Jewish people come and join them in prayer, they began begging them to come to their town and take care of the children there who knew nothing about their Jewish identity.

Up until that time the shlichim of the Vaad LeHatzoloh had no idea that there were many Jews in Baku.

When they started to clarify what was going on in the town, they uncovered an extremely desolate situation. Not a single family in that large shul kept Shabbos or kashrus, and the Jews were heavily assimilated among the goyim.

Naturally, the Vaad decided immediately to launch Jewish operations in this city too, but it had to allot a realistic budget for such an enterprise. One of the members of the delegation that stopped in Baku right away decided to donate $50,000, and that was how the Baku operation started.

Jews in the city of Baku date their origin back to the days of the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdosh. Since mountains encircle the region -- the Caucasus mountains -- the Jews became disconnected from their brethren in other states. Up until the arrival of the Vaad LeHatzoloh staff, nothing was known of the existence of a Jewish community there.

HaRav Moshe Kashei, who arrived in Azerbaijan some eight years ago, gave a tremendous boost to the operations and during these years he generated a veritable revolution. With his own hands, and with a huge dose of siyata deShmaya, HaRav Kashei created `something out of nothing.'

Lacking any Jewish framework, any basis for Jewish life, the great majority of the Jews had already forgotten their Jewish origin, and there was no one to remind them of it, until along came the Vaad LeHatzoloh and its faithful shaliach, HaRav Kashei.

It is difficult to comprehend how in such a short period, HaRav Kashei managed to pull off such a massive revolution. Just to get a feel for the extent of it, we will merely mention here that at the event organized by students of the various Jewish institutions in honor of the distinguished delegation, held in the local hall, about 3,000 Jews attended!

Today, there are numerous Jewish institutions and enterprises in Baku, all the fruits of HaRav Kashei's endeavors. For starters, there is a Jewish boys' school, a yeshiva, a Bais Yaakov girls' school, a kosher kitchen, a soup kitchen for elderly Jews in the community, a kosher food store, new shuls constructed with the help of HaRav Kashei, kosher lemehadrin shechita, and a modern and sophisticated mikveh. In Kubah too, the Jewish agenda has branched out to include schools for girls and for boys, a Jewish college, shuls, and a mikveh.

When our delegation arrived at Baku from Kubah, a packed program awaited them, despite the advanced hour. There was a bas mitzva party for five Bais Yaakov girls, in which the role of the Jewish daughter was discussed and her obligation to carry on the heritage of the Imahos with their mesirus nefesh.

HaRav Salomon explained to the girls that the concept of a bas mitzva means that a Jewish daughter accepts upon herself the yoke of the mitzvos, and realizes that she has to carry on her Jewish heritage. She must know that the purpose of her life is to keep the mitzvos, and that for a Jew this is the only reason for living. "Mitzvos mean eternity and Olom Habo," he said.

HaRav Moshe Kashei, the giant director of this whole Yiddishe enterprise, electrified his audience when he announced that there would be a special ceremony to allot Jewish names to the bas mitzva girls. This was aimed to strengthen the girls and safely secure their links with the Jewish people, now and in the future.

"A Jewish name is a must," announced HaRav Kashei. So, one by one, the girls went forward and picked themselves a Jewish name. Thus, Sabina became Shoshanna, Suba became Leah, another girl chose Chana, and so it went.

Members of the delegation were visibly moved by this unique ceremony, in which, for the first time in their lives, they watched girls of quite a mature age choosing Jewish names for themselves with immense joy and enthusiasm at having reached such a milestone in their lives. In HaRav Feivel Cohen's speech, he called on the girls to be sure to use only their Hebrew names from now on. By doing so, they would completely disconnect themselves from their old goyishe name, thereby ridding themselves of any trace or residue of their previous lives among the goyim.

End of Part I


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