Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Shevat 5764 - January 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Journey to Far-off Jews in Far-Off Lands

by Yitzchok Roth and Eliezer Rauchberger

Part II

The Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel organizes an annual trip of rabbonim and askonim to visit the locations in remote areas in which the Vaad is active. The delegations go to give encouragement to the communities by bringing major Torah figures to speak to them, as well as to make them feel connected to world Jewry. This is a report of the most recent trip, that took place around Chanukah this year.

As we have seen so far, the delegation has visited the remote city of Kubah, where the Jewish community was entirely cut off from the world until the Vaad discovered it. People there thought they were the last Jews in existence. After Kubah, the delegation visited Baku, where the Vaad's shaliach, HaRav Moshe Kashei, has revolutionized the state of Yiddishkeit in the eight years he has been there. The first day, they visited the Bais Yaakov started by HaRav Kashei.


The next morning, the delegation enjoyed the beginning of a packed day, replete with fascinating experiences in the city of Baku itself. They davened shacharis at the Jewish school in town--which is run entirely by the Vaad LeHatzolo-- together with the students. It was an emotional davening, and it was heartwarming and moving to see scores of children in a foreign and remote country pray with such powerful deveikus, as if they had been doing it all their lives.

At the entrance to the school, HaRav Kashei related the story of how the school, which contains more than 200 boys and girls, had almost closed down two months ago:

The school building is adjacent to a Moslem school in which thousands of students learn in two shifts. The school had enjoyed friendly, neighborly relations with the Moslem school for years until, all of a sudden, the Moslem school got a new principal about two months ago.

A few days after her arrival, the wall between the two buildings suddenly collapsed. Within 24 hours, the Moslem school had taken over its Jewish counterpart, changed its locks, pulled down the mezuzas, and practically removed all traces of the Jewish school.

When HaRav Kashei investigated the matter, he discovered to his great astonishment that a Jewish sect, outside the state of Azerbaijan but generally very active in the former Soviet Union because of its Russian origins and its general tendency to work all over the world, was behind the whole episode. Envious of HaRav Kashei's phenomenal success, activists strongly identified with this sect had worked behind the scenes to get the school closed down!

This same Jewish faction also invested a great deal of money, which was supplied by a Georgian-born gvir active in the faction, to get HaRav Kashei fired from his rabbinical position in one of the city's synagogues and to have another rabbi appointed from their own sect. This followed years of sweat and toil, during which HaRav Kashei transformed that shul, as he had done with many others, into a hive of Jewish activities, with prayer services three times a day.

HaRav Kashei, the school administration, and leaders of the Jewish community in Baku were stunned by this turn of events, and how, in 24 hours, the Jewish school seemed to have vanished as if it never existed.

When the pupils arrived at the school that day, they could not believe their eyes. One of them jumped from the second floor in his fright, and was badly wounded in the feet. He still limps and his foot shows marks of his injury. The only thing that can save him from being severely disabled for the rest of his life is a very complex and difficult operation which, since it has to be done overseas, is also extremely costly.

Nevertheless, HaRav Kashei was not deterred. Throughout his years of Jewish activism in Azerbaijan, he has formed very strong personal ties with many top- ranking government officials, including the Deputy Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet, the Ministry of Education and the Baku municipality. Galvanizing all his contacts, he managed, within seven days, to turn the tables: the local Jewish community got back the building, and the school began functioning again. The broken wall was rebuilt, the doors that were broken or taken off were restored, and the broken windows replaced.

"`Someone intended evil, but Hashem meant it for good,' quipped HaRav Kashei. "In the end the pupils received an improved and nicer building, and we still haven't finished the renovations," he concluded his story of the school.

The benevolent government of Azerbaijan, the heads of departments in the Ministry of Education, and the school principal, did everything in their power to help the Jewish classes in the school. It is worth noting here that there were never any antisemitic outbreaks in this state -- other than the problem with that specific Jewish sect.

No classes are held on Shabbos at all. This is thanks to the special intervention of HaRav Kashei, who managed to extract a special permit from the government not to have lessons on Shabbos even though, according to the law of the country -- which enforces a separation between religion and state -- all schools must hold classes on Shabbos.

As for the shul from which HaRav Kashei was dismissed, when its congregants discovered that the new rabbi was attempting to inculcate them with various strange ideas not in keeping with the true spirit of Judaism, they went back to HaRav Kashei, begged his pardon and pleaded with him to lead their community again. Just before the delegation arrived there was an official ceremony, once again inducting HaRav Kashei as the rabbi of the shul!

The following morning after shacharis, HaRav Kashei discussed the results of his endeavors. By now, many graduates of the school have left to learn in yeshivos and Torah institutions in Israel and America. One of the students who studied in a yeshiva in Israel even came back already to Azerbaijan to help work with the talmidim there.

For the delegation, there followed a most inspiring ceremony in which 12 pupils who had already passed their thirteenth year or who would be shortly turning bar mitzva, each received a pair of tefillin, a gift from the Vaad.

Tears welled in the eyes of the boys as each of them received a new, shiny pair of tefillin that now belonged to him. Up until now each of them had to borrow someone else's tefillin each day, and sometimes a few boys had to lay the same pair of tefillin.

HaRav Kashei gave members of the delegation the honor of handing the tefillin to the young boys. Each boy received a personal brochoh from the Mashgiach of Lakewood, HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, who stressed to each of them that no matter where they were going or wherever they were, they should always remember to take their tefillin with them and put them on every day.

After this emotional ceremony, everyone burst out singing, `acheinu kol beis Yisroel.' The talmidim were filled with excitement over their guests who had come from so far away to uplift and strengthen them to follow the path of Torah Judaism.

Subsequently, members of the delegation went into the classrooms, chatted with the pupils about the material they were studying, and expressed their admiration at their abundant and extensive knowledge of Jewish subjects, each class relative to its own level.

The visit to Bais Yaakov was also very inspiring . The pupils related that they were learning hilchos loshon hora. Rav Shraga Feivel Cohen gave them a shiur in these halochos. The pupils were all expert in the halochos of loshon hora, including motzei shem ra, avak loshon hora, rechilus, and more. The visitors were amazed at the extent of their knowledge, and at the depth and extent of the instruction given in these halochos.

Now that the delegation had made the rounds of the schools, it was time to visit the yeshiva in Azerbaijan. Large signs, posted in the adjoining streets also, were there to greet the newcomers.

At the yeshiva, HaRav Salomon gave a shiur to the talmidim and tested them on the material they were learning.

At the same time, other members of the delegation went on a walking tour to view other Jewish enterprises spearheaded by HaRav Kashei in Baku, including the new and highly sophisticated mikveh built only recently, the soup kitchen that serves a free hot meal daily to hundreds of Jewish families, the kosher kitchen, the shechita house, the apparatus for koshering meat, the kosher food store, and the factory for the production of tzitzis and kippos.

At the Vaad LeHatzolo office in Baku, the delegation discovered yet another great chesed operation headed by HaRav Kashei. The office possesses files and computerized records of about 25,000 Jews in the state. It constitutes a collection of records accumulated over a period of about eight years, containing an in-depth scrutiny of the genealogy of each individual family.

Every erev Pesach, Succos and other chagim, the Vaad LeHatzolo in Azerbaijan distributes massive quantities of foodstuff, clothes, and other items to Jews in the state. By means of these records, the Jews receive notice to go to the offices to pick up their package. Each family is given an appointment on a specific day and time to receive their allotment, as a way of keeping on top of the huge quantities of people who arrive to get aid. Even with this, the lines of people waiting are often ten meters long. For those unable to come, including the elderly and the sick, arrangements are made to have the packages delivered to their homes.

The delegation paid a visit to the Georgian shul, which is maintained by the Vaad LeHatzolo, and which recently underwent a major face-lift with the help of HaRav Kashei, and is now a majestic and modern synagogue.

As a sign of their appreciation, the gabboim put up a sign at the gateway to the shul, thanking HaRav Kashei, Chief Rabbi and av beis din of Azerbaijan, for his extensive efforts to renovate and restore the shul. Every day, three times a day, the shul holds prayer services, with about two or three minyans, this also being thanks to the faithful activities of HaRav Kashei, who has breathed new life into the Jewish kehilla of Baku.

Later on, there was an emotional meeting with leaders of the Jewish community from Kubah: The reason was that the previous day, during the visit to Kubah, there had not been time for even the shortest meeting with these community heads to discuss the needs of their city of 5,000 Jews. Now these kehilla leaders presented their needs in the realms of kashrus strengthening, Shabbos observance, and taharas hamishpochoh.

HaRav Salomon was delighted with the meeting, and especially appreciated that the leaders had made such a long journey of hundreds of kilometers, to strengthen and fortify the Jewish walls of their kehilloh.

"Yesterday we visited Kubah and we were overjoyed to see that the youth are being raised in the path of Torah and Yiddishkeit. Today, when the elderly people in your community come pleading: give us Torah, give us mitzvos, it is a great cause for joy. Your coming here today has had a powerful impact on the Upper Worlds. Therefore, there is no doubt that your success will be supernatural. You are acting with mesirus nefesh, and when a person does that, his success is guaranteed," said the Mashgiach of Lakewood.


Towards evening, the members of the delegation were in for an amazing surprise. They were invited to a huge convention hall, and there about 3,000 members of the Jewish community in Baku awaited them. The great Chassidic singer Rabbi Nechemia Brodt of New York, who joined the delegation to give Jews and Jewish children the benefit of his sweet voice and songs at every site, merged with the choir of Jewish school children. He brightened the evening with Chassidic songs that swept the audience to sing along with enormous enthusiasm.

Hearing the children of Baku singing songs like, `Keili Atto Ve'odeko,' or `Ki miTzion Teitzei Torah,' `Ani Ma'amin,' `Adon Olom,' `Nogil Venosis Bezos haTorah,' `Mo'oz Tzur Yeshu'osi,' and other Chanukah songs, is no trifling matter. The excitement was palpable. Tears dripped like water from the eyes of the local Jews, as well as those who had come from overseas. It is rare to see such a large assembly of Jews in this foreign land.

The organizers of the event greeted the delegation, the parents, and the huge audience assembled in the hall, and thanked the Vaad LeHatzolo for "showing us the purpose of life, the way of the Torah, and for founding a Jewish school for boys and a Bais Yaakov for girls, here in Baku."

In an speech filled with emotion, the Mashgiach of Lakewood said to the kehilloh: "`Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.' Now the parents are seeing the results of the Jewish education that their sons and daughters are getting. For every single day that children follow in the path the parents want them to go, we need tremendous help from Above. Always remember that you are Jewish."

Then came the highlight of the evening. The entire assembly stood up on their feet and recited `Shema Yisroel' in unison, accepting upon themselves the yoke of the Kingship of Heaven. A great tremor, fear and awe seized everyone. Here in Baku, where up until a few years ago there was not an iota of Yiddishkeit, some 3,000 Jews were declaring together that Hashem is G-d. `Happy is the eye that sees this!'

The evening ended with a long line of people plodding forward in front of HaRav Salomon, as numerous Jews sought a brochoh from him.


The next morning, before leaving Baku for the next stop, Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, the delegation expressed their heartfelt thanks to HaRav Kashei for hosting them and organizing a program so packed with spiritual experiences, and their admiration for the massive enterprise that he has established in Azerbaijan.

"Your fingerprints can be seen everywhere. You have been given the tremendous zchus to make the Jewish wasteland blossom and to extract good from evil," a representative for the delegation said in his parting words.


Only a few weeks ago, a revolution swept Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (or Gruzia as it is called in Israel), which led to the dismissal of the president, Edvard Shevardnadze. It was nicknamed `the Velvet Revolution,' because it went by quietly and peacefully, without bloodshed. The deposed president was accused of cheating in the elections and the people had him removed from his post.

Today, a propaganda campaign is being conducted on the walls of houses and on notice boards in preparation for the repeat elections to be held soon.

But we Jews know full well that the real revolution is going on in entirely different places. It is the Jewish revolution that has overturned this city, with the Vaad LeHatzolo at the helm.

If you take a short walk around the streets of the capital, it isn't hard to grasp why the president was dismissed. It is a derelict, old-fashioned city, with dark streets, and roads full of potholes; neglect is apparent everywhere. The street leading to the Jewish institutions resembles an abandoned refugee camp. The sidewalks are broken, and you have to walk along them with the utmost care. From time to time, you have to descend to the narrow street, which is crowded with mostly old-fashioned vehicles, types which have not been seen in the Western world for decades.

The Jewish school buildings and the kollel are not much more impressive, with their derelict exteriors. Until you walk inside, that is. The intense Jewish light shining inside makes you completely forget all the misery outside. Delightful children of all ages greet the distinguished guests with big smiles on their faces. Modest young girls, educated in purity, break out in smiles when they see the distinguished Jews who have come all this way in their honor.

Presiding over everyone is Rabbi Ariel Levin, shaliach of the Vaad LeHatzolo. It is he who has engendered the Jewish `Velvet Revolution' in this city.

Now the Jews of the city of Tbilisi can be divided into two different groups: there are the native Jews, born and bred here, who speak Georgian, and the members of the European community who speak Russian.

The Jews of Georgia are among the most ancient communities of dispersed Jews in the Jewish world. According to a tradition passed down, there were Jews in Georgia since the destruction of the Second Temple. Members of the European community, on the other hand, began immigrating to Tbilisi only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and especially during the course of the Second World War.

Georgia has been known for years as a state possessing less antisemitism than other regions, though the native Jews certainly suffered other harsh tribulations. However, despite this, throughout all periods, the Jewish tradition was kept strongly within the Jewish community.

At the end of the 1930s, the Communists began persecuting the Jews of Georgia. Nine of the local rabbis were imprisoned, and then executed without a trial. At the beginning of the '50s, the Communists began a premeditated operation to wipe out all vestiges of Judaism in Georgia. Notwithstanding, the native Jews continued to cling to their tradition, and even during the darkest years of Communism, they did not forget their Jewish origin.

The story of Rabbi Ariel Levin is a fascinating tale of Divine Providence, in fulfillment of the promise, "He will not banish from him the banished one."

The son of parents who originated from Brisk, Rabbi Levin was born in Georgia to a family which had all but abandoned their Judaism. Rabbi Levin traveled to Moscow to study at a local university and there discovered his Jewish origin. In those years of Jewish revival, the years of the refuseniks and prisoners of Zion, Rabbi Levin, then a student at Moscow University, became friendly with a few of the best Jewish activists, and through them he returned to his roots.

Rabbi Levin acquired all his Torah learning through the shlichim who came to Russia to teach Torah, and through years of learning, he gained an extensive and deep knowledge of all Torah subjects. Of him it could be said that he was trained in "the yeshiva of Russia."

Rabbi Levin was pained by the plight of his Jewish brethren in Georgia, the land of his birth, and so he went back there. This time he came as a shaliach of the Vaad LeHatzolo, in order to launch the Jewish revolution.

And indeed, within a few years, his work started to bear fruit. The first yeshiva that was founded by Rabbi Levin, or kollel, as he calls it, consisted of Shabbos desecraters. Rabbi Levin jokes that it was probably the first kollel in the whole world in which all its participants were mechalel Shabbos.

Not for long, though. As our Sages say, "the light of Torah brings back the best." And so it was. Very soon, all the members of the kollel had turned into regular avreichim, observant of Torah and mitzvos, and sticklers for halocho. Some even left Georgia to study in yeshivos in America and Israel. Others subsequently returned to Georgia as shlichim of the Vaad LeHatzolo.

We met these shlichim, who are engrossed in their holy work which they carry out with pure mesirus nefesh. It is far from easy for someone who got used to the comforts of the Western world to return to this state, with its harsh conditions. But these shlichim are imbued with a sense of their exalted shlichus, to save the community and preserve its Judaism. In the past few decades, most of the Jews in Georgia have left, but there are still a few thousand left who need to be taken care of.

According to one of the shlichim, Rabbi Yitzchok Elimelech, a former student of the Mir Yeshiva in Israel: "there are almost no Jews immigrating from Georgia to Israel. Once a week," he adds, "there is a direct flight to Israel from Tbilisi, and it is always packed with new immigrants. But all of them, without exception, are goyim! The local Jewish Agency staff know full well that they are sending goyim to Israel, but they have to justify their salaries, and so they ship more and more goyim to Israel."

As if that were not enough, those same Jewish Agency shlichim devise problems for Jews requesting permission to visit Israel, and will not compromise or understand.

For instance, when Rabbi Elimelech himself was getting married in Israel and his father wanted to come for the wedding, the local Israeli Consulate refused to issue him a visa. Two days before the wedding, his father still didn't have a visa, and it was only through Rabbi Levin's intervention that his father managed to come to his wedding. After all, quipped Rabbi Elimelech, his father was neither a new immigrant nor a goy, so why should the local consulate bother to issue him an entry permit to Israel?

An especially moving landmark in the visit of the delegation is a bris milah performed on a six-week-old baby. Georgia has no local mohel and one had to be flown over from England. Rabbi Boruch Hertz, one of the members of the delegation and a mainstay of the Jewish operation in Tbilisi, officiated as sandek.

When the bris is over, those in attendance break into joyful singing. They cannot contain their excitement. Another Jewish boy, the son of Jewish parents, has joined the newly revived kehilla.

Then, one of the talmidim from the local yeshiva gets up and gives over his chiddushei Torah on one of the sugyot in Shas that he is learning. His enraptured audience see reenacted in front of their eyes the fulfillment of the Torah's promise, "It will not be forgotten from the mouths of his children."

Next, members of the delegation visit the local shul, the mikveh, and the kindergarten, meet with members of the chesed organization `Rachamim,' visit the educational center, have a talk with members of the local Emunah women's association, and visit the kollel Ohr Emett.

But the climax of the day is a program arranged by students of the Jewish institution, held in the local hall. Not one seat is vacant in this hall where thousands of members of the kehilla are gathered, bursting with pride at the impressive performance put on by the students.

Rabbi Levin directs this whole event, in which the students produce a performance on Jewish topics, partly in English and partly in their native tongue, for the huge audience. The Mashgiach of Lakewood goes forward to greet the audience and give over his stirring words of chizuk:

"I once heard a moshol about a tree that had some green leaves and some dried out ones. The dry ones dropped off the tree and flew off in the wind in every direction far away into the big world. What could the green leaves be thinking of at such a time? Most probably they are envious of their friends who have flown away on all sides.

"But you see, it is us who are the green leaves. We have remained at our post, attached to the tree, helpless to move, while our friends who think they are free are flying off to the big world, no longer chained to the tree.

"Little do they know that in the end the dry leaves are fated to fall to earth, to be trampled on by passersby, and to disappear from the world. But the ones who are bound to the tree and its roots will live forever. You, precious Jews, do not envy those who are cut off from their roots and think they are seeing the world. In the end, they will disappear from the world, while you, who are attached to your Jewish roots are destined to live for eternity!"

End of Part II -- Last stop: Kishinev

Tefillin for Shabbos

The Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel was established by Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt some 25 years ago, when there was a great deal of talk about the need to help the hundreds of thousands of Jews behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Russia, and to illuminate their lives with Torah, since they were cut off from any spark of Judaism and could not keep Torah and mitzvos.

Rabbi Neustadt has many uplifting stories of genuine mesirus nefesh by the many shlichim of the Vaad who in those days risked their lives, working under a constant fear of being caught for the transgression of disseminating Torah, which was entirely banned by the Communist regime.

"The Vaad was not built in a day," explains Rabbi Neustadt. "Rather it came about gradually, as the quantity of shlichim and their needs grew."

It all started when Rabbi Neustadt decided to travel to Moscow and visited the local shul. There he met a few solitary Jews who wept over the plight of Judaism and described the spiritual wasteland that was pervasive in Russia. "I am willing to help you," Rabbi Neustadt declared without hesitation, though he had not the faintest idea of how he would acquire the necessary funds.

But the group of Jews calmed him and they explained that there was actually no need for a huge amount of money, for much could be done with a relatively small amount. The group suggested that he send over a good camera and, using the money they would get for it in the black market in Moscow, they would be able start working.

And that is just what happened. Rabbi Neustadt bought a camera in New York for $1300, had it smuggled into Moscow, and the local Jews promptly exchanged it for 3000 rubles, which was a considerable sum in those days. The money sufficed to conduct Jewish operations for a number of months. Following this, another camera was smuggled in, together with additional electrical equipment, and that's how operations were financed in those days.

In those years it was not possible to send shlichim for long periods of time, since a tourist from the United States could only get a visa to stay in the Soviet Union for two weeks at the most. Thus the shlichim would have to be changed every two weeks, so that eventually more than 400 shlichim from the Vaad LeHatzolo were sent in the years before the collapse of the Soviet regime.

Additionally, many varied and highly creative methods of smuggling in seforim and religious articles were used. As Rabbi Neustadt relates: "A couple would travel to Moscow carrying with them four pairs of tefillin. According to Soviet Law, a tourist could then only bring in religious articles for himself. When they were asked at the airport in the Soviet Union to explain why they were carrying so many tefillin, they replied that one pair the husband used for weekdays, and another he needed for the Sabbath. The third pair was for the wife for weekdays and the fourth pair she needed, naturally, for the Sabbath. The Communists, who didn't have a clue about the halachos of tefillin, swallowed the story, and that's how hundreds of tefillin were smuggled into the streets of Soviet Russia."

Furthermore, a creative plan was also devised to smuggle in mezuzas. Mezuzas were attached to women's necklaces in the form of large charms or ornaments. In this way, the women wore the mezuzas on their necks as if they were embellishing their necklaces. It was ominously clear to every one of the shlichim what fate awaited them if they were caught, chas vecholiloh, and therefore they exemplified true mesirus nefesh.

A most original method was also used to smuggle in seforim. Each tourist was allowed to bring in one or two seforim for his personal use. The leaders of the Vaad LeHatzolo decided that, while the law clearly forbade bringing in many seforim, the law did not dictate how thick each sefer had to be. They therefore bound the Chamishoh Chumshei Torah together, as well as the six Sidrei Mishnah, siddurim with Tehillim, Chumoshim and Mishnayos, Tanachs, thick gemoras containing a large number of masechtos. In this form, many seforim were brought into the Soviet Union.

When asked to explain why they had such thick seforim, the shlichim explained that that was how their seforim were and they were intended for their personal use.

"But why such a thick book?" inquired the customs official.

"Well," was the reply, "I was in the middle of reading the book and couldn't put it down -- not even for a minute."

Naturally, no one could challenge this story since everything was bound together into one sefer.

After the collapse of the Soviet regime, the task of dispatching shlichim was greatly facilitated. Then it was decided to send shlichim for long periods, with the aim of their residing in the cities or states where they were sent. Their goal was to set up Jewish schools and yeshivos, to rejuvenate the spiritual wasteland. However, at the same time, the value of the currency changed, and the costs of maintaining and funding the operations of the Vaad grew beyond measure.

The budget for the Vaad today comes to around two million dollars a year, with everything funded by donors and philanthropists for whom the kiruv of Jews in the Commonwealth of Independent States is a burning issue.


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