Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Nissan 5765 - May 4, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Moscow: The Cheider, the Yeshiva, the Kollel — and the Kehilloh

By Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

Part II

Red Square used to be a place for communist marches and for the Red Army to show off its muscles, but today boys wearing yarmulkes can be seen passing through on their way home from cheider. Russia is now a whole new land bearing little resemblance to its recent past. I came, at the height of the ice and snow, to witness the dew of resurrection rising.

It doesn't take a mathematician to realize that a new formula is being applied here: a chareidi kehilloh, like the ones in Antwerp and London. Once every Jew whose heart began to warm up to Yiddishkeit packed his bags and went straight to Eretz Yisroel like a migrating bird sensing the first signs of spring. "Today we are staying here," they explain to me in Hebrew and English with thick Russian accents. For them Yiddishkeit has become a part of daily life. Perhaps without even realizing it they are heroes in an important chapter in history.

The first part included interviews and reports about Yeshivas Toras Chaim and Yeshivas Ohalei Yaakov. This part focuses on the broader community and its rabbonim.

The Community

The apartment is tucked away discreetly among all the other apartments, but the lives of dozens of people and their families are built around the center. Two soldiers in uniform and gray fur hats also arrived. They are regulars. They are cadets studying in a military academy and at night they come to learn Torah.

The kollel and the yeshiva are closely linked. They are not places for "outreach" and "activities," but places where Jews sit and learn—and the light of Torah puts them on the path. It is not doing kiruv, even though it is mekarev. They are sitting and learning and Torah works its own "magic."

In one of the rooms of this apartment I spoke with several of the chareidi kehilloh's founding figures, who are bringing the winds of change to Moscow. While several years ago the trend was to encourage anyone making progress in Yiddishkeit to make aliyah, today efforts are being focused on building Moscow's chareidi kehilloh.

Emigration to Israel involves absorption problems, financial problems and image problems over there, while Moscow is brimming with job opportunities. Jews here can live lives of prosperity and freedom. "And if you want me to live a chareidi life here," explains one of the kehilloh members, "my children cannot study in kiruv schools. We also need a glatt kashrus system. We need appropriate study frameworks to educate girls who will set up Torah homes with bnei yeshiva."

Participating in the conversation were the members of Vaad Hakehilloh HaChareidis: Yitzchok Steinberg, a jewelry wholesaler, Prof. Chaim Shachnovitz, a senior cardiologist at a university hospital in Moscow, Uri Rosenblatt, formerly one of the heads of the general Jewish community who crossed over the dividing lines after seeing the light of Torah, and Yosef Suseikov, a former police detective who now serves as director of the kehilloh and the Torah institutions. Dovid Granovsky, an alumnus of the yeshiva who now coordinates the kollel, also took part in the conversation.


Prof. Shachnovitz: Muscovite Jews are remaining here due to their family ties, concerns over lack of employment in Israel or because of the favorable employment conditions here. It's simply fact: they're not leaving. These are chareidi people in every respect, who have clear needs for sustaining a spiritual life suited to their level of ruchniyus. Therefore communal life must be created here.

Yitzchok Steinberg: Every six months I change my mind whether to stay or move to Eretz Yisroel. But for now I'm here and we need spiritual life. Besides the broad questions, the major ones touching on Jewish life in Moscow for which there are those providing answers, we need a moreh horo'oh of stature to answer regular, day-to-day questions constantly coming up. With the encouragement and assistance of HaRav Pinchos Goldschmidt, the rov of Moscow, we are indeed conducting negotiations with a prominent posek to have him come to serve as a moreh tzedek for the chareidi kehilloh, just as in every other chareidi kehilloh around the globe.

Uri Rosenblatt: We want to found a kehilloh built around the beis medrash. This is the only way to build a kehilloh. Our sustenance derives from the yeshiva and we would very much like to have a mokom Torah here. Therefore we are working hard to strengthen the kollel, to place the Torah and lomdei Torah at the center.

Yosef Suseikov: Kehilloh means organization and unity, it means education and it means kashrus—and it means religious services. In order to be an official kehilloh we must be recognized by the authorities. With the consent of the general Jewish community and the recommendation and assistance of HaRav Goldschmidt, the license has indeed been obtained.

Are you starting a separate kehilloh in order to influence the general Jewish community?

Uri Rosenblatt: The founding of a yeshiva in Moscow and the opening of a branch of the yeshiva in the heart of the city created this revival. Undoubtedly the formation of a core of high-caliber people and talmidei chachomim sitting in the middle of the city will have an impact on the reality of the lives of the Jews in general.

Prof. Shachnovitz: This is not a plan to change the city. The objective is to organize [our own community]. I hope, in fact I am certain, that this will also influence others. But the primary goal is to organize within the kehilloh under the authority of Torah!

Are you thinking of calling on Russian-speaking avreichim who live elsewhere to return?

Yitzchok Steinberg: It doesn't matter who they are, but we will have talmidei chachomim sitting and learning here. We will raise money and place lomdei Torah at the center of [communal] life. However, you should know that to bring avreichim here from the outside is much more expensive than ensuring that those who are already here remain. One way or the other we must have a mokom Torah here. The yeshiva does not need a kehilloh, but the kehilloh needs a yeshiva! The yeshiva set up the kehilloh and one day the kehilloh will provide [talmidim] for the yeshiva . . . and will provide financially as well, be'ezras Hashem . . .

The Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Lebel: Until a short time ago to speak about a chareidi kehilloh in Moscow was like speaking about a chareidi kehilloh on the moon. It required a very active imagination. But when one of the yeshiva boys married one of the seminary girls, the idea was conceived. We called HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman, who also serves as the nosi of the yeshiva, and he started to talk about founding a kehilloh around the kollel. The Rosh Yeshiva explained that this would generate the need at the other Torah institutions. Hoyinu kecholmim . . . There were people who were skeptical but we had faith in HaRav Shteinman's assertion. The results you can see for yourself . . .

The Archipova Shul

Beis Knesses Archipova stands in the middle of the slope in the street the beis knesses is named after. A monument stands opposite the giant building. With funding from the general Jewish community local Jews built a wall of unfinished stones without mortar symbolizing the Kosel Maarovi. A plaque proclaims, "Zecher Lebeis Hamikdosh!"

The enormous beis knesses is notable for its front pillars, which look like ribs in an x-ray picture of a patient whose breathing has stopped. Secrets of something timeless have been preserved in it for generations. The inside is under renovation. But neither the work nor the scaffolding can cover its stately beauty. There are only a few books here. Books that will need some time before they acquire a distinctive smell and the little creases in the corners of the pages.

Unlike other houses of prayer across the continent, here everything is new. In the vast, dim heichal, old people can be seen alongside a few young people from the new generation of renaissance. And what is very new here is the beis knesses of the Georgians and other Jews from the Caucasus Mountains. Behind the building is a restaurant with kashrus supervision by the kehilloh. There is also a store that sells cholov Yisroel from the dairy run by Yeshivas Toras Chaim, baked goods from the bakery the yeshiva runs and glatt kosher meat shechted locally by the kehilloh.

Not far away lies the girls' seminary where shiurei Torah are held all hours of the day. When I stepped in for a visit, I found some 40 young women studying Michtav MeEliyohu under the guidance of HaRav Patlas.

Glatt Meat in Moscow

As we sit around the table in the office of Moscow Av Beis Din HaRav Pinchas Goldschmidt, HaRav Moshe Lebel—himself a member of the beis din of HaRav Moshe Farkash— introduces me to the local shochet. HaRav Yitzchok Lipshitz manages the kashrus department with the help of his assistant, R' Reuven Zesslevsky. The two are both Yeshivas Ohalei Yaakov alumni. They employ biochemists and are in constant contact with well-known kashrus organizations and poskim.

HaRav Lipshitz studied in Lakewood for some time and received kabboloh for shechitoh from HaRav Yisroel Belsky. During the course of our conversation he described the large demand for kosher meat.

HaRav Lipshitz: The percentage of glatt from the general shechitoh is very low. If any question or concern arises we send the meat to the general population . . . Thus no loss is incurred. Therefore in the Jewish food market we do not need any kulos. But because of the spiritual awakening, the demand for glatt meat is very great and beyond our ability to supply. The members of the chareidi kehilloh eat glatt, but many others who would prefer it make do with meat that is kosher, but not glatt . . .

One also has to know which cows to take for shechitoh. The vast majority of cows in the Moscow area are treif. Because land in the Moscow area is very expensive, most people want to convert their property from agricultural land to building lots, which is against the government's position. Therefore the cattle farmers are not taking care of the cattle. They do not administer medication and the results are as expected: an enormous percentage are treif. Of the 30 heads I shechted yesterday, only eight were kosher and only three were glatt.

Yated Ne'eman: What about poultry shechitoh?

HaRav Lipshitz: Here lies the stickiest problem. Because of the relatively small quantity we are compelled to do the shechitoh at non-Jewish facilities.

YN: Is it feasible to set up a separate kosher production line?

HaRav Lipshitz: Why would they even want us to come into the factory? They usually put the birds to death using electrical shock. They put over 10,000 to death at once. From an economic standpoint why would they want us to come in? It's not worth it for them to stop the regular production line because it harms them financially.

And there is another problem: to pluck out the feathers easily, immediately following the slaughter the Russians soak the bird in boiling water. Only afterwards do they go to the plucking machine. This is a very severe kashrus problem.

Therefore it's a matter of money. We buy the shechitoh at a high price. To secure the use of a production line costs a lot of money, part of which goes to compensate them for the losses they incur when the production line is stopped. Furthermore, the outwardly recognizable sign of kosher birds here is the feathers. The bird is not plucked properly because we are unable to use the local production line due to kashrus problems.

Do you provide kashrus certificates?

In the case of shechitoh the [demand exceeds the supply], but on the other hand there are not enough kosher consumers to coalesce into an economic interest for the factories. We do not have the economic power to demand that for our sakes they change the ingredients that go into food production to meet the demands of kashrus. In fact we have to pay them for them to allow us to check and oversee the things which are really kept secret. Furthermore, every change costs us a lot of money. However we do conduct regular inspections and publicize the food items that are perfectly reliable . . . And the list is updated real time. When concerns arise we issue warnings immediately, both via Internet and notices at the kollel and Torah centers.

The tremendous bounty in Russia today is definitely not to the advantage of the kashrus observant. But today it is possible to live in Moscow and eat kosher lemehadrin. Even cakes and candies are available. The Toras Chaim bakery supplies pas Yisroel and baked goods with the yeshiva's kashrus supervision and this is purchased by the chareidi public, which sees itself as belonging to the bnei Torah kehilloh.


During the course of these conversations one comes to realize this is a formative period in Russian Jewish history. At the same time one cannot avoid thinking about the millions of Russian Jews who are not here, who were swallowed up over the course of time into the belly of an assimilated people.

I came here to see the cheider, to see amoleinu elu habonim and vehigadeto levincho, and I found a whole kehilloh that is growing and flourishing. When you hear the lovely sound of children reciting mishnayos you know this is merely the beginning. These notes plucking at the heartstrings are the song of history. And you know, "Shelo echod bilvad amad oleinu and failed because HaKodosh Boruch Hu matzileinu miyodom."

And these boys, these yeshiva and kollel students, these kehilloh founders sing the song of the Jewish people's revival. And a sweet melody echoes back to them from the promise of tomorrow . . .


A day and a half later we are on our way to the airport late at night. The snow still lies along the roadside, illuminated by the headlights. Neither have the leafless trees changed. But one knows their life force has not ceased. Soon all the trees here will turn green. Soon spring will return . . .

HaRav Moshe Lebel: It is special siyata deShmaya to see a severed generation reconnect to cords that cannot be severed. There can be no other explanation for this revival other than siyata deShmaya. The earth, which appears to be completely scorched, is yielding fruits once again.

This can be compared to a father who had a sick son. A "vegetable" lying in the hospital, unable to move. But in his heart the father does not lose hope. He sits beside the bed, hoping, whispering prayers, pleading. Suddenly, after years of paralysis, the son begins to move his limbs. First a little toe, then the whole foot and soon the boy revives. A medical miracle—the boy has come back to life. Naturally the father feels a special fondness for this son, perhaps even more than for the other siblings. No, not more, but a different kind of affection. This is natural, inevitable.

All Diaspora communities are HaKodosh Boruch Hu's sons. But the Russian Diaspora was trampled under the heel of the Communist boot. Seventy years of suppression had their effect. From a spiritual perspective this segment of Judaism was a "vegetable." Then it began to move a toe, a foot, an arm and now it can stand on its feet as a bona fide kehilloh. Undoubtedly our Father feels tremendous fondness toward this son of His. This is a special kind of siyata deShmaya.

Tough Conversion Questions at the Moscow Beis Din

HaRav Pinchas Goldschmidt landed at 3:00 p.m. upon his return from Switzerland. A short time later we were already sitting for a conversation in a room at Beis Knesses Archipova designated for the beis din. HaRav Moshe Lebel, one of the architects of the spiritual changes that have come to Moscow, was also on hand. On several occasions he has been called upon to fight at the vanguard of unsavory battles.

Antisemitism follows Judaism like a black shadow. It needs no rhyme or reason, for "Eisov hates Yaakov." And the greater the light the more clearly the shadow is outlined. The Russian government wages a tough fight against antisemitism, says HaRav Goldschmidt, but recently Moscow has been visited by an antisemitic attack on the Shulchan Oruch. Twenty- two parliament members and 500 intellectuals signed a letter demanding that the Prosecutor General ban all activity by Jewish organizations. What happened all of a sudden?

HaRav Goldschmidt: The letter and its contents made their mark and made a big splash in the media. What was not covered sufficiently—and perhaps you can be the first to publicize it—is the unpleasant odor rising from the petition. To this day the terrible primitiveness and ignorance born of hatred still reigns. A blood libel, in the simple, primitive sense of that awesome term, emerged from the letter.

In their letter the "intellectuals" noted the Jews use blood for baking matzoh. In our day and age! Their other claims were a rehash of the libel against Mendel Beilis from the renowned trial close to a century ago.

Their main arguments were against the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch in Russian translation, from which they extracted halochos such as the prohibition against praying in a place where there is a cross, and the prohibition against teaching trades to non-Jews. The country was up in arms.

Yated Ne'eman: And the Jews remained silent?

HaRav Goldschmidt: The problem was that the prominent Jewish leaders who tried to respond first knew less about Judaism than the antisemites themselves. I had to respond to each and every quote. The response was sent to the head of the parliament and tabled before President Putin. Of course after the response received publicity the issue dropped from the agenda. The painful part was that these arguments can gain acceptance even today. Bechol dor vodor omdim oleinu lechaloseinu vehaKodosh Boruch Hu matzileinu miyodom.


HaRav Goldschmidt sees the establishment of the chareidi kehilloh and the need for it as part of the normalization process. "The more life becomes balanced, the more returnees return to their roots, the more the next phase becomes inevitable."

He leads me through scaffolding and the dust of renovation work to the basement level of the beis knesses where two lavish mikvo'os are under construction. They are kosher according to all opinions, not just the opinion of Chabad like the existing mikvo'os. The water source was built according to the Chazon Ish's shittah based on the needs of the city residents who will be using them. The plans were drawn by architect R' Gedaliah Olstein of Yerushalayim, a cousin of members of the Dessler family and the grandson of HaRav Yisroel Salanter zt"l, who was active in Russia, leaving a spirit of tohoroh.

The more local Jews return to their roots the more the beis din is involved in verifying who is a Jew. A very interesting sugya was just laid before the beis din.


HaRav Goldschmidt: There are documents from government and church archives that point with certainty to the existence of Russian converts to Judaism during the first half of the 18th century. Some trace their origins to the group of converts that arose in Russia hundreds of years ago under the influence of a Jew named Zecharya. This religious group was persecuted cruelly and apparently annihilated. Yet there is no evidence to tie them to the question of the Jewishness that came up on our agenda. Some claim the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism was born of the influence of Jewish captives brought from Poland. Others attribute it to philosophical developments among the Christians.

YN: Are you referring to Subbotniks (literally "Shabbos observers")?

HaRav Goldschmidt: Three different groups appear under the sobriquet "Subbotniks" in the [anthropological] literature: a) Christians who accepted a portion of the Jewish mitzvas, primarily what they called "Shabbos observance." b) Converts who abandoned Christianity completely, basing their religion on the Tanach alone. They did not accept the Oral Torah and are sometimes referred to as "the Karaite Subbotniks." c) Subbotniks who underwent conversion. Of course the question on the agenda only deals with the Jewishness of the third group.

YN: Are they really converts?

HaRav Goldschmidt: That is precisely the question. Until the beginning of the 19th century the Subbotniks who abandoned Christianity were a united group that based their religion on the Tanach alone. At that time there was a schism among them. Some of them began to draw close to Ashkenazi Jews and this interaction resulted in an acceptance of mitzvas, the use of Loshon Hakodesh, Ashkenazi pronunciation in tefilloh and the use of nusach Ashkenaz. Over time they began to call themselves converts.

Conversion was prohibited according to Czarist law. There is no clear evidence in which a beis din — when, or if anyone at all — converted them formally. In addition there is much evidence indicating that some of these "converts" studied in yeshivas and that other Jews included them in minyanim. Eventually the distinctions between the Subbotnik converts and the Ashkenazi Jews faded.

The Russian authorities persecuted the converts to the point of extermination and exiled the majority of them to Siberia or the Caucasus. But after the first Russian revolution of 1905-07, they were permitted to register their kehillos and open botei knesses. The Bolshevik Revolution and the seven decades of religious suppression weakened the kehillos of Subbotnik converts, but some of them survived to the present and the question of their Jewishness has now been brought before the beis din.

YN: Are they scattered around the country?

HaRav Goldschmidt: No. According to a report by Dr. Velvel Chernin, who collected the figures, they are mostly concentrated in two areas: The Voronizh Region. About 600 kilometers [370 miles] south of Moscow is a large rural settlement called Visoki, which was founded in 1921 by the Subbotnik converts after they left villages in the area where they had been living for generations as a minority among the Christians. As of today some 800 Subbotnik converts live in the town along with about 200 Russian Christians who moved here at the behest of the authorities 30 years ago. Notably, the town has no church or Christian cemetery. The official documents list the majority of "converts" in Visoki as Russians, but in the surrounding towns they are referred to as Jews and they suffer from antisemitic hooliganism.

The report also shows that the last shochet died about a decade ago and they do shechitoh themselves. They separate between milk and meat and are very careful to refrain from eating pork and don't even raise it in the town, unlike the surrounding settlements. The population, including the youth, keeps Jewish holidays and burial customs. There is a Jewish cemetery and a sort of chevra kadisha. There is no beis knesses and there never has been one. The prayers are held in the homes of mourners. The elderly come as well as those who must say Kaddish. The tefilloh is based on Nusach Ashkenaz but in Russian translation. There is one kosher sefer Torah. There is one elderly man in his nineties living in the town. Nicknamed Saba Pinchos he once studied at the yeshiva in the Ukraine in the town of Konotop and knows how to read Hebrew with Ashkenazi pronunciation.

Some 400 people from the town moved to Israel, most of them settling in Beit Shemesh. The Israeli embassy gives them aliya visas if they have documents to prove their Jewishness and have not intermarried. About one-third of the young people of the town are married to Russians, but they want to move to Israel and convert as well.

In Israel the people of Visoki send their children to religious schools. Really every Visoki resident is interested in aliya. In most cases the non-Jewish couples would like to undergo halachic conversion.

HaRav Goldschmidt says there is a religious kibbutz in the Arava populated entirely by Subbotnik converts who came to Israel in the 1970s and 80s.

Holding the report in his hands he continues to note relevant points: Fifty-two kilometers (30 miles) from Visoki lies the town of Ileinka whose residents, unlike the majority of Subbotniks living in the former Soviet Union, were officially registered as Jews and were noted for their adherence to Judaism and mitzvas. Almost all of them made aliya during the 1970s and 90s. Just six Jews remained in the town, all of them elderly with children in Israel. A Jewish cemetery with graves of Ashkenazi Jews from the 1930s can be found there.

Some Ileinka residents moved to Visoki or to various Russian cities, particularly Voronizh. In Israel the people of Ileinka live mostly in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, as well as a few in Bnei Brak. Former Ileinka residents belong to known clans and HaRav Goldschmidt reads me the names of the families listed in the report. Small groups of the offspring of these converts remained as a separate minority among the Christians in three other nearby towns, and others live in more distant locations such as the Volga Region, which is home to two famous converts, Yoav Dubrovin (who founded a small farm and community in the early 1900s near Yesod Hamaaleh in Eretz Yisroel. Dubrovin and his family were geirei tzedek.) and Korkin. In other areas there are additional concentrations of converts who retain their religion.

YN: Is there a halachic precedent regarding the status of these converts?

HaRav Goldschmidt: There is no clear stance regarding the halachic status of the Subbotnik converts. The former chief rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Levine, converted a few of them and later the need arose to confirm their conversion. Only Rabbi Levine is signed on the conversion [certificate] and who joined him is unknown. In point of fact, there is no signed certificate testifying to an act by a beis din. One way or the other it comes out that we cannot rely on the legacy handed down, but to overcome the doubt we must perform giyur lechumro, which is indeed what Rabbi Levine did. We do have this precedent and it does obligate us.

YN: And the official Israeli position?

HaRav Goldschmidt: The official Israeli position is Israeli, but not necessarily halachic. The Israeli embassy grants aliya visas to all converts with Soviet documents listing them as Jews. Among those not listed as Jews, Visoki residents alone receive aliya visas on condition that they did not assimilate among the local non-Jews. The other communities were not recognized by the embassy. Apparently there are certain figures who want to bring to Israel as many immigrants as possible and they have an interest in uncovering Jews in every corner of the globe. But are these really Jews or non-Jewish Subbotniks? The issue is currently under review. One way or the other we have Rabbi Levine's precedent, which obligates us to convert them.


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