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Old Country, New Beginnings

Binyamin Rose

For years, the names Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa held sinister undertones for the Jewish nation, but the long, chilly history of Eastern Europe’s intolerance for Judaism has begun to thaw, and a new generation of Jews is once again openly studying Torah. Mishpacha gained a close-up glimpse of the blossoming of Torah in the former Soviet Union, and the impact of an innovative new learning program that brings the Chofetz Chaim’s words to life in the very country where he wrote them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

russiaThe calendar says it’s springtime, but in Moscow, spring can be indistinguishable from winter. Snow is falling and even though it’s not sticking, a workman sprinkles salt from a black bucket onto the sidewalk so pedestrians will keep their traction.

It is just past “rush hour” in this city of 10 million people, so no one seems to be in a hurry any more. Moscow’s famed traffic jams have cleared up as blue-and-white electric buses whiz by, sharing the same lane with cars. It is hard to tell who has the right of way, if anyone. After a snowy winter, most license plates are barely legible, splattered as they are with a mixture of frost, soot, and exhaust fumes.

Russia, like many other nations of the former Soviet Union (FSU), has traversed a spiritual distance from the earth to the heavens since Communism fell twenty years ago. Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa were once places where Torah learning could mean jail, exile to Siberia, or worse. Today, the same venues are home to vibrant Jewish communities where Torah is learned openly — even in Red Square, in full view of the Kremlin.

I felt as comfortable wearing my black hat here as I would in any US city. When I commented about this to Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, he said I shouldn’t have been surprised. “It is safer for a Jew to wear his yarmulke on the streets of Moscow than in Brussels or Paris,” he said. Personal safety notwithstanding, the survival of Jewish communities in the FSU is remarkable and their growth is measurable.

The message finally hit home for me on a recent visit to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and afterward, France. I found it in one short verse, often said in haste, in the expanded Thursday morning Tachanun: “Now we are the few left from many, but despite all this, we have not forgotten your name…”

 Those “few left from many” are the result of the solid foundation laid over the past twenty years by a wide variety of rabbanim and organizations that have made  the ongoing recovery of authentic Torah Judaism in Eastern Europe their raison d’être.


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