They started with 12 elderly men in a forsaken shul. Their mission: Bringing Torah to the 45,000 Jews who had lost almost every vestige of Yiddishkeit to the Nazis and Communism
Photos: Rebbetzin Chasi Baksht
In 1993, Chasi Baksht had everything a woman could ask for. “My husband was a rosh kollel and I had a great job teaching and organizing 11 musicals a year,” she says. “We lived in Bayit Vegan close to my parents [Leibel and author Malka Adler, a”h], who pampered me. I never began cooking for Shabbos until the chickens that my mother-in-law cut up for me arrived together with a selection of cakes,” she says.
And yet, something inexplicable prompted Chasi to move beyond her comfort zone. “One day, I suddenly decided that we needed to be independent. I wondered if we should, gasp, leave Israel for a year,” she says.
Chasi’s husband soon had an answer. Word was out that Ohr Somayach was looking for a couple to send to Odessa. Rabbi Baksht turned to Rav Elyashiv ztz”l for guidance. “Who says I’m suitable?” Rabbi Baksht asked.
“Who says there is someone more suitable?” the Rav replied.
Family and friends were incredulous. “What about your children?” they cried. “Remember when Laiky got frostbite? Remember how Shira just had meningitis? What will happen to them in the Ukrainian winter?” Rebbetzin Baksht smiles at the recollection.
“The school secretary told me not to bother filling in the forms requesting leave without pay... I’d be back before she could process them. The more they tried to discourage me, the more determined I became to show them I could do it.” She smiles at the memory, and in her eyes, I see the determination that fueled her journey.
Over the summer, Rebbetzin Baksht prepared for the move, taking out a calendar and packing every single thing she’d need for every day of the coming year, down to dried fruit for Tu B’shvat.
As soon as the Bakshts landed, though, they realized the naysayers had been right. They’d been prepared for no phone contact. They weren’t prepared for a tiny kitchen without counters, hot water only on pre-announced dates, bedbugs, and a bathtub that flooded the neighbor below every time the Rebbetzin poured a gas-heated bucket of water over a child.
But while their initial instinct was to immediately return to Israel, flights to Israel were few and far between, and by the time the first flight out was available, a week later, the family had begun to adjust. (And thanks to Rebbetzin Baksht’s phenomenal organizational skills, one of their boxes included a can of insecticide.)
To the casual tourist, Odessa shows her best face: The Potemkin Steps, a giant stairway that leads from the port into the city, where the spectacular buildings include the Opera house, the second biggest opera in the world. The Seventh-Kilometer Market is the largest open-air market in Europe.
But look closer and you’ll see one of the worst economic performances in the world. Once a former economic powerhouse for the Soviet Union, today nearly 60 percent of Ukrainians live below the poverty line. With the Nazi invasion in 1941, 80 percent of the region’s 210,000 Jews were killed. The end of the war brought Soviet rule and communism until 1991, when Ukraine declared independence. Had 46 years of communism wiped out all vestiges of Yiddishkeit? The Bakshts were about to find out.
Rebbetzin Baksht homeschooled their four children, who ranged from eight years old to under a year. “The children would wake up to the sight of Abba davening in the living room — back then minyanim were held only on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbos mornings — and the aroma of freshly-baked bread filled the apartment. We took our sandwiches to school: the bedroom!” she says.
Rebbetzin Baksht completed the material sent by the children’s teachers in Israel ahead of schedule. She also made sure to add in the fun: school outings in Israel were duplicated in Odessa. A trip to the port of Ashdod? The Baksht children enjoyed a boat ride. And even with average winter temperatures below freezing, the children went out to play every day. Despite their previous health challenges in Israel’s milder climate, in Odessa they didn’t get ill the entire winter!
With the biggest shul in Odessa, the Great Choral Synagogue on Lenin Street (now Rishelievska Street) converted into a basketball court, the Bakshts didn’t go to shul to track down the 45,000 Yidden in Odessa. Instead, aided by a former Ukrainian, they reached out to mainly women and to a tiny congregation of elderly men in a shul on the edge of the Black Sea. The Communists had allowed about 12 men to remain in shul — but generally, with ulterior motives.
“The KGB used to watch what these men were doing and then search the streets for similar activities to pull in unsuspecting Jews,” Rebbetzin Baksht says. “During one of Odessa’s many power failures, a Jew named Dima was arrested for lighting candles on his windowsill. He promised himself that if he survived the KGB’s interrogation, he’d find out why Jews light candles in their windows. Catapulted into teshuvah, Dima eventually made aliyah,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
Sundays were devoted to kiruv. In the mornings, Rebbetzin Baksht, with the aid of a translator, taught a handful of children, sons and daughters of the women that she’d already approached. Embers were fanned and sometimes a spark emerged… like the girl who sang “Mi ha’ish ha’chafetz chayim” and the boy who arrived on Purim in costume. In the evenings, women had their turn as Rebbetzin Baksht introduced them to Yiddishkeit 101.
“I showed them a video of my wedding, hoping they’d realize that they too needed a kosher wedding,” she says. “But with poverty all-pervasive in the Ukraine, the holiness of the ceremony escaped them. They focused only on the fact that someone could afford to feed 1,000 people.”
Slowly, more Jews began trickling into the Baksht home. As the Bakshts picked up Russian, they relied less on a translator.
Rebbetzin Baksht notes that kiruv in Odessa is very different from kiruv anywhere else in the world. First, the Bakshts were the only Jewish role models around. “The choice was simple: be like us or be like the non-Jews around you,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
Second, after years of living in the most depraved conditions, the Bakshts also had to teach the Jews to believe in themselves. “We treated each one with great respect. We served good meals on real dishes and didn’t ask about them about their past or their families,” she says. Over the years, their stories emerged. Shabbos preparations began on Tuesday because Rebbetzin Baksht never knew when she’d have water, power, and gas simultaneously. “Potatoes were affordable, but we bought the outrageously priced tomatoes only for our baby,” she says. All water had to be boiled before usage. Bringing disposables with them was impossible because of weight allowance restrictions.
“After the meals, I’d wash the dishes in water that was as cold as the freezing air outside. Every now and again, I’d warm my aching hands on the cholent pot.” Rebbetzin Baksht pauses. “I recently asked my husband why we hadn’t hired someone to do the dishes,” she says. Rabbi Baksht’s answer eased the pain she still feels: “Odessa was built on mesirus nefesh,” he said.
And tremendous siyata d’Shmaya, Rebbetzin Baksht adds. Kosher meat came from Kiev 12 hours’ travel away. “The first time I sent our helper Gena for meat, I worried that my supply would arrive rotted by the overheated Ukrainian trains, but it arrived frozen. Gena had bribed the conductor to run the air-conditioning instead of the heating!”
After eight months in Odessa, Rebbetzin Baksht returned to Israel, alone, to give birth to their fifth child. Their baby boy was born on Shabbos. “I called my husband with a borrowed phone card. When he answered, he’d just begun to daven, so he couldn’t talk. But it didn’t matter because the phone card lasted only long enough for me to say, ‘It’s a boy.’ ” Rebbetzin Baksht manages to laugh at the recollection, sharing a glimpse of the sense of humor that warms her through more than just freezing Ukrainian winters.
Language of The Heart
A year later, the Bakshts — using radio, television, newspaper, posters, and a translator — announced their plans to open a school for boys. There were two stipulations: wear a kippah and tzitizis, and don’t bring any food.
The first step in registration was ascertaining that the applicants were indeed Jewish. Siyata d’Shmaya was evident again: Sasha Zehchev, today the program’s chief administrator, learned from a 95-year-old man the secret codes that had been used in passports to mark Jews, allowing them to determine whose parents were in fact Jewish . The organization invested in a state-of-the-art machine to check passports for forgery and also sent staff into the villages for confirmation.
People eager to prove their lineage came with family albums full of photos of men with long coats and peyos. “We had some heartbreaking surprises. A grandfather who still held on to some vestiges of Yiddishkeit was devastated to learn that the grandson he had raised could not be accepted because his mother wasn’t Jewish,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
In 1994, the boy’s school opened with 67 students. A year later, the girls’ school opened with 60 girls. Rebbetzin Baksht delivered the lessons she prepared by the light of a kerosene lamp. “Like the olden days,” she quips.
Still not fluent in Russian, Rebbetzin Baksht opted for the language of the heart by renting an apartment and inviting the girls to really experience Shabbos. Irena was one of the girls who joined a Shabbaton. Her mother had agreed to allow her to attend, provided that Irena would keep their shopping appointment Shabbos morning. The following day, Irena prepared to shower and do her hair. “No, no,” one of the more knowledgeable girls told her.
“In one second, I decided that I was keeping Shabbos,” Irena later told the Rebbetzin. “I just had to catch the bus to tell my mom that I wasn’t coming.” But again, her friend told her “No.” Today Irena lives in Beitar. “She might be your neighbor, but you’d never guess,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
A Home for Orphans
Asked about their most exciting project, Rebbetzin Baksht doesn’t hesitate: the orphanages. With the average wage being $50 per month, many parents either abuse or abandon their children out of sheer desperation. Life in the state orphanages is abysmal.
“One girl, who later became my daughter’s best friend, was the only Jew among 500 children. Every day she was singled out, beaten, and called zhydovka. When she arrived at our orphanage, she finally learned what the term meant. What it means to be a Jew,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
In the orphanages, children receive one meal a day if the guards haven’t stolen the meat for their dogs. Not surprisingly, suicide rates are high. Seventy percent of boys eventually take to a life of crime. The horror doesn’t end in the state orphanages. Stories of parental abuse abound: the baby who was lulled to sleep with vodka so that his mother’s rest wouldn’t be disturbed; the boy who was sent to sleep in the kennel with the dog.
Their first Tikva orphanage opened in a small apartment in 1996 with six children. Sasha tracked down the children in state orphanages. Rabbi Baksht then worked to convince the Russian authorities to allow them to move. Today, Tikva employs 30 full-time staff to seek out, document, and rescue these destitute Jewish children. About 160 boys, girls, and infants live in Tikva’s orphanages.
“Rabbi Refael Kruskal, CEO of Tikva, and his Rebbetzin Ayalah are devoted to the children. We have a medical staff of about 40, but thanks to the Kruskals, Tikva is much more than a bed, dental work, and psychologists,” Rebbetzin Baksht says, showing me a recent clip of a young girl at her piano lesson. The work is far from over. “About 2,500 Jewish children are still orphaned or homeless in Ukraine,” she adds.
How did the Baksht children manage through the years? “We treated our own children in exactly the same way as the other children. They ate the same kasha all the children ate and when they could no longer stomach it, they ate more bread,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
The Baksht children never knew the background stories of the Russian children. Knowledge would have led to pity, which would have led to a feeling of superiority. “One of my son’s best friends had witnessed his father hanging himself. My son never knew about this, just as he never knew that his friend met regularly with a psychologist to work through the trauma,” she says.
Shira Baksht joins us and shares a memory that stands out: the brisim that took place once a year in their home. “We prepared our beds for the men and boys to rest on until they had recovered after the procedure. We’d have to wait until they left to go to bed. I always felt it was a zechus and later, when the brisim took place in the shul, I felt we had lost something,” she says.
After some years, following Rav Elyahisv’s psak, Rebbetzin Baksht and the children moved back to Israel. “I spent much of the next eight years here. My husband came home for every fifth Shabbos and stayed less than a week. Not surprisingly, the baby didn’t recognize him from visit to visit,” she says. “It was hard, but it was manageable. Each year, after Purim we travelled to Odessa and stayed until after Pesach. We were there again for the summer until after Succos.”
Shira, who attended the school in Odessa while her family was there, adds her take. “I shared stories about my school in Israel and I felt so proud to be a role model for the others.”
Dynamics changed again when the children were older and Tikva had opened up additional schools where certified Israeli teachers taught. Again following Rav Elyashiv’s psak, Rebbetzin Baksht left two of the children with her parents and returned to Odessa. “My son was starting to learn Gemara and he had to be in Israel,” she says. Today, Rebbetzin Baksht divides her time between her family in Israel and her lecturing obligations and her husband and the community in Odessa.
A collage of a shtetl catches my eye. “I made it with my children after a trip through the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia. Every part of the collage is based a different photo I took,” Rebbetzin Baksht explains.
“The main street in every town in Russia had to be named after the town. I saw Grodno Street, so of course I named the street in my collage after the yeshivah.” But the tiny sign with Russian lettering marks more than just a street. It signals the direction of Rebbetzin Baksht’s life: all for Torah.
Discarded childhood jewelry, old fridge magnets, broken pieces of Lego, all made it into the collage echoing what the Bakshts have done over the last 26 years in Odessa: creating a new, stunning reality out of remnants.
What started as a small community outreach program has blossomed into a network of over 38 programs that have improved the lives of more than 3,000 Jews. The many programs, which hold wide appeal for the younger generation, include schooling from kindergarten through a Jewish University, two kosher restaurants, adult Jewish kollel educational programs, and even a course in robotics. With regular flights from Israel, their mohel has no trouble arriving on the eighth day.
“Today, our graduates teach in our schools. Our boys and girls are accepted into Israel’s top yeshivos and seminaries. In fact, one of my daughters came home to tell me that her teacher in [the Israeli Bais Yaakov] Chadash was one of our graduates,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
No longer isolated, Odessa has seen many notable visitors in the last years, including Yair Netanyahu and Rhona Ramon. And now that Yiddishkeit has returned to the city, earning it a prominent spot on the Torah’s map of the world, Odessa has merited visits from gedolim such as Rav Berel Povarsky shlit”a, Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevezh, and Rav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi. The visit of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman ztz”l in 1997 was most memorable.
“All of Jewish Odessa went to the airport to meet the Rav. Hundreds of us davened vasikin with him. The roads were closed for the hachnassas sefer Torah,” Rebbetzin Baksht says.
What message did the Rav give over? “He encouraged us to start a yeshivah, because high-level Torah learning leads to lasting success,” the Rebbetzin says. And in 2010, Yeshivas Ateret Hamelech, named after the Rebbetzin’s mother, Malka, opened its doors.
When the Rebbe of Belz, Rav Yissachar Dov Rokeach shlit”a, came to visit Belz three years later, with about a thousand chassidim, the boys were ready. “We traveled to Belz where the Rebbe spoke to each of our boys about their learning, while his chassidim stood behind him, each wishing for the same amount and attention,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
Despite the current outright-if-undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine, kiruv in Odessa is full steam ahead. “Russian students have a harder time getting home and we don’t receive the tetanus vaccines that used to arrive, but that’s all,” says Rebbetzin Baksht.
Open Your Homes
Over 400 alumni of the Baksht’s programs have made aliyah. Tikva Israel, headed by Rav Benzion and Sara Feist, has created several programs, including a welcoming center in Bayit Vegan to help these graduates transition to their new lives. But not everything is rosy.
“Sadly, less than a handful of our students who left Yiddishkeit live in Israel,” says Rebbetzin Baksht. “Society here in Israel has to become more accepting of them and it starts by appreciating what they’ve accomplished. At one of my speeches, a principal asked me why we don’t encourage even more of our students to make aliyah. The sad truth is that Israeli society isn’t opening its arms wide enough.
“How many principals will accept my girls into their schools? How many parents are willing to have their children sit next to someone who hasn’t yet picked up all the nuances? A host once complained to me that the girls didn’t sit at the Shabbos table for the entire meal — which lasted for hours! Another time, two of my girls told me that despite the good intentions of the host family, they felt like they were ‘two mitzvos’ sitting at the table. Give our graduates support and time — because they can surpass all of us.”
Rebbetzin Baksht reflects on how time has changed the reality in Odessa. While living conditions in Odessa were harsh in the beginning, today it’s easier, especially when it comes to coping with water shortages. Rebbetzin Baksht is probably the only woman who was thrilled to receive a 1,600-liter water cistern as a gift from her husband.
Still, living so far away — whether it was from her parents or her husband was never easy. “I missed the support of my family. Here, I can wave to my grandchildren when they walk home at lunchtime. But I always miss my husband the most,” she says. She points to another collage: a man, framed in a stone arched window, is wrapped in a tallis davening at the Kosel. “I framed my husband in a window because much of the time, I see him from afar,” she says. She pauses.
“Despite his many obligations, he’s always learning. He’s still an avreich. When my son was six years old, someone asked him what his father does. He replied: “My father learns; when he has time, he’s the rav of Odessa.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 622)
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