As we stood at Har Sinai, the experience flooded senses; we saw the thunder, heard the lightning. The lightning fades, but the sudden burst of clarity takes you forward. Six women share a moment that illuminated their path
More than 30 years ago, I was invited to participate in the adventure of a lifetime.
My husband, Abby, came home from shul one evening and told me that the Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, an organization sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, was urgently seeking women to travel to the former Soviet Union. The minimum commitment was ten days, and my husband asked if I’d consider it. Oh, and we would be incommunicado for almost the entire time. (Describing this to a generation who thinks “instant” is too long makes me feel prehistoric.)
I swallowed hard and said yes. I spend more time trying to decide what color shoes to wear in the morning than I did on that decision to travel alone to a hostile country.
Rabbi and Mrs. Mordechai and Alice Neustadt ran the problem. My first phone conversation with Mrs. Neustadt went something like this. “You know,” she began, “each of our shlichim has to be prepared to lose a few pounds.”
I offered to stay for a month.
Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I was soon scheduled to leave a week and a half later.
That left me ten days to apply for a visa, take official pictures, sign papers, purchase food and necessary supplies (you cannot imagine what we accomplished with a pack of cigarettes and a lipstick), arrange children’s schedules, juggle client commitments, switch car pools — and tell our mothers. Wanna guess what that conversation sounded like? “What? You’re going where??!!”
We were going to join in a four-week seminar in Yurmala, a vacation resort town on the Baltic Sea outside of Riga in Latvia. The seminar coincided with the Russian universities’ midwinter break, and while the participants ranged in age from seven months to over seventy years, most were in their twenties and thirties. All in all, 181 people participated during the course of those four weeks from twenty-three different cities across the Soviet Union.
That spontaneous decision proved to be just the first in a series of incredible moments where I felt part of something so much bigger. I flew on the wings of eagles (namely TWA) from Cleveland to New York via La Guardia, then switching airports where I met my partner, Mrs. Leah (Ausband) Burstyn, who was expecting her eighth child at the time.
After traveling for 29 hours we finally reached Yurmula with our packed suitcases, weary, but very eager to begin this epoch experience.
We arrived at the end of the second week — about midway through the seminar. The Café Victoria, which had been rented and kashered for our use exclusively, was packed. We were greeted by 100 people singing “Ana ana ana, avda d’Kudshah Brich Hu” in honor of 14 young men who had just celebrated a pidyon haben. That was our welcome. We started on a high that would remain through our 11-day stay.
We came to give, but received far more in return. The warmth and friendship was unbounded. When we came across language barriers, we spoke with our hearts.
Leah brought her youth, wisdom, energy, and warmth into every situation we encountered. It was Leah who was entrusted to handwrite the two kesubos that we used for the weddings we helped celebrate during our time there. I was in charge of making challah covers, polishing nails, and teaching songs. She was the superstar who exuded the messages of purpose and peoplehood, and it was to her that these students turned for strength and inspiration. I did too; I was the “shamash” to the Yurmula Rebbetzin.
The night we arrived, we found a little listening device not-so-cleverly disguised in the upper corner of our room — a welcome reminder of the KGB.
There are many who were truly heroes. I was not one of them. I watched with awe and reverence the unselfish commitment of the different emissaries who traveled back and forth time and time again.
But perhaps the truest heroes of this revolution were the old and young men and women whose hearts never let them forget that they were Jews. Their hunger and thirst for G-d and His Torah kept us going and reminded us that even if the world forgets, the spark within a Jewish soul will always remember. We would teach a story or a song in the morning and by the afternoon I was watching those same students teaching it to others. It redefined the word “legacy” to me.
If stories must be written, ask them. If awards are in order, I nominate them. If we speak of accolades, I heartily recommend them. These giants taught me more than I ever imparted. Their complete eternal commitment, and the innovative and creative ways they came up with to serve our Creator, puts anything I will ever do to shame.
I went to teach but I learned much more.
Some of my fondest memories will always be of the warmth and love that emanated from the Café Victoria in Yurmula. Something special happened there.
My life partner went out of his comfort zone by holding down the fort at home. Plastered across our front windows on the night of my return was a giant sign that read, “Dobreyu Posalovich (Welcome Home) Mommy — the dishes are in the sink.” And they were.
The successful experiences in Yurmula and places just like it, are easy. The difficult work is in the follow-up, being done by the many volunteers and tireless workers who continue this inspiring mission once these brave souls begin their new lives in whichever country they find themselves.
I’m humbled by the very small part I played in this amazing undertaking. Who knew that leaving impressions in the sands of the Baltic shore could be done with a lipstick, some nail polish, and a song.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 742)
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