| Magazine Feature |

Russian Roulette

Five decades ago, a group of British Jews slipped behind the Iron Curtain. They’re still astonished by what they found

Wiretapped hotel rooms. Footsteps shadowing midnight rendezvous on Moscow’s Metro. KGB officers crashing up in-home weddings. Tallis-clad informants in shul, and the panic of discovery of clandestine bris ceremonies and shiurim.

This is just a bit of what 249 men and women endured as they were dispatched to the Soviet Union by Ernie Hirsch of London and his grassroots Russian Religious Jews Fund (RRJ) between 1980 and 1990, the year before the Iron Curtain came down. Despite facing intimidation at every turn, these “tourists” sought out and assisted the many stubborn groups of Jews committed to living Yiddishkeit under the privations of Communist Russia. As the spiritual inheritors of the Jews who hid in caves in order to uphold  Torah despite decrees of the ancient Greeks, Russian refuseniks wouldn’t be broken.

Decades later, these teachers, doctors, rabbis, businessmen and homemakers who encountered them share memories they’ll never forget


Crashed Wedding

Rabbi Yisroel Fine
Leningrad, 1978, 1982


do sometimes pay lip service to the idea that we have to be grateful that we live in a malchus shel chesed — a free society, but I’m not sure we always understand the alternatives. The stark difference between a free country and a reign of fear was vividly brought home to me on my trip to Leningrad in 1982, when I travelled there with Rabbi Joe Freilich. I’d already been to Russia in 1978, so this was a second visit to that totalitarian world.

Rolled up tight among all the Judaica items and essentials in our suitcases was a kesubah. A young Jewish couple, yichus approved by a beis din, was waiting in Leningrad for us to arrive and conduct their chuppah.

I spoke to the couple in advance of the wedding day, and they informed us of the date and time, and the special code we should use for entry to the gathering. It was too much of a risk to hold the chuppah in the shul, or anywhere public for that matter, so it would be in a private flat.

The appointed day arrived, and we followed the instructions. One by one, people knocked at the door and were let in with the prearranged code, till there were about 30 people in the room. We prepared the kesubah, the becher and the wine, and unfolded a tallis to spread above the couple in lieu of a chuppah. At the last moment, one of the invited guests, a talmid chacham named Rav Medalya, asked if perhaps he could be mesader kiddushin. We gladly agreed, and he was overjoyed at the rare opportunity.

He conducted the chuppah, and the small room was filled with happiness. We couldn’t make much noise, but it still felt like a simchah, and everyone was in good spirits and relaxed. There was no dancing because of the circumstances, but there was a bit of singing in Yiddish. We sat down for a seudah of hard-boiled eggs and some herring and onion, and I think there were sliced tomatoes.


uddenly there was a knock on the door. The room froze. Someone opened the door and uniformed officers marched abruptly in. We had been found out.

What I can never forget is the abject fear on the faces of everybody present. Rav Medalya, particularly, was in a very bad state. Later, someone explained to me that he had just returned from serving time in Siberia, where both he and his brother had been imprisoned.

Here they were, having done nothing traitorous, nothing crooked, nothing really wrong at all, but that hardly mattered. Because in a jurisdiction where there is no rule of law, just summary justice and unilateral action from the powers that be, innocence counts for nothing.

One of the younger people who was sitting at the table stood up, motioned the others to leave the situation to him, and took the officers aside. We held our breaths. I don’t know what this fellow said to the KGB officers, but he managed to get rid of them. They left, and we quietly carried on the meal.

What lingered long after the sound of sheva brachos and the sharp taste of herring was the fear on our fellow Jews’ faces.

Rabbi Yisroel Fine, retired rav of Cockfosters and Southgate Synagogue, was rav of Wembley United Synagogue at the time of these visits.

Open Intimidation

Dr. Yossi Spitzer, MD
Moscow, 1987


traveled behind the Iron Curtain to Moscow not to give shiurim but to offer medical advice. Refuseniks couldn’t always gain access to medical opinions or medical services in the Soviet Republic, and the medical services available there were most definitely not adequate. When Ernie Hirsch learned of the need, he asked me to go and offer any medical advice the community needed.

I needed a way to keep medical records, so that Ernie could send further support and medication with later groups. To do this, I brought with me a copy of the Merck Manual, a medical reference book of several thousand pages, and I wrote my notes in the margins. When questioned about it by the customs, both on the way in and on the way out, I told them that as a doctor I always travelled with a copy in my luggage. I was thus able to take my records back to London and arrange help and medication for those refuseniks who needed it.

Moscow’s Metro subway system was a point of pride in the Soviet Union. It was one of the busiest city transit systems in the world, all extravagant mosaics and beautiful high ceilings in the stations. Metro stations were a very common spot to rendezvous with refuseniks because the noise of the trains made it difficult to overhear conversations. We used to prearrange which carriage of the train we would be in and describe our clothing, so the Russian Jews could safely identify us. One day, I met a refusenik at a prearranged station and then walked with him along the snowy streets to his home. A black car followed us and parked outside the door of his apartment building. This fellow was followed by the KGB everywhere he went. We chatted in his apartment and when we left back to the Metro, the car tailed us again. It was an open game of cat and mouse; my companion was fully aware that he was being watched day and night, and that it was an attempt to intimidate him, but he was used to it, and not in the least bit fazed. He told me that when it got really cold outside, he’d even offer the KGB agents a hot drink. This man eventually escaped safely to Eretz Yisrael and became a sofer.


ur hotel rooms were bugged, surely, although we were staying in what was ostensibly a world-class, five-star hotel. When we were settling in, I went to check out the bathroom, and noticed there was no plug in the bath. “Oh, no plug? How will we use the bath?” I commented to my companion. Within two or three minutes, there was a tap on the door, and a man from room service duly appeared, poker-faced, holding out a plug. We got the message, loud and clear: Nothing could be discussed in the room.

Phone calls couldn’t be made from the phone in the hotel, because every conversation was recorded. It was much safer to go down to the street and use a public phone, which wasn’t tapped.

Ernie Hirsch is an incredible packer — no one could get into a suitcase what he could — and in those days, baggage weight wasn’t so tightly controlled. He took charge of our cases, packing in kosher food supplied at a generous discount by Kays in Golders Green, and many, many, other useful items for the refuseniks to use or sell for survival. On Friday afternoon, we left our hotel with a heavy suitcase to take along to the people who were hosting us for the Shabbos meal. Naturally, any entries or exits from the hotel were recorded and all tourists required a pass. The concierge, obviously another KGB spy, wanted to know why we were leaving with a suitcase, when, after all, we hadn’t checked out yet. We replied that we were visiting friends and bringing some food. Actually, most of it was Pesach food, which the frum Muscovites were sorely lacking. Straight faced, the agents asked us, “Don’t you think that Russian citizens have enough food?” What was there to reply?

We left the suitcase with our friends. If they got permission to leave sometime soon, they could use it to take along their possessions. If not, they could sell it. And, audaciously, we came back to our hotel without it.

Dr. Spitzer is a general medical practitioner in Stamford Hill, London, a busy mohel, and honorary senior lecturer in primary care at Barts and the London Queen Mary School of Medicine & Dentistry. 

The Greatest Treat

Mr. Doody Rosenberg
Moscow, 1987


first visited Moscow in 1981. In 1987, I went back with Dr. Spitzer. This was not long before Purim, and I remember giving a shiur on that subject for ladies, in a private apartment. I came to the apartment with Dr. Spitzer, and the people arrived one by one, in order not to attract attention. They settled in for a long shiur, had some refreshments, then left, again, one at a time.

The woman who hosted the shiur was a very warm and special person. She’d been warned repeatedly by the KGB to stop her illegal activities, but she disregarded the warnings and carried on. About six weeks later, we heard that this woman had been run over in a car accident and lost her life. There was no evidence, the car didn’t say “KGB” on it, but many were sure that this was an arranged “accident.”

Another shiur was for young people. There was one young man there whose face radiated a serene purity. It was almost shining, something difficult to describe in words. He sat near me during the shiur, and after everyone slowly left, he said he wanted to accompany me on the train. I tried to discourage him. “Don’t come with me — we’ll each go alone and things will be safer,” I told him. Most of the shiur attendees made sure to stay clear of the foreign visitors when in public, and not put themselves in danger.

“But it’s worth it to hear more Torah on the way,” he responded seriously.

I couldn’t change his mind, so he came with me on the subway, and we continued to speak on Torah topics until I reached my stop. During the conversation, he shared that his great-grandfather had been a prominent  rabbi.

“Where was family from?” I asked.

“Berditchev,” he answered me.

“And what is your name?”

“I am called after that rebbe. My name is Levi Yitzchok.”

Now I understood his thirst for Torah and exceptional countenance.


’d brought along a package of kosher cheese triangles, which I offered to the shochet, a Chabad chassid, who was a pillar of Yiddishkeit in that secret network of determined Yidden. I knew he didn’t have much to eat because he was so careful about kashrus. When he saw the package, his eyes lit up — he hadn’t tasted cheese in years. Then he turned it over and examined the hechsher. “It’s only kosher misha’as asiyah? Not misha’as chalivah [supervised from milking]?” he asked, and he wouldn’t touch it.

I looked through my supplies again and found a bar of Swiss chocolate. The shochet accepted it, smiling from ear to ear. It was certified kosher l’Pesach, misha’as chalivah, and he would save it for Pesach, when there was so little to keep body and soul together.

As we boarded our plane back, a voice came out of the speaker system. “Can Mr. Rosenberg and Dr. Spitzer please identify themselves to a member of staff?”

“Next stop, Siberia,” Yossi said to me, unsure himself if he was joking or afraid. But it was just a British Airways steward who wanted to confirm that our kosher meals were on board. We felt incredible relief. Shortly after takeoff, the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have just left Russian airspace,” was greeted with heartfelt applause through the plane.

Arriving back in London, we were debriefed , and thereafter went to the Gerrer shtibel for the Fifth of Shevat seudah in honor of the Sfas Emes’s yahrzeit. My friends, to whom I could not reveal where I was going, were relieved to see me again, but the leading rav of the town, Rav Chuna Halpern, who was seated at the top table, beckoned me to sit next to him and update him all about how the Yidden of Moscow were faring.


hen Gorbachev’s glasnost policies came into effect, I returned  to the USSR with Yigal Calek and the London School of Jewish Song. During our hectic schedule, we went to visit the sister of Chevron mashgiach Rav Meir Chodosh, who had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain all her life. We walked up to the hospital bed where she lay sick, and she spoke to us in Yiddish. We knew that she had been careful to keep kashrus all her life by not eating meat or poultry. She subsisted on  only fruit and vegetables — not that there was much of that available in Russia. Don’t imagine an overflowing fruit bowl with a variety of nutritious superfoods. Perhaps there were apples and potatoes available, no bananas, barely any citrus. We’d been instructed not to tell her the news that her brother Rav Meir had passed away, so we had to be very careful.

Later in the 1990s, on another choir trip, I took two of my own boys along. We were in the third-largest shul in Europe, the  Grand Choral  Synagogue in Leningrad, on Hoshana Rabbah. An elderly Yid came up to the amud and began Adon Olam in a moving, melancholy  voice. I recognized that he was using a uniquely Galician nusach, a vintage Adon Olam which was sung in Djikov, and couldn’t understand how he came to be here. After davening, I went over and asked this Yid where he was from. I will never forget his sunken face, with its haunting yet vibrant eyes. He replied that he was from “Toornar,” [old Yiddish pronunciation for Tarnov, Poland]. “I came East during the Second World War to run away from the Germans, and then I couldn’t get out,” he said.  That was what the Iron Curtain meant: almost 50 years of imprisonment. He had been trapped in Russia since the 1940s.

On Simchas Torah, they gave my young sons (Sruli and Tooli) a chance to lead a pasuk of Atah Haraisa. Confidently, each read out his pasuk with chassidish pronunciation and the special nusach of Simchas Torah, the way they were used to hearing it in the shtibel at home. An older man present just couldn’t believe that a young child of the 1990s could still say a pasuk with the authentic, traditional nusach. He came up and hugged my son with all his might — and then tenderly handed him a treat, a rather wrinkled apple.

Mr. Doody Rosenberg, a member of the North West London Jewish community, is known for his popular music compositions, initially for the London School of Jewish Song, and later for others, including an album of his own creations. 

Anything for Yiddishkeit

Mrs. Sara Springer
Moscow, 1988


lthough we were nervous, it was clear that the worst years were over — we weren’t threatened, and the seforim, cigarettes, kosher salami, and cheese we brought weren’t confiscated.(When my husband visited Moscow in 1972 for a mathematicians’ conference, he had a Soviet minder practically joined to him at the hip, and had to carefully give him the slip when he gave over some tefillin to contacts provided by the Jewish Agency.)

The refuseniks we met had lost their jobs or their places at university for the crimes of wanting to leave and learning Torah and Ivrit. Desperately poor, they relied on help provided by RRJ and others. We traveled around Moscow to teach, and I remember speaking to one of the ladies about how much I admired their sacrifice for Yiddishkeit. Her unforgettable reply to me was, “Well, once you see the light, you cannot live in darkness.”

There was one couple who had received permission to leave, but there was some conflict between them, because while the wife was very religious and had her heart set on moving to Eretz Yisrael, the husband wanted to settle in Chicago, where he had relatives. I was able to reassure this lady that Chicago had a wonderful Jewish community, and she would be able to have a full Torah life there too. Another family was very regretful that they had pushed their son to apply for a job on the Sputnik program. They had later become religious, but his job would not allow him to leave the country.

We spent Shabbos with the Steingarts, an incredible frum family. Mrs. Steingart excused herself for washing the dishes on Shabbos, explaining that she had asked a sh’eilah and received a psak that she could do the dishes because the apartment was so tiny that things just had to be put away.

Mrs. Steingart showed us the mikveh in the synagogue in Moscow, which was terribly off-putting: ancient and unpleasant and full of slime. Nevertheless, not only did the locals use it, but even Jews from far away towns and villages. She personally knew a family from Vladivostok who traveled into Moscow regularly to use the mikveh — a journey of two or three days each way.

Several women asked if we could send them sheitels from London. It was a privilege to witness what these people did for Yiddishkeit.

Mrs. Sara Springer, formerly of Stamford Hill, London, where she ran the women’s SEED one-to-one program, now resides in Manchester with her husband, Dr. Sholom Springer.

Where They Left Off

Mr. Eli Moore
Moscow and Minsk 1987, 1989
Year: 1987 ,1989


felt like we had everything, because the refusenik community in Moscow had nothing. One refusenik was in an especially tight situation, and Ernie asked us to find out what he needed, so that the next pair of travelers could bring it along. I thought a camera would be a good idea, because that would fetch a good sum on the black market and could support him for a little while.

Yet when we asked this young man, “Tell us, what do you need? What could the next travelers from London bring along to be helpful to you?” he thought a bit, and then said that what he really wanted was a copy of the first page of Sichos Mussar.  That was his request — a missing page of Sichos Mussar.

As photocopying Hebrew seforim was illegal in Russia, his own copy was obtained by taking a photo of each page of an original copy of the sefer and developing it in their own private darkroom. For whatever reason the first page was missing, and his only ‘need’ was to obtain a copy of that page.


were teaching Gemara Shabbos, and each pair would report where they had gotten up to so the next pair could take up where they’d left off. The Russian Jews were avid students and real intellectuals, so you had to know the material extremely well and be prepared for questions. We taught and learned in Hebrew. There were times when it was too risky to give a public shiur, so we taught one-on-one. In one home, I was giving a private shiur when suddenly my chavrusa’s wife, sitting at the side, threw in a question which was exactly what the Gemara asks. “But ‘ein binyan u’stirah bekeilim,’” she said. I was blown away.

That couple shared an apartment with a couple of non-Jewish families. Each lived in one room, and the little kitchen was shared. The kitchen had a gas range with four burners, and the Jewish family had one burner which they carefully kept kosher. That kosher burner was the limit of their cooking facilities. I remember photographing it.


nother photo I have, which many visitors took, was with an elderly man who was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. “USSR is the same gematria as Mitzrayim,” I remember him telling me. One could see him in the shul, but you couldn’t speak freely there, because some of the people dressed as Jews with tallis and tefillin were KGB agents, and anything could get you into trouble.

The second time, I made the trip to visit the community in Minsk. When I got off the plane and entered the terminal, a woman came over to me. “Mr. Moore, this way please.” How did they know? They knew everything.

Mr. Eli Moore lives in Stamford Hill, London, where he is active in both business and Torah learning.

Stuck in Paradise

Rabbi Shlomo Angel
Moscow, 1984


ne of the refuseniks on my memorized list of contacts was actually not a Russian. I met with him, and was shocked to discover that he was actually… American! How did an American become a refusenik in Moscow? His parents were American Jews who were Communists and had moved to the Communist paradise of the USSR by choice. It seemed incredible, but there he was. He had married a Jewish girl in Russia, and they had a child, but by then his ideals had been bruised by the Russian reality, and he’d had enough of paradise. Of course, the Russians wouldn’t let him go. At some point, they allowed him to leave, but alone. Then they eventually agreed he could go with his wife and child. The family packed their life into suitcases and went to the airport in Moscow with their papers. At passport control, they were stopped.

“You cannot leave the USSR.”

“These are our papers. We have permission.”

“These are your papers, but your wife cannot leave. She has worked for a government agency in the past, and does not have security clearance to leave the country.”

The officials were unmovable. In his fury, the poor man tore his Russian passport up in their faces in protest.

Without a passport, he had no rights whatsoever. He couldn’t get any job or any benefits. The couple wasn’t at all religious, but their situation was dire, and Ernie Hirsch’s organization  supported this trapped Jewish family by bringing them items to sell on the black market, to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads.

The couple’s son grew up and got engaged to a Russian Jewish girl. Because of his father’s non-citizen status, they couldn’t marry legally, but an Ohr Somayach rabbi present in Moscow at the time agreed to conduct a chuppah and kiddushin, with a kosher kesubah. His condition was that they first learned some halachah and attended Orthodox pre-wedding instruction. They did, and the studies switched on a light in their minds and lit a fire in their souls. They drank in all they were taught thirstily, and on our visit to Moscow, they were questioning us about how exactly to open an apartment door on Shabbos, as it involved holding a key in reshus harabim and taking it into a reshus hayachid.

Was the heartbreak at the airport Hashem’s way of bringing a family back to mitzvah observance?


spent a Friday night meal together with (Knesset Speaker) Yuli Edelstein and his fiancée, who promptly invited us to their wedding, held just outside Moscow. What a chassan! Yuli was so intelligent that although refuseniks were usually automatically denied admission to university, he got a spot despite his views.

Rabbi Shlomo Angel is mashgiach of Bais Hatalmud Manchester, a senior lecturer at the Bais Soroh Schenirer Seminary, and is a sought-after public speaker.

Letting the Light In

Mr. Tony (Avrohom) Goldstone
Moscow, 1979, 1981


Friday night, we were scheduled to give a shiur at the home of an elderly Jewish woman who lived not far from the hotel. All shiurim had to be given secretly in private homes — it was far too risky to have gatherings in the shuls. We were told that the woman who hosted the shiur had been a newlywed during the purges of the 1930s. The KGB had simply banged on her door in the middle of the night and taken her husband. By the time she reached the door of their apartment, he was gone, and she never saw him again. She had been left with one small child, who grew up and became a refusenik and I think he eventually did get out to Eretz Yisrael.

We arrived in this tiny one-room apartment before Shabbos, my partner Rabbi Joe Freilich and I, and we saw that there were two candlesticks sitting in state on the table, but there were no candles. As the zeman grew closer, we delicately asked her about this. Our hostess responded that she always lit Shabbos candles, but for the past six weeks she hadn’t had enough money to buy candles. “This is the best I can do for kavod Shabbos,” she said. We had some candles with us which we gave her. I will never forget how she cried when she lit them.


had the shiur and the people who gathered in the small apartment listened and probed and asked with incredible honesty. One young man came over to ask us a question. He lived five hours’ walk from this part of Moscow, and he had been told that he could travel on the subway to the Friday night sessions as long as he didn’t carry his ticket. He wanted to know if it was okay for him to put the ticket in a plastic folder, hole-punch the corners, and put a string through them, so he could wear it as a belt.

In the course of our conversation with this Yid, he mentioned that despite his great interest in Yiddishkeit, he doesn’t wear tefillin, because the leather involves cruelty to animals. Rabbi Freilich, who was a self-made kiruv professional and a master of persuasion, spoke to him for a long time and managed to convince him. We sent him tefillin with the next pair who traveled from London to Moscow.

I was asked to learn with a person called Zalman. When I asked what he wanted to learn, he replied, “The fourth perek of Maseches Brachos.” This was a stroke of Hashgacha because it was the perek I was teaching my class in London, in Menorah School, at that time. He told me that he had a photographic memory and I should not repeat anything, because he wanted to maximise every moment to learn all he could. That was a big challenge for me, as a teacher!

Mr. Tony Goldstone is a retired teacher who influenced decades of students in London’s schools.

Dodging the Danger

Mrs. Suzy Goldberg
Moscow, 1979


was just a girl of 19 when I traveled to Moscow, on the first women’s trip from London. I wasn’t giving shiurim, just accompanying Gila R., who was a fantastic educator. My job was usually to figure out which Metro station we needed and how long it would take to get there.

Arriving in Sheremetyevo Airport was horrible. We were closely followed at every step. In our luggage were some boxes of matzos for the locals to use on Pesach, but we had forgotten to cut out the Hebrew lettering of the hechsher. Once the customs officials spied those Hebrew letters, it was like they thought the words were a plot to blow up the Kremlin. They took me into a room, took my luggage apart, and searched me. But when we shared with our Moscow contacts how horribly we had been treated, they indicated that it was totally normal, standard. They could be searched and interrogated like that daily, and it was nothing.

I remember meeting the religious refusenik group’s leader, Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, and being tremendously impressed. He was so gracious and lovely and warm, and so knowledgeable. The commitment that the people had to come to meetings and learn despite the danger stood out. They were hungry for every word of Gila’s Torah teachings, and their enthusiasm lit a fire in her in turn.

Just months later that same year, I went a second time, with Chaya G., who was a very fluent Hebrew speaker. The refuseniks loved Ivrit, having taught themselves some by illegally tuning in to Israeli radio frequencies.

Ernie Hersh not only made sure that each messenger knew where the previous pair had gotten up to in the Gemara shiur and prepared the next section, he also sent people who could contribute in other ways. I persuaded my mother to go along to Moscow, and since she was Israeli, she taught Ivrit. My husband and his brother, who sing beautifully, made a trip together with an emphasis on singing Jewish songs with the group, and that also went down well.

While we were there, we witnessed how little the refuseniks lived with. They shared and offered food and cups of tea, but you knew that if you accepted it, someone else wouldn’t have it.

Mrs. Suzy Goldberg is a mother, grandmother, and shadchante in Hendon, North West London.

Throwback to Spain

Mrs. Judith Weill
Moscow, 1984


couldn’t even tell our children where we were going. The city was dull, gloomy and depressing, yet the experience of meeting the Jews there was a privilege.

I’m a teacher of Jewish History, having studied the subject at London’s University College. My talks in Moscow focused on the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion. I spoke about how the Inquisition called in the children and maids of the “New Christians” to ask whether the parents changed their shirts on Friday afternoon, or kept any other strange customs, and if they did, they accused them of still holding on to Judaism, and forced them to “confess.” As I taught, I looked at the faces around me. It suddenly struck me, and everybody else, that those very same tactics, children informing on parents, interrogation and torture, and sowing of distrust, had been used on these Russian Jews and their parents in earlier decades of Soviet rule. “But this is just like what happened to us!” the students said.


chlepping around on the Metro was exhausting. At one point, sitting next to my husband on the subway train, I fell asleep. Having arrived at our station, he walked off the train, assuming I was following him. I woke up alone on the rattling train, lost underneath Moscow, with no documents and no Russian to speak of. It was terrifying! A kind Russian woman had noticed what had happened. Using hand-motions, she indicated, “Follow me and I will take you to the station where your husband got off.” We got off the train and waited on the opposite platform, then went back to the station where she’d seen my husband disembark. Luckily, we had some kind of understanding that if we got separated, we’d go back to the place we’d last seen each other, and there he was.


here were no modern shops, and the food was paltry. On Friday night, we walked for an hour and a half through the snowy streets of Moscow to get to the family who was hosting Shabbos dinner for a group of Hebrew teachers and us visitors. Hanging on the wall was a picture of a Meah Shearim street. I come from Yerushalayim and it drew my eye immediately. We began to speak about Israel, and the family knew the map of Jerusalem, speaking of its streets and neighborhood with love and longing.  The father asked me to read the parshah with his daughter, which I did, and she read beautifully.

The seudah consisted of a little bit of fish and homemade challah, made with the yeast Ernie had sent with us for this purpose. But the spiritual level of the people — it was magnificent. It was a privilege to be at their Shabbos table.


all spoke Hebrew, which they had learned in any way they could. Messengers from the Jewish Agency and other groups had helped with that, though Ernie’s group may have been the only one who focused on teaching Talmud. Today, we would say that he ran a “virtual yeshivah.” The refuseniks knew about the support and demonstrations in America and Israel and Europe and it gave them courage. They spoke openly in Hebrew, for example, and we all felt that by then the KGB would not do much.

Personally, the trip gave me a boost in bitachon because I had a definite sense that it was much worse to be a Russian non-Jew than a Russian Jew. The Jews had each other, they had support from a global community, and they had religion, while the non-Jew trapped in Russia had… zero.

Mrs. Judith Weill was born in Jerusalem and married a Londoner, where she raised her family. With a master’s degree in hand, she’s taught at various schools and adult education programs. Today she teaches in Israel. 

A Drop in the Ocean

Mrs Linda Goldberg, RN
Moscow, 1987


was 21, single, and just qualified, when Rabbi Moshe Kupetz a”h encouraged me to go to Moscow, suggesting to Ernie that it might be nice for the young Russians to meet a young, single Jewish professional. The refuseniks were initially disappointed, since Dayan Ehrentreu, one of the most distinguished and knowledgeable visitors, was supposed to be their guest that week. But Ernie had rearranged things so that Mrs. Springer and I could go first.

Mrs. Springer gave a shiur to ladies and girls in the little two-and-a-half-room apartment of a woman who had become frum. One woman at the shiur wore a sleeveless blouse, and we could see she felt a bit uncomfortable, but obviously no one said anything about it. Rabbi Kupetz had told me that if we were asked any questions about halachah, we should give the most lenient halachic opinion we knew of. While Mrs. Springer was answering questions, I went into the bedroom to chat with the hostess’s daughter. Suddenly, her mother appeared. She opened the huge, old-fashioned standing wardrobe, and I saw that there were about four articles of clothing hanging there. She took out a long-sleeved blouse, and brought it out to the woman in the sleeveless shirt.

“Here, this is what the visitors from England brought for you,” she said, completely matter-of-factly.


ne evening, I was talking to teenagers and young people whose parents were real Communists, some of them party members or KGB employees. They were third generation Communists; it was so much part of them, almost in their blood. They were arguing with me that life in Russia was really fine — Russia was really a free country, a good place, one could do anything one wanted in Russia, and so on.

I said to them, “In England, I am allowed to shout from the rooftop of my house, I don’t like Maggie Thatcher, Maggie Thatcher is a terrible leader and a waste of time! and the police will not do anything to me. As long as I am not disturbing my neighbors’ peace, I can say what I like about the government, and it isn’t a crime. No one can stop me or limit my speech in any way.”

One young person looked at me and said, “Can you speak a bit quieter, because the neighbors might hear you?”

We all looked at each other and it took a moment for them to realize the irony between the position they were arguing and what they actually felt. For some, it was a turning point. It showed me how difficult it must have been for the refuseniks to free their mindset from Communist thought patterns.


Sunday morning we visited a refusenik cheder. An American rabbi and his wife were visiting too, bringing gifts like radios and cassette players, but the rabbi’s wife wore slacks.

Confused, I said to the cheder leader, “This doesn’t look like an Orthodox rabbi.”

He turned around to me and said, “Oh, I know, but we will be teaching them something this morning.”


were supposed to try and appear to be tourists. On the second to last day, I bought something in the hotel shop — and somehow, they took my credit card out of my wallet. Flustered, I went over to the desk to inquire about it, and suddenly no one seemed to understand English. When I persisted, the security guard came over to me and said, “If I were you, I would leave here and go up to my room now.” I did, and there on my bed were my passport and credit card. It was a scare tactic, but we knew that the very worst that could happen was that we would be deported, nothing more.

Last summer, my husband and I were trying to find the entrance to a park in Netanya when we encountered a frum family and asked directions. I could detect something Russian under the Hebrew, and I had to ask if they were Russian. Yes, they were both from refusenik families who had made aliyah. I told them I had been in Moscow in 1987. Amazingly, the lady was from Moscow, and she had been 14 years old when she came with her mother to Sara Springer’s shiur in that flat. She remembered Sara and me, and we embraced each other. It is a privilege to have been a drop in the ocean of assistance that helped these amazing Jews walk to freedom and Torah life.

Mrs. Linda Goldberg, originally from Leeds, lives in Hendon, North West London, where she is a practicing nurse.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)

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