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A Lion, Not A Lamb

Binyamin Rose

When Rabbi Moshe Fhima took a three-day trip to Pinsk in 1995, he was a curious yeshivah bochur with less than a bare-bones knowledge of Russian. Now he’s a driving force in his adopted home, utilizing his gift of gab and indefatigable passion to maneuver his way through bureaucracy and mentalities reminiscent of the previous century. The fruits of his work have blossomed along with his own family, as Rabbi Fhima blends his 24/7 outreach machine with a big heart and lion’s courage.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Staring at the walls is usually a telltale sign of boredom, but anyone who gazes at one particular wall in Rabbi Moshe Fhima’s office in the Belarusian city of Pinsk is certain to be captivated.

You might say the wall is Rabbi Fhima’s trophy room, with its display of the wedding pictures of more than forty young couples he paired and marched to the chuppah since arriving in Pinsk, Belarus, ten years ago.

A picture of Rabbi Fhima’s rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel shlita, graces another section of the wall. If Rabbi Fhima ever gets tired — and that’s a big if, because for him, a forty-hour week means it’s only Tuesday — he just needs to glance over his shoulder to recall the mesirus nefesh of the famed Mirrer rosh yeshivah, who battles debilitating illness on a moment-by-moment basis.

“I don’t know anyone who comes close to the physical difficulties the rosh yeshivah has to overcome,” says Rabbi Fhima. “I remember one day when he fell on Malchei Yisrael Street. Instead of returning home to rest, he insisted that he be taken directly to yeshivah because he had a shiur to give. His famous motto is ‘You have to do what you have to do.’ ”

Rabbi Fhima holds the humble title of community leader of Yad Yisroel, a Brooklyn-based organization that the Karlin-Stolin Rebbe of Givat Zev, Israel, established after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Rabbi Fhima is also a congregational rabbi of Beis HaKnesses Beis Aharon V’Yisrael, formerly the center of the Karliner Chassidus before World War II, in Pinsk, and he serves as mara d’asra for the city’s estimated 1,000 Jews. But he has a large reach, one that goes far beyond his titles and runs well beyond the borders of Pinsk.

On an average day, he might receive as many as 200 phone calls and e-mails — that’s about one every thirteen minutes — on matters of importance to the estimated 65,000 members of the Jewish community of Belarus, a land that Rav Chaim Volozhin, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Shach, and the Steipler Gaon once called home.

Almost one-third of Belarusian Jews are senior citizens or single mothers. While it is often difficult enough for people with that status to make ends meet in Western countries, the challenges are multiplied exponentially in a country that is on the verge of becoming Europe’s next economic bailout project. 

The economy of Belarus is so dreadful that the country is printing 100,000-ruble bills worth only $20. Inflation is so wildly out of control that it takes $20 to buy what used to cost just $10 at the start of this year.

Just recently, Rabbi Fhima received 17 million rubles, or about $3,400, to help someone in dire straits. “We got the money in a sack,” he said. “It came in packs of 5,000-ruble bills, and each one is worth about 85 cents.”

Having spent some time with Rabbi Fhima in Pinsk, I couldn’t help but marvel at how self-possessed he is, even though his life’s mission has taken him to a country that can easily discombobulate anyone with even a vestige of Western mentality.

He is equally at home when standing in front of his talmidim — who clearly adore him — and interpreting the words of visitors into fluent Russian; or when greeting visiting VIPs. And he’s especially deft at dealing with the myriad local officials with whom he must maintain cordial relations.

“We are living in a special country where most things are scrutinized,” Rabbi Fhima adds, choosing his words with care. “But when I look up and see this wall of nachas of forty couples, it obligates me to look ahead.”


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