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The Tree of Life Grows in Moscow

Yisroel Besser

When Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt and his wife, Dara, set out for a one-year trial in Moscow’s rabbinate, they saw it as an adventure. Born in Switzerland, educated in Bnei Brak, beneficiary of Telsher reservoirs and Rabbi Naftali Neuberger’s diplomatic savvy, Rabbi Goldschmidt brought a unique skill set to Russia. Years later, he sees Moscow as home. And the dry bark of a ravaged nation — so deprived that, of a million Jews, just a minyan knew alef beis — has blossomed with a forest of new saplings.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

rav Childhood experiences and teenage encounters often form a chain, leading a person to his destiny. Such has been the case with Moscow’s chief rabbi.

Pinchas Goldschmidt was eight years old when he first heard of Moscow. A neighbor with a television set invited a few families to watch “secret footage” of Chazan Alexandrovich sing from behind the Iron Curtain. The young Pinchas was mesmerized by the haunting medley, the song of a trapped people rising forth from between the stately pillars of Moscow’s Archipova Synagogue.

Much later, armed with little more than optimism, energy, and a supportive wife, he would release the chazzan’s song, building a kehillah for Soviet Jewry that would ring out throughout the world.

 

A Person Can Adapt

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt has executive qualities. An impeccably dressed, placid man who chooses his words carefully, he is also an expert listener, one of those people who seem to grasp immediately whatever he’s told.

He was born into Zurich’s I.R.G. kehillah, an old-school German-Jewish community similar to the one found in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. His own home, however, was a place where many forces and streams converged.

His paternal grandmother was a daughter of Rav Tuvia Lewenstein, the community’s rav. Rav Lewenstein had previously founded the Torah community in Copenhagen, but left the chief rabbinate of Denmark because he refused to recognize lenient conversions. Reb Tuvia’s daughter married Yaakov Goldschmidt, and they eventually settled in French Switzerland, opening a kosher hotel in Montreux.

Meanwhile, a Schwartz family from Austria emigrated to Switzerland before the anschluss. Mrs. Schwartz was the daughter of Rav Pinchas Breuer, the dayan of Vienna’s famed Schiff Shul. Liesbeth Schwartz, a daughter, married Shloime Goldschmidt.  Their oldest son, Pinchas Goldschmidt, attended the local day school.

“I was a trouble-maker,” laughs Rabbi Goldschmidt. “They suggested that maybe I could do better elsewhere.” He pauses. “My father was on the school’s board of directors. If they sent me away, I must have really deserved it.”

At the ripe old age of 11, the Swiss boy was sent to Eretz Yisrael and enrolled in Tel Aviv’s Yesodei HaTorah. But where would he live?

“My parents put an advertisement in Hamodia and the Ben-Shalom family responded. Rav Yisrael Ben-Shalom was a rosh yeshivah at Ponovezh and his rebbetzin was a granddaughter of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. With time, they became my role models. I felt part of the family. But it wasn’t easy to go from a privileged Swiss childhood to the material lack of Bnei Brak. I learned that a person can adapt, can feel at home, anywhere.

 

 

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