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Trailblazer through the Sunshine State

Binyamin Rose, Miami Beach, FL

How did a Russian yungerman who barely spoke English, and who arrived in Florida when a good part of state was undeveloped swampland and inhospitable to Jews, play such a pivotal role in introducing Orthodox Jewish life from Tallahassee to Key West and more than 100 points in between?

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A generation ago, Rabbi Avrohom Korf would have been afraid to relate the personal story of his “great escape” fromEurope.

Now that the hammer and sickle of Communism is no longer an oppressive force over the Jewish People, he feels free to divest himself of the painful details.

Rabbi Korf doesn’t quite fill up his oversized office chair at the Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Miami but his presence looms large in the room. It is late afternoon inMiami Beach,Florida. The climate here is vastly different, in many ways, from that of his birthplace 6,000 miles away inKharkov,Ukraine.

No air conditioners were running in the cattle car that he was crammed into in 1941 as an eight-year-old boy, together with his parents, two brothers, and a sister. Despite the intolerable conditions, the Korfs knew how fortunate they were to be stuffed in alongside hundreds of Jews on what might have been the last train transporting them to freedom from Nazi invaders, and eventually, Soviet tyranny.

The Korfs switched trains several times on a monthlong journey that passed through Posen,Tashkent, and other stops before arriving inSamarkand,Uzbekistan, whose neighbors today includeAfghanistanandIran.

“The hardest part for me was the hunger,” says Rabbi Korf. “I experienced real hunger for a couple of years. I saw people dying in the streets.”

Eking out even a meager living to afford the basics was a struggle. Rabbi Korf’s father relocated the family to Fergana, another city in this remote section of the Soviet Union. The family prevailed through years of physical deprivation, while making certain to nurture their spiritual sides, giving them the strength to survive the ravages of World War II. Rabbi Korf’s father, a talmid of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, taught in a yeshivah for Jewish refugees, despite the risks entailed in disseminating Torah in an atheistic, Communist state. “Russia was so busy with the war, they didn’t have time to run after us,” says Rabbi Korf.

Perhaps it was maaseh avos siman l’banim (like father, like son), but some 15 years later, it was the younger Rabbi Korf, himself a talmid of the most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, who made his way to sunny Florida at the Rebbe’s behest, to become Florida’s pioneering Chabad shaliach.

In the early 1960s, South Florida didn’t have much more Yiddishkeit than Uzbekistan. It was no small feat for Rabbi Korf and his wife Rivka (née Eichenbaum) to uproot themselves from CrownHeightsto Evergladescountry. Floridaonly had three synagogues. Chalav Yisrael milk was no problem — as long as you actually watched the cow being milked — which the Korfs did.

Today, more than 50 years later, Rabbi Korf presides over more than 200 shluchim (couples and families) inFlorida, and supervises 225 Chabad-Lubavitch institutions, including Chabad Houses, preschools, and some 20 day schools and yeshivos throughoutFlorida.

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