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Mother Russia's Yeshivah Boys

Aharon Rubin

While the Communist forefathers would have been happy to see Judaism wiped out, Stalin’s Soviet inheritors actually agreed to open a yeshivah just a short walk from Red Square. Under the acute surveillance of the secret police, the yeshivah didn’t attract many students, but one rabbi in Tel Aviv still bears the torch of its short-lived and virtually unknown legacy — and shares what it was like to be a KGB informant in the beis medrash.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

If Joseph Stalin had had his way, Jewish education would have been eradicated — together with the millions he exiled or murdered — in the Soviet Union by the end of the 1930s. He didn’t dream that just four years after his death in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev would agree to the establishment of a little-known yeshivah right in the heart of Moscow.

Khrushchev was no Torah lover of course, but by the mid-1950s the West was accusing Russia of human rights abuses, and Moscow’s chief rabbi, Rav Shlomo Shleifer — one of the few remaining rabbanim who fought valiantly to help retain some semblance of Judaism in Russian towns and cities — had a plan. Soviet law mandated that every registered synagogue have a religious leader, but if there were no educational institutions, Rav Shleifer petitioned, who would train the leaders of the future, given that most religious functionaries were already over 60?

The Soviets, eager to protect their image as a worker’s paradise and allay fears of persecution, actually agreed to Rav Shleifer’s idea: to allow the opening of a yeshivah that would give students a basis in Gemara and halachah, and would train the next generation in the practical aspects of communal functions such as shechitah and milah (both of which were prison-worthy offenses). To appease the authorities, the curriculum would also include mathematics and physics.

Even before the final approval in 1957, Rav Shleifer was already sending out letters all over Russia announcing the good news in an attempt to recruit students to Yeshivas Kol Yaakov, which was to be located in a corner of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. But becoming a talmid in the fledgling yeshivah was no easy feat. Prospective students had to go through the process of receiving coveted and hard-to-come-by resident permits for Moscow, and they had to be vetted by the Soviet Secret Police.

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