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Russian Roulette

Alexander Duncan

Rabbi Eliyahu Essas was being chased by the KGB. So were the westerners who supported him undercover. Thirty years later, a reunion between the refusenik leader of the Russian baal teshuvah movement and the unsung heroes who supported him, brings back memories of fear, panic, oppression and intrigue in that dark decade before the collapse of the USSR.

Monday, October 06, 2014

It was 1980, and the Iron Curtain was still sealed shut.Demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jewry were common Sunday affairs among conscientious Western Jews, by both establishment and grassroots organizations, but very few refuseniks — Jews that had applied for exit visas and subsequently lost their jobs and were harassed under threat of imprisonment or worse — actually managed to leave. Yet deep inside the Soviet Union and just a short walk from the Kremlin, Torah was alive and pulsating in the hearts of a few hundred fearless Jews led by Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, a Moscow-based baal teshuvah who managed to create a Torah community under the noses of the KGB. Two thousand miles away in the London suburb of Hendon, a businessman named Mr. Ernie Hirsch — who had never imagined himself more than an armchair activist — was feverishly organizing hundreds of shluchim to teach Torah to these Russian Jews and smuggle in Jewish religious items, under the cover of being unassuming tourists.  The circumstances which brought these two Jewish heroes together is a little-known story of mesirus nefesh.  Following the Six Day War in 1967, young and middle-aged Russian Jews — cut off from their heritage for close to half a century — experienced a spiritual awakening. Beginning in 1971, many applied to leave for Israel. Russian Jewish activists applied pressure inside while Western governments pressured from the outside to relax restrictions on Jewish life and immigration during a period when the Soviets were courting better relations with the West.  Yet the refuseniks could rarely find work, and the KGB bugged their homes and routinely followed them. Refuseniks needed an invitation from abroad to even have a miniscule hope of emigrating, but even if the invitation got past the mail censors, it could take years to process an exit visa.

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