“Lehachzir Atara Leyoshna – Bringing Torah to Those Who Suffered Golus …For Us!”: An Interview with Rav Matisyahu Salomon and the Leadership of Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel

 The question was, “Why?”

 

Why did Rav Salomon, a Torah leaderwho has so many responsibilities, deem the work and vibrancy of Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel to be one of his highest priorities? Why, for the past decade, has Rav Salomon agreed to serve as nosi of the Vaad, a very active nesius requiring his constant involvement in the myriad activities of the Vaad and the difficult decisions that must constantly be made?

 

During the Yated’s exclusive interview with Rav Salomon and the leaders of the Vaad this past Taanis Esther, this was the first question we posed.

 

Why the Vaad? Why has the mashgiach devoted so much of his limited time and energy to reach out to the countless Yidden in the FSU who are being impacted by the Vaad’s mosdos?

 

The mashgiach’s response was profoundly simple and profoundly inspiring:

 

“We have a special obligation to the Yidden from the Former Soviet Union. I am often asked, ‘Is there not enough kiruv rechokim to be done here in America that we must travel all the way to Russia to help bring Yiddishkeit to Yidden there?’ I always answer that there is a fundamental difference between Yidden from the FSU and American Jews. Yidden from the FSU were forcibly stripped of their Yiddishkeit. They were not given a chance. They were victims of a gezeiras shmad. Yidden from the FSU never had the opportunity to practice Yiddishkeit. It was taken from them.In America, the Yidden had bechirah and could not withstand the nisayon. Certainly, we must be mekareiv our brethren in America. Nevertheless, we have a special responsibility to those in the Former Soviet Union.

 

“They are crying for help. Yiddishkeit was snatched from them and now they want it back. I think the appropriate slogan to describe our obligation to Russian Jews is ‘Lehachzir atara leyoshna – to reinstate the crown (of Torah) to its status of yesteryear.’”

 

Does that mean that we have a special chiyuv, a special obligation, to bring Yiddishkeit to Jews from the FSU?

 

Rav Salomon: Yes, I think we can say that we have a greater obligation to them. The reason is as follows: The Jews from the FSU suffered a golus on our behalf. I think that it is quite clear that just as in the story of Purim, Achashveirosh made a gezeirah, a decree, to destroy the entire Jewish nation, from which we were ultimately saved, so too, in the case of the Soviet Union, the gezeirah was against the entire Jewish nation. That gezeirah, however, was shouldered by Russian Jewry. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the Hashgachah Elyonah exempted us, the Yidden living in the free world, from that gezeirah. Instead, the poor, beleaguered Yidden of the Soviet Union suffered on our behalf. Therefore, the least we can do to compensate them in some way is to help them reclaim the Yiddishkeit that was so cruelly and viciously torn from them. This is what makes me feel a special responsibility to help bring Yiddishkeit to them.

 

Dr. Rosenshein: Does that mean that when I was growing up and learning how to say Shema Yisroel here in New York, the very fact that I was able to say Shema was in the zechus of the suffering Jews of Russia?

 

Rav Salomon: Yes, but in addition, somehow the zechus of your saying Shema Yisroel also empowered the Yidden in Russia to retain some vestige of Yiddishkeit. That is the nature of arvus, the connection between Jewish neshamos, wherever they are. We are all one, we are all connected.

 

The mashgiach once said, in the name of the Chofetz Chaim, that when the Bolsheviks began to enact decrees prohibiting Torah observance, we really should have waged war against Communism. Can we still do teshuvah by helping the descendents of those who were left to languish under Bolshevik oppression?

 

Rav Salomon: Absolutely! That is exactly what I am saying.

 

Rav Elchonon Wasserman related that when the Bolshevik gezeiros were just starting, he heard directly from the Chofetz Chaim that there are two types of gezeiros to which Yidden are subject. There is a “Purim-type” gezeirah which threatens the physical existence of the Jewish People. What is the antidote to such a gezeirah? We learn from Megillas Esther that the antidote in such a situation is tefillah, to daven just as they did in the time of Mordechai and Esther.

 

The second is a “Chanukah-type” gezeirah, a decree which threatens the spiritual existence of the Jews, such as the gezeirah of Antiochus in the Chanukah story when the motive was not to annihilate us, but rather to strip us of our observance of mitzvos, a gezeirah of shmad. The antidote to such a gezeirah must be akin to the response of Matisyahu Kohein Gadol and his sons – war! We must literally fight a physical battle with the enemy.

 

The Chofetz Chaim continued: “We are responsible to fight, but there are no generals to organize the war!”

 

Therefore, nothing happened and the Jews living under Soviet oppression were brutally stripped of their Yiddishkeit.

 

For this reason, we have an obligation as a community to do teshuvah for that failing, for not fighting and neutralizing the klipah of Communism, a movement that was an open rebellion against Hashem, by helping our brothers and sisters in Russia to access their heritage, a heritage that was stripped from them through no fault of their own.

 

So that is why the mashgiach agreed to become nosi of Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, despite his myriad other obligations?

 

Rav Salomon: Yes. I always felt a sense of achrayus to help Russian Jews, and thus, when I was approached, I felt compelled to accept the nesius.

 

The mashgiach has led numerous chizuk missions to the FSU where he witnessed firsthand the workings of the Vaad’s mosdos, whether in Moscow, Tbilisi, St. Petersburg, Kishinev, Baku, Kuba, Gori or numerous other locales. What was the mashgiach’s impression?

 

Rav Salomon: Wherever I went, I was deeply inspired. Communism wrought tremendous damage, but it was unable to extinguish the eternal neshamah of the Jewish People. The pintele Yid is alive. With just a bit of effort, just a bit more resources, we can accomplish simply amazing things. We have a kabbolah from our gedolim that it is impossible for Yiddishkeit to survive in a place unless Torah is being learned there day and night. The main spiritual influence comes through the full-time learning of Torah.

 

Thus, the primary focus of the Vaad’s work is to provide these Yidden the life-giving elixir of Torah. That is why the Vaad has a kollel in both Tbilisi and Baku, and that is why it is so important to bring Torah chinuch to Russian Jews. Tragically, the kollel in Baku has been temporarily closed for one reason and one reason only: lack of funds. We must find the resources to get the Baku Kollel up and running again. The tremendous hashpa’ah of the kollel on the community was clearly evident. It would be an absolute tragedy if the kollel would be forced to close forever.

 

From the many visits to Russia, has the mashgiach determined that there is fertile ground for Torah growth in the FSU?

 

Rav Salomon: If the Vaad is strong, if we have the resources to set up schools, kehillos and shuls, I see all of the countries in the Former Soviet Union as extremely fertile ground for Torah growth – even more so than America!

 

Why would it be easier to bring Yiddishkeit to a Russian Jew while he is still in Tbilisi, Baku or Moscow than once he is in Brighton Beach, New York?

 

Rav Salomon: It is definitely much easier to connect with them on their own ground. Once they leave Russia and come to the United States or other places, they become too swept up with adjusting to the new culture and it is far harder to reach them. The establishment of the Vaad’s mosdos in the FSU is predicated on that fact. We understand that we must reach them. We must connect and show them the beauty of Yiddishkeit while they are still in Russia, while they are still in a mental state of yishuv hadaas to properly appreciate it.

 

Dr. Rosenshein: When they come to Eretz Yisroel or America as frum Jews, they easily adjust from “frum Jew living in the FSU” to “frum Jew living in Eretz Yisroel or America.” When they come as secular Jews, however, exposing them to Yiddishkeit and a life of mitzvos becomes extremely difficult. Why?

 

Reb Ephraim Hasenfeld: Once they come to western countries, they begin chasing the dollar. In the FSU, they never had a chance to make money. The nisayon, the enticement of wealth, becomes so overwhelmingly great that it excludes everything else. Only if that is banged out of them in Russia, when they are not totally distracted and consumed with making money, do we have a chance to succeed. Therefore, the Vaad’s mosdos are not just a luxury and are not a quaint kiruv effort in Russia. Rather, they serve as the spiritual oxygen of Russian Jewry. The Vaad’s mosdos are literally at the forefront of saving Russian Jewry from spiritual ruin. Kiruv resources are so much better spent when the kiruv is done in Russia. As they say, “You get a much bigger bang for your kiruv buck in Russia than you do here.”

 

Dr. Rosenshein: Those who have not seen the kind of hatzlachah you can have with young Russian Jews there will simply not believe it. I remember going on one the Vaad’s missions and meeting some Russian-born yeshiva bochurim in the Moscow Yeshiva. Two delightful bochurim stand out in my mind. One was a 14-year-old who had been in yeshiva for only 18 months. Already by that time, after only 18 months in yeshiva, he had made a siyum on Maseches Bava Kama, had learned a large section of Maseches Bava Metziah as well as half of the first volume of Mishnah Berurah and he knew it!

 

Some of the Vaad delegates peppered him with questions and, amazingly, he answered every single one correctly. Of course, he was very bright, but in addition to his profound grasp of the material, he also possessed such beautiful Yiddishe chein that one delegate remarked, “I would love to take him home!”

 

The second bochur was 18 and had been learning for only two years. He was a true talmid chochom who looked just like any yeshiva bochur in Lakewood. Questions on the Gemara were fired at him by our rabbonim, and his poise as he answered was amazing. In answering one of the questions, the boy quoted “Rav Chaim.” When asked, “Rav Chaim who?” the bochur looked at the questioner as if he had come from Mars. While clearly thinking, “How could you ask such a question?” he responded, “Rav Chaim Soloveitchik.” He was then asked, “Who was Rav Chaim’s son?” To this he answered, “The Brisker Rov.” “Rav Chaim’s father?” “The Bais Halevi.” The manner in which he answered every question, even using “yeshivishe” terms, conquered the hearts of the assemblage.

 

Clearly, the optimum place for Russian kiruv is on their home turf in the FSU.

 

Rav Salomon: I would like to share something that Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, founder of the yeshiva in Moscow, told me several years ago. He said, “It is a neis and a pele (a miracle and a wonder) that a bochur learning here in Russia progresses and achieves aliyah in Torah and yiras Shomayim in three years, steadily managing to accomplish that which it takes a bochur in Mir or Slabodka 15 years to accomplish!

 

Reb Avi Schron: I became involved with the Vaad after being asked to participate in one of their earlier chizuk missions to the FSU. What can I say? When I saw what they were able to accomplish there, I was amazed. Knowing that these places were once vibrant centers of Yiddishkeit followed by 70 years of ruthless oppression when everything was wiped out, it is even more unbelievable to see the rebirth, the sprouting and the blossoming of Yiddishkeit. Hearing young children daven was so emotionally powerful, it is hard to describe.

 

Let’s take, for example, the Vaad’s mosdos in Tbilisi. In Tbilisi, there is a kollel, wonderful girls’ and boys’ schools, and a ladies’ seminary. These mosdos are vibrant institutions that bring Yiddishkeit to people who otherwise would have nothing.

 

Perhaps the story of Rav Ariel Levin is the most suggestive of what can be done. Rav Ariel is an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in Tbilisi. At the age of 19, he did not even know that there was such a thing as Yom Kippur. He knew that he was Jewish and even remembered his grandmother who spoke Yiddish, but that was it. At 19, he decided to study religion and went to the library, where he asked for a book about religion. He was given a Communist critique against Catholicism. He was used to reading between the lines and learned a few things that further piqued his curiosity. Then he got his hands on a book called The Wars of the Jews, written by a pro-Communist German author. In it he read that Jews during the times of the Romans were moser nefesh not to eat pig. He thought to himself, “If they were willing to give up their lives not to eat pig, the least I can do is stop eating pig.” That was the beginning. Young Ariel Levin ceased eating pork.

 

At that time, in the 1980s, the Communists had closed the borders in Central Russia to emigration, but Georgia was still open. Many Yidden, including Refusnik baalei teshuvah, came to Georgia to try to emigrate. Eventually, through these Jews, Ariel got wind of the fledgling baal teshuvah community in Moscow led by Rav Eliyahu Essas and others. After traveling to Moscow, he clandestinely began learning with the early Vaad shlichim. Eventually, they sent special shlichim to Georgia to learn with him.

 

How did Rav Levin’s kiruv efforts begin? He went to the Ashkenazi shul in Tbilisi where he posted a sign: “Whoever would like to learn how to read Hebrew or about Judaism should please come to Ariel Levin.” Initially, two women responded to the sign. The next time they came, they brought some men with them and, ultimately, approximately fifty people were coming.

 

Rav Ariel used teaching Hebrew as a springboard to teaching Torah. He would ask someone to read the word Avrohom and then explain who Avrohom Avinu was and how he was mekareiv countless people to Torah. He asked them to read the word Esther and then explained who Esther was. And so on. Slowly, over the past 20 years, under his tutelage, the Georgian community in Tbilisi has sprouted from its humble beginnings with barely a minyan in shul to daily minyanim for Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv, as well as hundreds in attendance on Shabbosos.

 

Today, Rav Ariel is the chief rabbi of Georgia. Over the years, he has served as the Vaad’s shliach. Only because of the support and encouragement of the Vaad has he been able to build such a beautiful spiritual edifice.

 

Rav Levin is a native of Tbilisi and he is running the mosdos there. Are all of the Vaad’s shlichim native Russians?

 

Rav Salomon: Yes, absolutely. The optimum way to reach Russian Jews is through interaction with others possessed of the same mentality. Virtually every one of the Vaad’s shlichim began their journey to Yiddishkeit in Russia, continued their learning in Eretz Yisroel where they blossomed into talmidei chachomim, and then returned to Russia under the auspices of the Vaad to lead the mosdos and help their own brothers and sisters experience the same ideal of “ta’amu ure’u ki tov Hashem,” as they did.

 

There are those who argue, “The needs of our mosdos here at home are so pressing. How can we afford to give in Russia?” Does the mashgiach think this argument has merit?

 

Rav Salomon: The question is a legitimate one. Permit me to try addressing it.

 

There is an entire collective family called Klal Yisroel. We are all part of that large family, regardless of where we live geographically. There is also a concept in Chazal and halacha of “aniyei ircha kodmin” – the poor of your own city come first, the institutions in one’s own area come first. That concept, however, is only applicable when, within each area or individual country, there are people who understand their own particular communal needs and are prepared to help their own communities. In the FSU, they do not understand their true spiritual needs, nor do they have the means to provide for those needs. That is why Russia’s spiritual needs fall back on the rest of Klal Yisroel for support. There is no one to support them from within, and therefore, the whole idea of aniyei ircha does not apply. It falls to the rest of the family, the collective body of Klal Yisroel, to support them and help restore to them the Yiddishkeit and Torah that was so cruelly taken away from them.

 

The Vaad will be holding a dinner soon after Pesach celebrating ten years of the mashgiach’s nesius of the Vaad. What is the nature of the fiscal challenges facing the Vaad today?

 

Dr. Rosenshein: The economic downturn over the past years has affected the Vaad most acutely. The primary reason is that people here in America are not aware of the situation and do not understand the nature of what we do. If they would just catch even the tiniest glimpse of the remarkable work and siyata diShmaya that we experience in the spiritual realm, they would run to assist on the material end.

 

What is the material situation?

 

Dr. Rosenshein: What can I say? We are now about nine months behind in paying salaries. If we don’t receive a significant influx of capital, our mosdos will be in danger of closing.

 

To demonstrate the crying need, I will give you an example. We were actively being mekareiv numerous wonderful boyswho were becoming yeshiva bochurim. Without ehrliche girls to marry, however, we could not sustain the Torah revolution. It was clear that we needed a girls’ seminary. Thus, thanks to the magnanimity of the Hasenfeld family and the Knopf/Gutman family, we built a beautiful seminary in Tbilisi affiliated with Yerushalayim’s Neveh Yerushalayim Seminary. Today, that seminary, along with many of our other wonderful mosdos, is threatened with closure. The crisis is perhaps the worst one that we have faced in the two decades that the Vaad is operating mosdos in Russia.

 

In fact, the gravity of the situation is what propelled the mashgiach to accept the honor at this year’s dinner, celebrating his 10 years of the nesius of the Vaad. Instinctively, the mashgiach has an aversion to celebrations of this nature, but to paraphrase the words of Chazal, “It is not “serarah – honor” that the mashgiach is assuming, it is “avdus.” It is the hard, thankless work of sustaining the Vaad’s mosdos and, by extension, one of the prime sources of authentic Yiddishkeit in the FSU.

 

It is absolutely critical that this dinner serve as the vehicle to put the Vaad back on firm financial footing so that we can continue to engage in our lifesaving mission of being “machzir atara leyoshna,’ restoring Russian Jewry to its original greatness as one of the world’s greatest Torah centers.

 

Dr. Rosenshein: I met a bochur this year in Tbilisi who knows the entire Kitzur Shulchan Aruch by heart. Find me one boy in the entire America who knows the entire Kitzur by heart. And this boy’s father? Shall I tell you about his father? The father walks four hours each Shabbos back and forth to shul, because he can’t afford an apartment near where the shul is. Where do you hear such things today? That is why it is unthinkable to let such mosdos flounder.

 

When speaking about Russian Jewry, the mashgiach often talks about the imperative to be machzir atara leyoshna. What does the mashgiach mean?

 

Rav Salomon: When travelling through Russia, one encounters cities and towns with names that represent the great glory of Yiddishkeit, towns which hosted the greatest yeshivos and towns which were home to the greatest Chassidic courts. These towns are not just names. They still have Jews in them. The feeling is that the least we can do for these towns that gave Klal Yisroel so much ruchniyus, towns whose very names have come to represent holiness, is to bring Torah back to them and return them to their former glory – lehachzir atara leyoshna.

 

At this year’s dinner, the Vaad is planning to begin writing a Sefer Torah. This Sefer Torah campaign will be unique, because the Sefer Torah, while being given in honor of ten years of the mashgiach’s nesius of the Vaad, will be dedicated to the memory of the five great progenitors of the Mussar Movement that followed its founding by Rav Yisroel Salanter.

 

Rabbi Heshy Augenbraun: The mashgiach just spoke about how every town in Russia represents one of the great centers of Torah and mussar with which we so identify. As we honor the mashgiach, who himself so represents and personifies the ideals of mussar in our times, we thought, “What better way to honor the masghiach than to dedicate one of each of the Chamishei Chumshei Torah in memory of one of the mussar giants?”

 

Accordingly, each sefer will be dedicated in memory of Rav Yitzchok Blazer (known as Rav Itzele Peturburger), Rav Naftoli Amsterdam, the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Slabodka (Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel) and the Alter of Novardok (Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz), respectively. All of the cities where these great baalei mussar were active are in what is today the Former Soviet Union.

 

What greater way to perpetuate the ideals of the Vaad and honor the mashgiach than this historic milestone Sefer Torah campaign?

 

***

 

HISTORY OF THE VAAD

 

The idea to found Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisrael arose in 1976 when Rabbi and Mrs. Mordechai Neustadt visited the Soviet Union. During that trip, they smuggled tashmishei kedushah to Russian Jews. The inspiration that Rabbi Neustadt derived from that trip served as the seed that eventually sprouted into the idea to send organized groups of Jews to bring spiritual nourishment to those stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

 

1981: At the behest of Rabbi Neustadt, four shlichim were clandestinely dispatched to Russia. They met with young Jews in Moscow, Minsk, Vilna and Riga and began to teach the first baalei teshuvah in the young, fledgling and absolutely illegal baal teshuvah movement on Soviet soil. In those days, innovative methods of smuggling in seforim and tashmishei kedushah had to be utilized. Seforim were generally photographed, and then the pictures were brought in and secretly distributed to the growing network of young Jewish men who wished to learn about their religion.

 

1982: The first secret “Dacha Seminar” took place in Latvia. In addition, the shlichim expanded their activities to include Leningrad and Kiev.

 

1983: The Vaad began conducting a clandestine summer camp in Yurmula while further expanding their activities to East Berlin. That year, 18 shlichim arrived.

 

During those years, the shlichim would come and simply continue learning with the Russian baalei teshuvah from where the previous shlichim had left off. Their thirst for learning was practically insatiable.

 

Throughout the 1980s, more and more shlichim journeyed to Communist Russia as an increasing number of seminars were held. All of this action was taking place under the watchful eye of the KGB. By 1990, when Communism was in its death throes, 128 shlichim went. In 1991, the number was up to 206. Those two years saw an explosion in the Vaad’s operation. It was then that the Tbilisi Yeshiva opened, as did two girls’ seminaries, one in Moscow and one in Kishinev.

 

In the early 1990s, the Vaad expanded even more. It began to organize tours led by Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rav Feivel Cohen and the Novominsker Rebbe, among others. Towards the end of the 1990s, Rav Matisyahu Salomon became heavily involved in the Vaad’s activities. In 1999, he led the chizuk mission to all of the Vaad’s myriad institutions and, in the ensuing years, he led numerous more such chizuk missions. Recently, chizuk missions have been led by Rav Avrohom Schorr, Rav Moshe Scheinerman and Rav Moshe Tuvia Lieff.

 

About ten years ago, Rav Matisyahu Salomon assumed the nesius of the Vaad. Under his leadership, the Vaad embarked on an even more active platform of operations. Yeshivos and kollelim and a seminarywere founded. The Vaad has grown from a seedling planted in one man’s mind to a full-blown organization at the forefront of the renewal of communal Jewish life throughout many communities of the Former Soviet Union.