The visit began at the Lauder-Etz Chaim Community Day School, which was founded by Operation Open Curtain in 1989 with 14 children. Over the past decades, this school has grown to over 300 children and boasts three locations in Moscow, as well as a separate cheder and Bais Yaakov system for the frum families.
The delegation heard from two boys, Syema and Sasha, both born to non-religious parents. Today, they are regular Shabbos guests at the homes of kollel families and they aspire to continue studying in a Jewish school after they graduate.
The rov, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, reminded the guests of the constant struggle the staff faces in trying to invest as much Yiddishkeit as possible in the rigid curriculum and timetable required by the Russian Board of Education for a registered educational institution. “Three religious schools have lost their license in the past two years. Sadly, one of them was a large Jewish school. With tremendous Hashgachah and the perseverance of the staff, our school continues to grow.”
The highlight of the day was a gala dinner in honor of 25 years of cooperation between Operation Open Curtain and the Moscow Jewish community. Rabbonim and leaders of the local kehillos, including Reb Yaakov Soskin, rosh hakahal of the Moscow Jewish community; Mr. Yuri Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress; and Mr. Daniel Males, president of KEROOR, an umbrella organization representing dozens of rabbonim and kehillos across the Russian federation, joined the event.
Rav Goldschmidt, who also serves as the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, hosted the event at the Zacharyaev Hall of the Archipova Choral shul. It was in this shul that even under the most trying times, stubborn Yidden continued to serve Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The kol Torah utefillah has not ceased for even one day since it was built over 100 years ago. Today, there are two kollelim and 4 daily minyanim there.
One of the delegation members, Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel, addressed the gathering. Rabbi Mandel is the head of the Shema Yisroel school network, connecting fourteen day schools across Eastern Europe, including Moscow’s Etz Chaim Day School. Rabbi Mandel brought greetings as well from Mr. Albert Reichmann, who has dedicated time, effort and funding to this network since its inception through the Canadian Foundation for Education and Welfare in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).
On behalf of the Canadian foundation and Operation Open Curtain, Rabbi Mandel presented Rav Goldschmidt with a unique gift: a rare original letter written by the former rov of Moscow, Rav Chaim Berlin zt”l, asking the local Moscow rabbonim to approach Baron Ginzberg and other Moscow philanthropists to help fund the new Etz Chaim cheder in Yerushalayim that had just then moved out of the old city walls.
“Rabbi Goldschmidt’s aspiration since he came here is to build Yiddishkeit in Moscow, to build schools, yeshivos, kollelim, mikvaos and communities. To build a Torah infrastructure rivaling that of big European and American kehillos. With siyata diShmaya, he has succeeded beyond even his own expectations. There are now rabbonim in dozens of cities across Russia. Rabbi Goldschmidt has also become the one who has been mechanech an entire generation of Moscow baalei batim to become active Torah supporters on a huge level, even supporting yungeleit and Torah mosdos far from Moscow. From this letter of Rav Chaim Berlin zt”l, we see that this is merely history repeating itself, and once again, as it was with Baron Ginzberg and his generation, Moscow has become a true ihr v’eim beYisroel, a place thriving in Yiddishkeit and exporting Yiddishkeit and tzedakah to other kehillos.”
The highlight of the evening was the presentation of Yoreh Yoreh semichah from Rav Goldschmidt and his bais din to five outstanding avreichim of the Moscow Community Kollel, all of whom have already previously been tested by gedolei haposkim in Eretz Yisroel.
In a show of confidence to the mara d’asra and the rosh kollel, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky added his name to the semichah.
After the semichos were presented, Reb Reuven Dessler, founder and head of Operation Open Curtain, related an emotional story.
“17 years ago, there was a severe shortage of funds and we went to consult with the Rav Elya Sveizt”l,” related Reb Reuven. “We can no longer support a day school, a yeshiva, a kollel and a day camp. We just simply do not have the resources, we said. What should we do? The rosh yeshiva weighed the question and told me that although every one of the projects was dinei nefashos, if there was no way to continue with all of them, then we would have to close the day camp and focus on the remaining mosdos.”
Rabbi Harry Mayer of Open Curtain was making a wedding the following week. The simcha would be attended by all the baalei batim of Open Curtain as well as Rav Elya, and it was decided that at the wedding they would hold a short meeting, where Mr. Dessler would inform them of the rosh yeshiva’s decision.
At that wedding, Rebbetzin Goldschmidt of Moscow brought a young boy named Dima Lagunov to meet the rosh yeshiva. This boy had just had his bar mitzvah in Moscow and was spending the summer in a frum camp in America. In order to attend the Etz Chaim School, he had to travel over an hour two times each day, and he spent every Shabbos in the Goldschmidt home. Although he had been in the school only a short period of time, he had already advanced to very high levels in limud haTorah and shemiras hamitzvos.
The rosh yeshiva asked the boy, “How did you end up in a Jewish school?”
Dima told the rosh yeshiva that he had attended the Operation Open Curtain summer camp and it was there that he made the decision that he wanted a Jewish education.
Rav Elya turned to Mr. Dessler and said, “About that question you asked me last week, here is your answer…”
Reb Reuven became visibly emotional as he continued: “Rabbosai, we never did close the camp, but that is only the first part of the story. Dima continued to achieve new heights, eventually spending over ten years in yeshivos in America and Eretz Yisroel, including six years at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood. Two years ago, we asked Dima – now Reb Dovid – to return to Moscow with his wife and children. Today, Reb Dovid is teaching young boys in the Etz Chaim School, and young students and baalei batim in the Ohaley Yaakov Kollel, while continuing to shteig in his own limud haTorah. Tonight he is one of the outstanding yungeleit to be presented with semichah from the Moscow Bais Din, the rosh kollel, Rav Yosef Kamenetsky, and the gadol hador, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky.”
FRIDAY IN MOSCOW AND SHABBOS IN KOLOMINA
On Friday morning, Rav Kamenetsky davened in the Ohaley Yaakov Kollel.
The kollel, now entering its tenth year, has become the leading center of limud haTorah in the city. The avreichim are talmidei chachomim, graduates of leading yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel and the United States. Some, like Reb David Lagunov, were born in the former Soviet Union and returned to give back to the very community that gave them their own Yiddishkeit.
Ohaley Yaakov is also involved in kiruv across the city. Together with its partner, Torah Mitzion, the yungeleit teach hundreds of students each week as part of the Lev Yehudi STARS program. Each Shabbos, dozens of these students grace the avreichim’s Shabbos tables as each week they take one more step towards becoming full-fledged shomrei Shabbos. This year alone, five talmidim went on to learn in yeshivos and seminaries.
At the Eitz Chaim Day School, the kollel avreichim run the daily minyan as well as the Sulam Yaakov daily chavrusah program. As a result of this successful project and with the help of Rabbi Moshe David Perlstein and Rabbi Shlomo Avraham Stein, two talmidim were able to attended Camp Ruach Chaim in the United States. (Both of them had attended summer camps in the 1990s in the former Soviet Union. In fact, as a young bochur, Rabbi Stein was a counselor in the Etz Chaim summer camp and one of his campers was Dima – Dovid Lagunov.)
The kollel was also instrumental in establishing three new kehillos across the city, including the Beis Ahron community, where former avreich Rav Levi Yitzchok Sphendik serves as rov.
After davening, the rosh yeshiva presented seven pairs of tefillin to Mikhoel Faradzev. During one of the rosh yeshiva’s visits years ago, Reb Mendy Klein, the well-known baal tzedakah, presented a challenge: “Find me boys who are committed to putting on tefillin daily and I will sponsor those tefillin.”
Six years ago, Mikhoel was one of those recipients. Today, besides putting on tefillin each day, he has become shomer Torah umitzvos and is himself gathering dozens of his friends to attend daily or weekly Torah classes in the kollel. Now, seven of those friends have agreed to accept upon themselves to wear tefillin daily.
On Friday afternoon, the rosh yeshiva went together with a small group to view the seforim of the famous Schneerson Collection. As is well-known, the Communist regime confiscated the seforim of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayat”z, Rav Yosef Yitzchok Shneerson zt”l, and it has been the subject of fierce debate for the past decades, as Chabad has demanded that the Russian government return these seforim.
Last year, President Vladimir Putin ordered part of this library to be housed in the new Chabad Jewish museum in Moscow as a solution to the ongoing debate.
As Muscovites traditionally spend the summer weekends in dacha, traffic on Fridays out of the city is always terrible. So as not to get stuck in this traffic, the local community organized a private car in one of the Russian regional trains for the rosh yeshiva and the delegation.
In a show of kavod to the rosh yeshiva, the non-Jewish director of the train station arranged for heavy security from his arrival at the train station and throughout the trip, until Kolomina.
In this very station just a few short years ago, KGB agents were everywhere and Jews shuddered in fear as they walked its platforms and rode the trains. Now, with thousands of people around and surrounded by burly guards, the delegation proudly walked the platform onto the rail car.
As I walked towards the train, I was reminded of a story. The rosh kollel, Rav Yosef Kamenetsky, is a grandson of Rav Dovid Lifshutz zt”l, the rov of Suvalk. During the war, the Suvalker Rov was escaping through Moscow to the East. While in Moscow, their young daughter contracted an illness and was placed in quarantine. Finally, after two weeks, they were released and allowed to continue their travel on what was to be practically the last train leaving the war zone. The train stopped several times before finally leaving the city eastward.
Rav Yosef’s mother, Rebbetzin Kamenetsky (wife of Rav Nosson Kamenetsky, brother of Rav Shmuel), told her son that she has two strong memories from that trip.
First, since it was Pesach, the Chabad chassidim placed matzos on the train platforms and the fleeing Yidden ran off the train, as it stopped for a few minutes, and grabbed some matzah for the way.
The second memory was that at each stop in Moscow, her father, the Suvalker Rov, commanded her to “zog Shema Yisroel – recite Shema.” Of course, she abided.
At the last stop in the city, her father again said, “Zog noch amol Shema Yisroel – Say Shema again.” She complied. Her father then said, “The entire region is in flames and Yiddishkeit is being eradicated on this continent. The Nazis, yemach shemom, are burning our bodies and the Communists are burning our souls. I wanted you to say Shema Yisroel because who knows if there will be another Jewish child ever in Moscow who will recite those words!”
Now, her grandson, the rosh kollel, was walking on that same platform, surrounded by his kollel avreichim, members of his community. Back in the city today, there is not only one more child who says Shema Yisroel, but hundreds of Yiddishe kinder who say Shema Yisroel daily and sing words of Torah as a new generation of shomrei Torah umitzvos lights up the city.
SHABBOS WITH THE ROSH YESHIVA
Shabbos in camp with the rosh yeshiva is always memorable. This year, we decided to run a full Shabbaton for a group of local young professionals and students.
During the Friday night meal, one of the local baalei batim, Shimshon, was introduced. Just a few short years ago, Shimshon was very far from limud haTorah and shmiras hamitzvos. As he says in his own words, “As Georgian Jews, of course we were frum. We just thought that having a Pesach Seder and driving occasionally to shul for Kabbolas Shabbos was being ‘frum.’”
At this meal, surrounded by the rosh yeshiva and the Open Curtain delegation, as well as a dozen of his friends, Shimshon was mesayeim Maseches Makkos.
One of the avreichim related, “Boruch Hashem, we have hundreds of people coming weekly to the bais medrash for tefillos and shiurim, but tonight’s siyum represents an entirely new level, a baal habayis who has become a real ben Torah, who realizes that until he has sat and focused and concentrated uninterrupted to grasp an entire sugya, until he has ‘horoved’ over a Rashba, he has not really tasted yegias haTorah.”
And Shimshon is not alone. This is the fifth siyum this year celebrated by baalei batim of the Ohaley Yaakov Kollel community.
On Shabbos morning, the rosh yeshiva delivered an in-depth shiur to the local baalei batim on the topic of Birchas HaTorah. The rosh yeshiva explained in the name of the Levush that Birchas HaTorah is a Birchas Hanehenin. With this, the rosh yeshiva explained how it is that the Shulchan Aruch paskens that women can recite Birchas HaTorah,even though his shitah regarding mitzvas asei shehazeman grama is that women cannot make a brachah.
“As you strengthen your own Yiddishkeit on all levels, make sure to be koveia ittim laTorah. If at first it is difficult, keep persevering, and then I guarantee that with time, you will taste the mesikus haTorah and reach the level where the brachah on Torah for you truly becomes a birchas hanehenin.”
On Shabbos afternoon, we held a panel discussion with Mr. Gary Torgow, Mr. Jordan Slone and Mr. Jerry Wolavsky. It was a real eye-opener for the local businessmen to meet people whose lives in so many ways parallel their own. Each of them related how they continue to grow in their own Yiddishkeit and are living examples of how this does not at all affect their abilities and opportunities to be successful in business.
To questions such as, “How do you explain Shabbos to your partners and clients?” each one responded that their partners are actually envious of their opportunity to be able to shut off once a week and recharge their spiritual and emotional batteries, something that they could never do.
Shimshon, the mesayeim from the night before, asked the following question: “You all explained how the most important parts of your lives are Shabbos, minyan and limud haTorah. You have told us stories of how you were unwilling to compromise on those principles even when it seemed that you would suffer great losses. It is also clear that each one of you are, bli ayin hara, very successful and have amassed a significant fortune. Why, then, don’t you leave your businesses, retire, join a kollel and dedicate the rest of your life to limud haTorah?”
This question comes from a person who three years ago thought that religious Jews who keep Shabbos are fanatics.
No less inspiring was Mr. Slone’s response: “Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave each person talents that we are to channel towards avodas Hashem. Here in Moscow, you have kollel avreichim and teachers of Torah who are using their talents in that way. To us, Hashem gave different talents, an ability to be successful in business and to make money. This also is not for ourselves, but to be used to be mekadeish sheim Shomayim. Each one of us, whether in Norfolk, Virginia, Baltimore, Maryland, or Detroit, Michigan, feels this achrayus and does what we can to support Torah institutions in our communities and to help Yidden and mosdos in Eretz Yisroel, Russia and beyond.
“We don’t have another choice. That is why Hashem gave us this hatzlachah. To stop doing that would be a misuse of our kochos and not what the Ribono Shel Olam wants from us at this point. Of course we need to daven with a minyan, we need to be koveia ittim laTorah as the rosh yeshiva said this morning, but we need to continue doing what we do to bring to a kiddush sheim Shomayim using the talents and capabilities that Hashem gave us.”
It is now Sunday morning. The delegation is loading their suitcases onto the bus heading to the airport for the trip back to New York.
The avreichim are also getting onto buses, heading back to their homes in Moscow.
Today is another day. Talmidim are coming to the kollel minyan for davening. Tonight they will gather for a shiur. Shimshon is opening daf bais in a new masechta. Final preparations are being completed for the all-new mesivta to open its doors, and new avreichim and cheder rabbeim need to be settled as they make the move to Moscow, joining in the avodas hakodesh in the city.
It is the rosh yeshiva’s brachos and chizuk that help us all as we prepare for the coming year, haba aleinu letovah.