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Fact or Fantasy? Jewish Life in the Former Soviet Union


Bukharan drummers, fireworks and giant sized video screens flashing a specially designed logo with the words, ha-Lev im haShluchim—meaning, “the heart is with the Shluchim,” set the stage for an evening of celebration in Jerusalem’s largest party hall last Thursday evening.

The logo was a pun on the name Lev Leviev—the celebrated guest at this unusual birthday bash, whose heart is decidedly with Chabad’s Shluchim in the FSU. For anyone not in the know, by the time the evening was over, there was no mistaking this diamond magnate’s life-passion: Jewish education for Jews in the FSU, in fulfillment of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s initiative.

In his vision of an anti-semitic, communist regime-turned gentle and supportive of Jewish life, the Rebbe, of blessed memory was alone; the hyperbole of a fantasist, many thought. The fact at the time was, after all, an entrenched communist reality that had persecuted its Jews for seven decades. Facts and figures are hard to argue with.

So the facts and figures presented at this event were absolute jaw droppers: Fourteen thousand Jewish children in any of the 100 schools serving 500 Jewish communities in former soviet countries. They are attending these schools by the choice of their parents who are affiliated with any one of the 350 Jewish institutions and the 300 Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim serving them. They are enjoying a Jewish life experience to rival those offered by any Jewish community in the United States, with state-of-the-art JCCs, Jewish libraries, yeshivas, shuls, kosher eateries, and the support of their local and state governments.

One of the speakers underscored it best in his talk when he quoted Yitzchak Greenbaum, Israel’s first Minister of Interior and also one of the most influential leaders of Israel’s ultra secular Labor movement, who once said, that if upon the fall of the Iron Curtain, there should be a single Jew in Russia willing to identify as Jewish, it will be exclusively and singularly to the credit of one individual: the Lubavitcher Rebbe. 

Add to that the Rebbe’s cadre of Shluchim, who during communism ran clandestine outreach activities, and those who subsequently dedicated themselves to the Rebbe’s fantastic vision.

The elaborate dinner was the highlight of a four-day conference in Jerusalem for Chabad’s Shluchim of the former Soviet Union. 850 guests, including parents of the Shluchim—“home front command” as Mr. Leviev referred to them, participated in this evening of celebration of the changed Jewish reality in the FSU.

Only a few minutes of the five hour-long program were spent on remembering the hardships. But they were enough to underscore the magnitude of the transformation.  Parents recalled the difficult move for their newly married children heading off for a lifetime commitment to places like Novsibirsk, Siberia, where food was scarce, poverty rampant.

Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi and the man at the helm of it all, briefly alluded to those early difficult years. He and his wife and their new baby, sent by the Rebbe during the Gorbachev years, were met by cold, hunger and substandard living conditions. Still, they were fired up in their idealism, and they began to make slow but steady progress.

Then Rabbi Lazar met Mr. Leviev.  And things began to move at breakneck speed in the region. A tearful Mr. Leviev watched a documentary presentation of his Bukharan ancestry, activists in promoting Jewish life and education under communist persecution.

At the end of a lavish dinner, with greetings from Israel’s chief Rabbis, a roll-call that announced representatives of 500 cities in the region, and a shower of blessings and well wishers, Mr. Leviev was humbled, he said, by the privilege to “help out” in the work of the Rebbe’s shluchim and to act upon the Rebbe’s advice, that he carry on the traditions of his ancestors to advance Jewish education. Though he announced several new projects and initiatives, including a pilot program already in effect to offer university students in the FSU the opportunity to study Judaism, he still had a concern: “Are we doing enough?”


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