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PROFILE IN COURAGE: The Tzadik of Leningrad

Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan knows the lay of the land in a land where knowing was dangerous. He did what needed to be done even when doing was verboten. A crackerjack on the KGB playing fields, he learned early to tell the good from the bad, to dodge informers and keep one step ahead of the enemy. Today, his years of hard experience in the chokehold of Soviet Russia behind him, he evinces a largeness of spirit and a deep self-knowing. 

At the Bolshaya Bronnaya synagogue, a historic building in a posh Moscow neighborhood, Izzy, as he is affectionately called, is rabbi and mentor to a hodgepodge of seekers. Oligarchs and beggars, students and scholars, atheists and fanatics come looking for him. They seek his guidance, practical and spiritual, because Izzy knows, because he is wise and fearless; because he regards himself with humor, his own needs as banal, but takes seriously the needs of others.

They come too because of the palpable warmth and the natural joy that permeate the walls of this storied building. Built in 1883, it served as a synagogue until 1937, when its rabbi was executed by communists and the synagogue converted into a trade union hall. With the fall of communism in 1991, Izzy took the initiative to have the building transferred by the authorities to Chabad, and then tastefully restored and enlarged.

A failed bomb attack shattered its windows in 1999, and, in 2006, a neo Nazi made his way in, stabbing nine people before Izzy heard the commotion and wrestled him to ground, holding him down until police came. A year later, he was awarded a national prize for his courage. It made him laugh.

My grandfather was killed by the State for baking matzah as a Jew, and I am awarded a prize by the State for saving Jews.

The good vibes that fill the pleasant tobacco and coffee infused air in Bolshaya Bronnaya have less to do with the security protocol now in place than with its bear-of-a-man rabbi whose sturdy presence makes people feel welcome and secure. A kosher rooftop restaurant on the fifth floor draws a diverse patronage. On the ground level, a sanctuary with soaring windows fills up for daily and Shabbat prayer services. Beneath the bima, an escape hatch that was used for Jews in hiding remains intact.

When I visited Russia some months ago, I called asking to interview Izzy. It took several tries to get him to agree. It wasn’t necessary he said. He’d already told his life story in his autobiography published in Hebrew. But the interview was my pretext for talking with Refusenik #53, for getting to know this man whose Jewish selfhood seems to have been seared into his being, whose integrity as a Jew withstood the shifts of time, but never became shifty.

Izzy describes himself as a baal teshuvah, a “returning” Jew who became observant as a refusenik, in part thanks to an early memory that taught him the value of yiddishkeit. In 1950, when he was three years old, his grandfather was taken by the KGB after an informer ratted out that he baked matzah for the community’s Passover needs.

In those years, Jews in Leningrad were terribly persecuted. I don’t have that many memories of my grandfather, but I remember that he used to put Chanukah gelt under my pillow. I also remember my “upshernish” [first haircut at three]. My grandfather showered me with candies because I cried when they cut my braid. 

They took him and interrogated him day after day. This went on for three weeks. One day, someone came to our house and said something to my mother. She fell on the bed. I understood that something terrible happened. My grandfather died in the interrogations. My mother ran to the authorities to get his body released. They told her it would cost her 5,000 ruble. She didn’t have the money. 

As she walked home crying, a Jew met her and asked her how he could help her. She told him “they took my father, I want to save his body.” He gave her the money. Just like that. 

It took her five years to pay him back, and when she finally did, she made a party. 

Izzy remembers his grandfather’s funeral. Specifically, he remembers the rabbi urging his parents to promise to keep a Jewish home, as Izzy’s grandfather did, a promise that wasn’t easy to keep in those circumstances, and too, because Izzy’s father did not have a traditional upbringing. In his book, he describes his parents’ courtship. 

Mother was a law student in Leningrad before the siege [of 1941], and when war broke out, she had the chance to get out of the city, but she refused to leave her family. She was assigned work in the dining room of a factory. One of her jobs was to distribute pieces of bread (during the war, bread was rationed in pieces that were distributed in the workplace). That’s where she met my father. He worked cleaning the factory’s machines.

After the war, his parents wanted to marry, but Izzy’s father did not come from an observant home and was not a practicing Jew, something that she knew her father cared deeply about.

My mother decided that they would not go ahead until her father was consulted. My father came to my grandfather and told him that he’d like to marry his daughter. 

“I have only one daughter, and I yearn for her to have a true Jewish home, a home that is alive with Torah,” my grandfather said.

My father made a promise to him. “Whatever you teach me, I will keep.”

Father-in-law thus became teacher and mentor to his son-in-law, a relationship that was cut short when Izzy’s grandfather died under interrogation.

Trained as an electrical engineer at Leningrad Electrical Engineering Institute, Izzy met Sofa, a young medical student when both were on school break. In 1967, evading authorities, they got married quietly under a chupah, in the home of Izzy’s parents. Izzy aced his exams and landed a relatively good job that came with an apartment, working for the state’s nuclear submarines. When he learned that his work on the Soviet subs was being used to help Arab states fight Israel during the Yom Kippur war, he quit his job and forfeited all its benefits, taking a lesser one in a factory.

In 1972 Izzy and Sofa applied for visas to emigrate to Israel. Two years later, their application was refused.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Being refused meant that we’d be rejected, cut off from the society we had grown up in, where we worked and studied. Friends would distance themselves and we would become outcasts. I knew all along that this might happen, but I was crushed. As I left the government office, I met others who also were rejected. We were a small number of refuseniks but we would become a close-knit group, studying Hebrew together, and supporting one another in different ways. The classes were held in our home—the others were afraid of being caught, but we were young and felt that now that the authorities knew of our desire is to emigrate, we didn’t have much to lose. 

Thus began a period of relentless harassment by the KGB. Izzy was called in for questioning. Because he knew state secrets, he was told, he would never get to leave Russia . . .  unless he cooperated and disclosed information. Izzy kept his silence and evaded arrest. Over a period of 14 years, he and his wife lived dangerously, traveling beneath the radar to help refuseniks like Ida Nudel who was exiled to Siberia, Yosef Mendelovich who served a long prison sentence, and many others in bitter circumstances.

As they continued their fight against Jewish persecution, the couple began as well to live a more examined Jewish life, their desire for physical freedom taking a back seat to their own spiritual exploration. Although stalked at every turn by the authorities, Izzy felt that he could be of more use to Jews if he learned to be a mohel and a shochet. So he sought out the iconic Chabad Chasid, Reb Refael Nemoytin, who became his mentor and teacher, as he and his wife became more observant, drawing others into their circle. 

We still yearned for permission to emigrate to Israel, but it no longer was a priority. Our psychology changed. When our application was rejected we were shocked, and when we finally got permission to leave in 1986, we were conflicted. We were needed here. Leaving the people who stood by us through all our years as refuseniks would be difficult, even painful. I remember a teacher who once said, a tree that has deep roots bears fruit. Why uproot it and move it somewhere else?  And I knew that the Rebbe wanted people of influence to remain in Russia and help the Jews there. So when I got word that I would soon get an exit visa, I wrote to the Rebbe asking if I should leave. His answer was that I should make Aliyah. 

The Kogans arrived in Israel on November 16, 1986. But thoughts of his friends behind the Iron Curtain made his freedom more bitter than sweet, and Izzy felt depressed. Three weeks later he traveled to New York for his first audience with the Rebbe that lasted two hours and ten minutes.

I finally understood that I was operating with an “underground” mentality, as was typical of Jews in Russia, where secrecy was so paramount. My meeting with the Rebbe was my paradigm shift. It was time for me to work in the open on a large scale, which I couldn’t do while in Russia, if I wanted to make an impact. The Rebbe told me to keep my Russian language skills sharp, and make sure that my children learn the language, because in a few years, he said, they will return to their place of birth and work with the Jewish community in Russia. 

In Israel, Izzy enlisted in the IDF, and Sofa opened a thriving dental clinic. Although life took on a semblance of normalcy, the Kogans used their new freedom toward greater activism to help those still suffering in the Soviet Union. In 1990, when Izzy was contacted about helping the children of Chernobyl after the nuclear meltdown, he consulted with the Rebbe, who advised him that decisions concerning Russia must not be made from abroad.

Emotionally difficult though it was, Izzy nevertheless returned to Russia and put his street-smarts to work, negotiating with diplomats and private philanthropists to facilitate the dramatic air-lift of 226 children from the Chernobyl area to Israel. He reached out to Robert Maxwell and Armand Hammer who sent their own aircraft to evacuate the children since Russia refused to provide its own carrier. After several tense days during which the children were kept waiting in the Minsk airport with 400 frustrated parents, they finally arrived in Israel to great fanfare. 

It would be the first of many more rescue missions to save the lives of children exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Eventually, the children were fully integrated into Israeli society, where today, many of them serve in key positions in various spheres of influence. 

Izzy and his wife continued their activism in post-communist Russia, using their knowledge and experience to educate Jews and revive Jewish life there. In 2008, Sofa, his lifelong companion passed away suddenly, leaving him without his helpmate, his partner in the adventure that was their life that hadn’t ended. Izzy writes poignantly of the years of struggle they weathered together, the family they raised, and the loss he sustained in her unexpected passing. 

In our 42 years together, we were motivated by the same impulse, animated by our passion for helping the Jewish people. Sofa was exceptional, a woman of few words, who lived inconspicuously, but with joy and wisdom. Her warmth and kindness enlarged the lives of so many Jews, and also the non-Jews she encountered. She left us all too soon while helping a young mother who came to use the mikvah one evening.  

It is now 25 years since Refusenik #53, today a robust 70 years old, returned to live in Moscow. As the Rebbe foretold, his children and grandchildren live there too, following in his footsteps. I ask this man, a legend in so many ways, how he reconciles his long fight for yiddishkeit in Russia’s changed milieu, when Jews no longer need to fight to be Jewish. He smiles knowingly, the laugh lines around his eyes deepening. 

The Jew is always at war. If someone is in danger but doesn’t know it, they won’t fight for their life. That doesn’t mean that they are ok. It doesn’t mean that they are safe. The Jew is always at war. If not against external threats, then against himself. If we forget that, we lose. 


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