Twice a year, a hunched, old man would make his way over to the Chabad school at 141 Lacplesa Street in Riga, Latvia, and offer Rabbi Mordechai Glazman a small donation. Yitzchok Drizin, a native of Riga, was well into his 90’s and in poor health, and yet he continued to do this each year. Why, Rabbi Glazman would ask him repeatedly, did he have to make the trip? The Rabbi was certainly willing to come by and collect the donation. But the old man stood firm in his practice. “If G-d has kept me alive long enough to see this building go from a place where Jews were slaughtered to a place where Jewish children learn Torah, I must come myself and personally support it,” he insisted. Mr. Drizin, who died last year in Riga, recalled attending the wedding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Warsaw in 1928. His life spanned nearly a century of war and destruction, and ultimately, in his last years, the triumph of Jewish survival in Riga, his native city.
Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, Chabad’s representative to Riga, Latvia, arrived in the city with his wife Rivka in the summer of ‘92, shortly after the fall of communism. Latvia, like all of the member states of the collapsed Soviet Union, was in the midst of a tumultuous transition. Finally having gained its independence after decades of communist rule, the government was just beginning to organize, municipal services were incredibly unreliable, if they existed at all, and basic staples such as baby needs for the Glazman’s infant son, Mendel, were unattainable.
Undeterred, the Glazmans set out building a Jewish infrastructure in a city where absolutely none existed, and where, only several months earlier, talk of it could possibly land you in jail.
Chanukah of ’93, several months after their arrival, the Glazman’s put up a large menorah in the city’s square and waited for the response. “People were just beginning to understand that being Jewish was no longer a federal offense,” recalls the Rabbi. “We weren’t sure how they would take this.”
Over 2000 people showed up at the Menorah lighting–the elderly weeping unabashedly at the sight of Judaism finally out in the open; the younger people staring wide-eyed at the phenomenon of a proud display of their own heritage that they knew nothing about. It was, as they say, an auspicious beginning.
In the ten years since, Chabad of Riga has grown into a city-wide network of institutions providing physical and spiritual nurturing for Riga’s 15,000 Jewish residents. A day center and soup kitchen for the elderly, a kindergarten and day school, summer camps, holiday programs, a recently opened kosher café and Judaica shop, all attest to Riga’s thriving traditional Jewish community. But none, perhaps, proclaim the fact as eloquently as the building at 141 Lacplesa Street, which houses the Chabad School, offices and social hall.
An unassuming four-story brick structure, the building was erected 130 years ago by the Haskalah, the movement for the “enlightenment” and secularization of traditional Judaism, to house a school for young children. The school’s founder, Max Lilienthal, was known to have engaged in fierce debate with the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, over issues of Jewish survival. The Rebbe fought long and hard to stop efforts by the Haskalah and Lilienthal to rid traditional Jews of their Judaism.
The school remained in the building for many years, until the Second World War, when the Nazis arrived in Riga. Ghetto walls were drawn up and 141 Lacplesa Street found itself right inside, the last house within the Ghetto limits. The Jewish police, working in cooperation with the Nazis, took over the building. It was here that Yitzchok Drizin and other survivors clearly remember Jews being shot and murdered, or deported to concentration camps from which most would never return.
After the war, the building was home to a communist school, and, finally, in the summer of 1995, the Latvian government returned the school to the Jewish community, who voted to hand it over to Chabad of Riga’s recently founded day school. “This building has come full circle,” says Mrs. Rivka Glazman, principal of the school. “For those who know its history, this is a poignant testament of the survival of traditional Judaism in Riga.”
Now settled in the building for nearly eight years, Chabad of Riga has just celebrated another milestone in the history of the city’s Jewish development: the completion of a beautiful, modern mikvah in a residential area in the city’s center. Previously, the only mikvah in the city was one built secretly in the basement of a shul run by Lubavitch Chasidim in the 1950’s. Now, with the generous support of the Rohr Family foundation, Mr. Yingy Bistritzky, and Rabbi Yitzchok Raitport, Chabad’s beautiful mikvah is open, and enjoys enough traffic to confirm that traditional Jewish life is flourishing once again in Riga.