A SHUL – AGAINST ALL ODDS!
March 29, 2016
Menachem Ziegelboim in #1015, Georgia, History

Shuls always held a central place within Jewish communities, whether in European countries, African countries, the Middle East, ancient Babylon or modern New York. Not for naught were shuls called miniature sanctuaries, for in shuls, the Jewish people found consolation when there was no place to encounter the Creator face to face and offer sacrifices. This is the reason why shuls are looked upon with respect and their holiness is treasured

The following story illustrates how precious shuls are to the Jews.

PART I

The communist regime rose to power in Russia after a bloody civil war between the Whites and the Reds that lasted three years. It did not immediately oppose religion. At first they announced the separation between religion and the state and made religion the private business of individual citizens.

However, the communist party considered religion primitive and something to oppose. In the first stage, they promoted anti-religious propaganda in the newspapers and youth clubs, and wherever else they could. The communist party line went something like this: The old world is gone, religion is primitive, and we are building something new.

Right away, in the first year of power, the communist party set up a Jewish department called the Yevsektzia. Its main function was to promote the importance of the communist party and its heretical views among Jews. It was in effect anti-religious propaganda. The Yevsekim, even more than the communists themselves, began viciously persecuting anything connected with Judaism, as though to purge themselves of any religious connection whatsoever.

Within a short time, shuls were shut down, mikvaos were destroyed, and Jewish schools were shut down. Rabbanim, mohalim, shochtim, and scribes were persecuted, arrested, and sent to Siberia. Sometimes they were even executed.

PART II

It wasn’t only in central Russia that Jews were persecuted, but also those living in distant sections of the Soviet Union such as Uzbekistan, Georgia and other parts of the Soviet Union. The Chassid, R’ Nachum Shmarya Sasonkin was the rav of the city Batum in Georgia at that time. He was sent there by the Rebbe Rayatz. R’ Sasonkin served as rav in Batum from 5683-5688.

He was there when the communists closed the big beautiful shul that served the Jews of the city for many years. They didn’t just close the shul but turned it into a club. They left just a small section at the rear of the building as an apartment for the shamash.

About two years after the authorities closed the shul, an electrifying event occurred in a far-flung Georgian town that had ramifications for all the shuls in Georgia. This is what happened:

There was a town in Georgia called Oni which is not far from Kutais. The road that led there was difficult and dangerous. At a certain point, travelers had to pass through a narrow path that was suspended over a deep and terrifying abyss. This is why very few went or left the town and those that ventured forth only did so because they had to, for otherwise, who would put his life in danger unnecessarily?

There was a community of simple, goodhearted Jews who lived in Oni and they had a beautiful shul and many sefarim. They had whatever they needed thanks to the spiritual leaders – the chacham, the shochet, melamdim for the children and maggidei shiurim. They were simple but very sincere when it came to religious observance.

They were so far from the people in larger cities that news of the closing of shuls in Georgia only reached them two years later.

PART III

Then came the order from the communist regime to close the one shul in Oni. The communists also ordered to confiscate the sifrei Torah and holy books and bring them to a museum while the shul building was to be turned into a youth club.

Although the Jews were simple, gentle people, they were horrified to hear that the holy house of G-d that had been their second home, would be transformed into a secular place. They decided that this would never happen and the shul would not be closed.

On the appointed day for the shul’s closing, no Jews went to work. All the Jewish residents gathered around the shul and when the soldiers came with their studded boots to close it, they rose as one and did not allow them to do their work. They stood in the doorway like a wall and did not allow the soldiers to approach the shul.

The soldiers were astonished. They never imagined that there were people who would dare oppose a decree of the ruling party, and in such an open and brazen manner, no less.

Word of the opposition reached the head of the local branch of the party and he decided that this would be shameful for the party; that they had closed shuls throughout the country, in cities large and small, and only in this forsaken place they could not carry out their wishes. The people’s opposition angered him and he decided to deal forcefully with the Jews.

One morning, a battalion of soldiers, tall and stony faced, arrived in the town. They began shooting into the air in every direction in order to frighten the people and dissolve any organized opposition. Then the soldiers angrily burst into the shul, threatening with their weapons anyone who tried to oppose them.

At first, the Jews tried to fight and protect their treasure, the shul. In anger and pain they grasped the Aron Kodesh, they caressed the furnishings, but the soldiers were stronger and they forcibly dispersed the Jews.

Their cries rose to heaven. They pleaded that this terrible thing not be perpetrated. With great cruelty, the soldiers removed all the sifrei Torah and other sefarim in the shul and threw them disgracefully into trucks that stood waiting nearby. They closed the doors of the shul and sealed them with the official seal.

PART IV

The Jews of the town did not remain idle. They sent messengers to Moscow with the request that the shul be restored to them. The Jewish community in Moscow helped them hire a top lawyer and he is the one who met with President Kalinin. The lawyer told him that if word got out to the rest of the world, it would create a storm of protest and this would be humiliating to the Soviet government.

Kalinin took this seriously, especially when they pointed out to him that this was not an isolated case in Georgia. There was an uproar in the Kremlin and they decided to send the president to Georgia to see the situation in person.

Upon arriving there, he rebuked the local authorities for the shameful incident and ordered that all the shuls that had been closed in Georgia be reopened. He further chastised the government officials when he said, “We only close shuls when people stop using them but we don’t forcibly close them!”

And that is how, thanks to a handful of simple Jews in a small, forsaken Jewish community, all the shuls in Georgia were reopened, including the big shul in Batum. One fine day, the authorities called for the gabbai of the shul and gave him the keys for the building that had been locked.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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