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Tuesday
Apr122016

AN ENGINEER OF TORAH

At the height of the High Holiday season, the venerable Chassid Rabbi Gershon Dovber Schiff returned his soul to its Maker at the age of seventy-six. Rabbi Schiff, descendant from a long line of Chabad Chassidim, had tremendous self-sacrifice as he dedicated his whole life to the education of Jewish children and the Rebbe MHMs institutions, from the Chassidic underground in the U.S.S.R. to the impressive educational empire he established in the heart of Kfar Chabad.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

R’ Berke Schiff having a heartfelt conversation with R’ Mendel Futerfas | R’ Berke Schiff and R’ Yosef Ladiov with studentsOn Motzaei Shabbos Tshuva, the Chabad world was saddened to receive word of the passing of Rabbi Gershon Dov (Berke) Schiff, of blessed memory, from the Shikun Chabad community of Lod. Rabbi Schiff was a loyal Chassid who founded the Bukharian yeshivaOhr Simchain Kfar Chabad and administered its educational program for decades.

He was a gem of a Chassid, a man who worked with great self-sacrifice and dedicated his whole life to the education of Jewish children. When he was a young boy, he was already involved in Torah education in the Soviet Jewish underground on behalf of the Chamah Organization, an affiliation he maintained until the latter years of his life.

Five years ago, after many years of remaining quiet, he agreed to tell some of his thrilling life’s story and about his educational activities to Beis Moshiach readers. We sat for dozens of hours during ten fascinating meetings, and this served as the basis for a series of articles later published in the magazine. During these lengthy conversations, Rabbi Schiff would shed tears every time he spoke about his mashpia, Rabbi Moshe Nisselevitch. When he would talk about his meetings with the Rebbe, he would sob. Despite his tremendous success, he also displayed great sensitivity and consideration for others. There wasn’t the slightest tinge of arrogance and pride – on the contrary, he lived with a sense of complete bittul toward his m’shaleiach. At these meetings, while I couldn’t help but be greatly impressed by the level of his success, it became quite clear to me that he knew everything was due to the Rebbe.

As an aside, I must note that I had known Rabbi Schiff since I was a boy. My father, sh’yichyeh, was a member of the educational staff at Yeshivas “Ohr Simcha.” I would encounter Rabbi Schiff on a daily basis and I was very fond of him. I often saw him lovingly pinch the cheek of one of the students and show true affection. For their part, the students happily reciprocated in their feelings for him. Many of them changed their way of life, eventually establishing proper Chassidic families. Rabbi Schiff will always be remembered as a man of action. R’ Berke was an endangered species belonging to the previous generation.

BLESSED INFLUENCE

Rabbi Schiff was born seventy-six years ago in the Russian city of Voronezh to his parents, R’ Yosef Chaim and Malka Schiff, of blessed memory. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Russians enlisted his father while his mother remained alone to watch over him and his two brothers. “When the German Wehrmacht, may their name be erased, arrived in the city, we fled to Uzbekistan, where thousands of Jews had gathered after escaping from the Nazis. I still clearly remember those dark days.”

During these critically trying times, the Communist secret police were extremely busy in the war against Nazi Germany, and as a result, they loosened their grip of persecution against Torah and mitzvos observance. Yiddishkait in Samarkand thrived during the war years. “I was around seven years old toward the end of the war. I remember that my mother brought me to the city’s ‘Talmud Torah’ when it first opened. We learned Torah and Chassidic conduct from a Chassid named R’ Zushe. As a reward for our hard work, we would get a margarine sandwich. For us, this was like food from Gan Eden…”

By the time the war ended, the Germans had withdrawn from all the territory they had conquered and the people of Europe slowly began returning to their native countries. Many Chassidim used the welcome opportunity to leave the Soviet Union, claiming that they were Polish citizens returning home. Most of those privileged Chassidim who had stayed in Samarkand managed to smuggle themselves past the Iron Curtain, but the Schiffs and dozens of other families delayed their departure.

“Shortly after the end of the war, we again started feeling the heavy hand of the Soviet state police. The KGB went back to fighting the ‘true enemy’ of Mother Russia – the Jewish people. The religious persecution resumed. When Chassidim didn’t send their children to the state-run schools, the KGB paid them a visit at home. Yet, in spite of all the scare tactics and harassment, there were Chassidim who decided instead to act with a little cunning. While they sent their children to the school, they also made secret agreements with the administration that the children would not have to come on Shabbos nor would they be asked to desecrate the holy day of rest. The children continued to receive a proper Jewish and Chassidic education at home.”

Rabbi Schiff’s father, R’ Yosef Chaim, came back from the battlefront, sick and exhausted. He could no longer use his right hand, which was injured in combat. While he managed to live another few years, his health eventually deteriorated and the responsibility to provide for the family’s livelihood fell upon the shoulders of his son, Gershon Dov.

Gershon Dov learned in public school until 5713, when he began work in the sign factory run by Rabbi Eliyahu Mishulovin. “In this factory, I met Rabbi Moshe Nisselevitch for the first time. A few years older than me, he became a beacon of light for me.”

The state school curriculum did little to improve his spiritual health, despite the fact that he stringently davened three times a day and kept regular times for Torah study as his father had requested. However, there were other things that interested him besides Torah and mitzvos, such as weightlifting. He soon achieved much success, even excellence, in this pastime. “I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Rabbi Nisselevitch in the factory for many hours each day, and I was inevitably influenced by his distinctive personality. He transformed my entire approach to life. His whole demeanor cried out with a deep sense of piety I had never seen in anyone else before.

“We would eat lunch together every day, and it would quickly turn into a Chassidic farbrengen. Rabbi Nisselevitch neither teased me nor did he ask me to change my way of life; on the contrary, he understood me. Nevertheless, his Chassidic conduct had a powerful effect upon me. I was ‘addicted’ to weightlifting and handball, and I would always speak to Rabbi Nisselevitch about the doubts I was having. He had a very unique way of thinking, and he never rejected anything I did or said. Instead, he would encourage me while he also instilled in me an appreciation for the inner depth of Chassidic teachings. ‘Physical fitness is a healthy thing,’ he would always tell me, ‘but it isn’t everything. Keep doing it – but recognize the truth as well.’

“Once as we were sitting and farbrenging, he spoke about how the world was really ‘gornisht’ – a state of total concealment. As we said L’chaim together, we discussed several things that appeared to us in an actual sense, but they were really nothing. At a certain point, it all touched me so profoundly that I burst into tears. He looked at me, failing to understand why I was crying. For him, the matter was so clear and simple that he didn’t need to cry about it. His conduct, his meticulous davening… He was totally connected to G-d, like a beloved child to a father.”

EDUCATION WITH COMPLETE SELF-SACRIFICE

It was hard for Rabbi Nisselevitch to see the children of Chassidim learning in Soviet state-run schools, so he decided to strengthen the study of Torah among Jewish children. He took action with great dedication and self-sacrifice. When he looked for people to assist him, one of them was a product of his tremendous influence – Rabbi Schiff.

“He realized that the future of Yiddishkait depended upon it. If children would not learn Torah and understand its true profound meaning, rather than simply going through the motions as they had always been taught to do, the spiritual deterioration that we have already seen would begin. The matter left him no respite. He then came up with an idea that seemed totally absurd: the establishment of an organization to be called CHAMAH (an acronym for Chavuras M’Zakei HaRabim – a group for privileging the many) with the sole objective being involvement in the education of young children.”

It wasn’t long before a learning program opened for Jewish youngsters. Anash and Chassidim from the region and even from distant cities sent their children there. Everything was conducted with the utmost secrecy. “We knew that if one of us got caught, it would be far better if we didn’t know anything about our colleagues activities,” R’ Berke Schiff recalled.

R’ Berke himself became a prominent staff member in the organization until his immigration to Eretz HaKodesh. He was involved with secret activities and missions requiring literal self-sacrifice. “We would collect considerable sums of money for the Chamah educational programs and transfer them to our contacts spread throughout the Jewish villages and communities in Samarkand. This would finance our teachers’ work, enabling them to devote themselves fully to their community’s children and their Torah study,” R’ Berke told us.

“On one occasion, just before Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Nisselevitch called me and asked that I go out on a trip on behalf of the organization. The purpose of this mission was to get a close-up look at what the teachers in the underground had been doing in each city and to check how many students were actually learning in these programs. Since many of these students and teachers belonged to the Bukharian community, I brought along Rabbi Refael Chudaitov, one of Chamah’s most successful activists. He knew all the local Jewish communities very well.

“Practically speaking, he was far more involved than me in the finer details. In every community we visited, he knew when the studies took place and where they were held. I was entrusted with the logistical side of the journey. I carried a diary, and I wrote a report for every city we visited: how many students I found learning there and their ages, including notes on what needed to be done to improve things and increase the number of students.”

RUSSIAN CHILDREN ASKING THE ‘FOUR QUESTIONS’ IN 770

In 5732, through a series of revealed miracles, the Schiff family finally immigrated to Eretz HaKodesh. They initially lived in the Kfar Chabad absorption center until they moved to the Shikun Chabad community in Lod. “Our integration into the society of Eretz Yisroel happened rather quickly,” R’ Berke told us. “We met with friends, family members, and many Chassidim from the past. During our stay in the absorption center, the staff made certain to tend to all our material needs. Similarly, we learned the Hebrew language there in a special ulpan maintaining all the Chassidic and spiritual themes.”

Several months passed, and after a search for gainful employment, Rabbi Schiff was informed that the Israel Military Industries was looking for new engineers, and he quickly applied for a job.

“As part of my qualifications as an engineer and before leaving the Soviet Union, I ran a large company on my own. As a result, I was very happy when I was offered a position. At the time, I didn’t know that the company’s deputy director general was related to my wife, and when I arrived for work and found this out, it was a most pleasant surprise. My co-workers predicted that I wouldn’t have a hard time advancing along the company’s promotion ladder and I could expect a very good future. However, it didn’t take long before I started losing interest in my work. While I quickly learned the logic and reasoning that my job required, there was something about the routine schedule – leaving my house early and returning at a very late hour – that made me feel that I was wasting my time.

“A few months later, I decided that this wasn’t for me. After the wide-ranging underground activities in Samarkand spreading Yiddishkait, I didn’t feel comfortable with my new position. I decided to leave the job.

“By Divine Providence, I was privileged to be invited by the Rebbe, together with my brother and my cousin Betzalel, to come to ‘Beis Chayeinu’ at his expense. The Rebbe asked everyone who had managed to leave Russia during this time to come to 770 for the Pesach holiday to see and be seen. Our joy was beyond description.

“During the Pesach farbrengen, the Rebbe suddenly stopped and said, ‘There are several children here who have just left the Soviet Union. They should come up and ask the ‘Four Questions,’ and if they’re not here, then their parents should have the honor of doing this.’ It’s impossible to describe the feeling that overwhelmed me when my son and nephew came up to the farbrengen dais and asked the ‘Four Questions’ in Yiddish… These were moments of tremendous majesty and glory that will forever remain in my memory. The nachas these children gave to the Rebbe was quite evident. When they finished, the Rebbe instructed everyone to sing a niggun in Russian to the words ‘We will not be burnt by fire and we will not be drowned by water,’ as if to prove to everyone that despite everything, the eternal people will have no fear and will continue to preserve the Jewish flame.”

A CHANGE IN DIRECTION

“My first yechidus took place immediately after Pesach and lasted for about eighteen minutes. The Rebbe asked questions, expressed interest, and we gave short and concise answers with virtually no elaboration. The Rebbe told my wife, a dentist by profession, that he was aware of a new specialization course opening in Eretz Yisroel, a first of its kind in her field, and it would be appropriate for her to register. Afterward, the Rebbe virtually read my mind and told me, ‘There are enough engineers in Eretz Yisroel. You should concern yourself with matters of u’faratzta.’ When I asked what I should do, the Rebbe replied that my shlichus was to help immigrant children in Eretz Yisroel to integrate into Torah learning institutions.

“As I left the Rebbe’s room, I was consumed by a feeling of total joy. The Rebbe had honored me by designating my mission in life.”

Rabbi Schiff returned to Eretz Yisroel and quickly arranged a meeting with his mashpia, Rabbi Nisselevitch, who lived in Kiryat Malachi. He proceeded to tell him about the unique instruction he had received in yechidus. During this time, numerous immigrants had arrived from Bukhara and settled in Ashdod. Rabbi Nisselevitch, who was already planning to begin working with these newcomers, suggested to Rabbi Schiff that he should coordinate these activities.

“It was decided to make a dormitory for these immigrant children receiving a pure Torah education,” Rabbi Schiff said. “The conditions were not easy. Yet, who was thinking then about ease and comfort when the prevailing need was to maintain a spirit of Torah and mitzvos within these young people? Nearly eighty children, ages six to fourteen, began learning in the women’s section of one of the local synagogues. I was placed in charge of running the program, while the Chamah organization handled all the financial matters. Each day I would travel from Kfar Chabad to Ashdod. With G-d’s help, it wasn’t long before we had to look for a larger and more spacious location.

“However, despite the fact that the institution was growing and expanding, I still felt that this wasn’t my shlichus. If the Rebbe asked me to work with immigrant children, he must be expecting me to do things on a much wider scale. During those years, there were huge waves of immigrants arriving from the Soviet Union. I turned to the mashpiim R’ Mendel Futerfas and R’ Simcha Gorodetzky and asked them how I should understand the Rebbe’s instruction. When they heard in detail what the Rebbe said during that first yechidus, they told me that the Rebbe meant just what he said: I should go around Eretz Yisroel and make certain that immigrant children get a Jewish education. Their sincere words made a strong impression on me and I decided to work in that direction.

“I bought a Peugeot 404 and started going around the country in search of religious educational institutions that could help by accepting immigrant children in their cities. I was a bit naive, and after a few days, I realized that my mission wasn’t so simple. Not everyone understood the need to give these children a kosher Torah education. While these institutions did agree to accept a few children, this was on the level of ‘a handful cannot satisfy a lion.’ I tried with all my strength and energy to explain to them the importance of the matter, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Everyone referred me to another institution and back again. I saw that I wouldn’t be able to make any progress this way.

“In Tishrei 5734, I made another trip to Beis Chayeinu. I wanted to raise this issue before the Rebbe and receive his guidance. The Rebbe paid close attention to my words and then replied: ‘Establish a similar institution in Kfar Chabad!’ I wasn’t expecting this, and due to the shock of the moment, I dared to tell the Rebbe that founding such an institution would require considerable financial expenses. The Rebbe then said something that shocked me twice as much: ‘You won’t be lacking any,’ as he made a sweeping gesture with his hand. Nu, with a promise like that from the Rebbe…

“I returned to Kfar Chabad with two clear messages. First, the Rebbe wanted me to open an institution for immigrants in Kfar Chabad. Second, I had the Rebbe’s clear promise that I would not be lacking any money. Today, when I walk around the complex of buildings we built over the years, I feel quite happy. I know that there aren’t many educational institutions in general, especially not in Chabad, that have built so many facilities. It’s impossible not to see clearly the Rebbe’s bracha in all this.

“When I returned to Eretz Yisroel, I didn’t waste any time. I immediately met with Rabbi Gorodetzky and told him what the Rebbe had instructed me during my recent yechidus. The matter was so clear that all I had to do was to get the wheels moving and start the process of opening this new institution. We decided to share this with the entire Kfar Chabad community. We held a meeting for local residents and it was decided that everyone should be a partner in this project. Those who could should take one or two boys into their home and give them room and board. Those unable to provide such accommodations would be asked to give a donation. One person coming to our assistance during the days of establishing this institution was Rabbi Lipa Klein, who became our secretary. Studies were initially held in the central synagogue and we later used some abandoned sheds as classrooms.

“Arrangements for students were spread throughout the homes of Kfar Chabad residents. However, this could not continue for an extended period of time, and it created its fair share of problems. We decided to bring in prefabricated caravans and place them in an open area near Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim. Unfortunately, the Yom Kippur War broke out around this time and all the trucks in the country were being used for military usage. As a result, we couldn’t transport the caravans we had already ordered from Akko. What did I do? I went to Gaza, rented a semitrailer from the local residents, and at the height of the war, we brought them to Kfar Chabad. The dormitory was quickly erected and became a reality, while the classes moved to the lower floor of Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim.”

Over the years, the educational institution has grown and expanded, serving hundreds of students from all over Eretz Yisroel.

A HEARTSTOPPING DREAM

Along with its tremendous success, the institution has gone through its fair share of rough times, some of which proved extremely heartbreaking for R’ Berke. “There was an incident that brought me a deep sense of frustration, which grew in even greater intensity with each passing day. I felt that my vigor was at its lowest ebb. My spirit was broken. I soon came to the decision that I lacked the strength to go on, and perhaps I wasn’t the right person for the job. I tossed and turned in my bed at night. Thoughts were already racing through my heart, such as ‘Maybe it would be better if I resumed my work in the aeronautics industry, building aircraft and making a good living…’

“I went to R’ Mendel Futerfas, presented my case and told him I couldn’t continue any longer. R’ Mendel listened to me patiently, and then he told me, ‘Let’s go to Yerushalayim to see Rabbi Simcha Gorodetzky and seek his advice.’ We spoke for a long time, and at a certain point, they asked me to leave the room, as they wanted to consult privately. When I came back in Rabbi Gorodetzky told me: ‘The Rebbe gave you a shlichus; we didn’t bring you into this. You told us about the instructions you had received from the Rebbe and you brought us into the picture when you asked for our help – and now you want to leave? Write to the Rebbe about this.’

“That same night I wrote a letter to the Rebbe, pouring my heart out. The letter filled five full pages as I explained how I felt that I didn’t have the emotional stamina to run the institution any longer. I asked the Rebbe to release me from the shlichus he had placed upon me.

“A few days passed, and I came home one evening from work, tired and exhausted, determined to close the institution. That night I had a dream that changed the whole situation in a wink. In hindsight, this dream turned out to be the thing that reinforced the institution’s foundations, paving the way to its thriving development until this very day in the merit of the Rebbe’s brachos. In my dream I saw myself in 770, clustered alongside thousands of Chassidim and T’mimim, all waiting for the Rebbe to come down for davening. Suddenly, the announcement spread that the Rebbe was on his way and the congregation quickly prepared for his imminent arrival. The Rebbe soon appeared in all his glory, walking briskly and upright. I wanted to avoid getting too close, but I unexpectedly found myself standing in the first row facing the Rebbe. The pushing and crowding didn’t allow me to move further back.

“Before I had a chance to think, the Rebbe suddenly stopped right in front of me and gave me a piercing look – a combination of seriousness, compassion, love, and demand. I lowered my eyes, wishing that the earth would open under my feet and swallow me up. I was mortified. Here I am asking the Rebbe to remove me from my shlichus – and why? What was this feeling of terror that had seized me out of nowhere? Was I lacking money? No, the Rebbe’s bracha had seen to that. Weren’t there enough students? On the contrary, the number of students was growing each day. So, what exactly did I want? Was I cracking due to the difficulties in running the institution? What happened to the self-sacrifice I had for educating Jewish children in Russia?

“I felt that the Rebbe was cleaning my insides with his gaze, instilling me with a renewed sense of strength. I didn’t know what to do with myself because of the embarrassment. If only the Rebbe would just continue on his way, I thought to myself in the dream, I would take the first flight back to Eretz Yisroel, forget about closing the institution, and start working with even greater determination. Suddenly, the Rebbe approached me, took my hand, and we proceeded together toward his platform for davening. I felt the warmth of the Rebbe’s hand. I was like a cow being led to the shochet… Now, I thought to myself, the whole congregation will stare at me and the embarrassment… Oy, the embarrassment… However, the Rebbe didn’t say a word to me: that one look changed my entire viewpoint on the matter. Then, as we approached the stairs leading to the platform, the Rebbe released my hand and moved on. Then I woke up!

“My body was shaking with emotion and drenched with sweat. I couldn’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night. The dream was so real. It took me hours to calm down from the experience and start understanding what was happening to me. I felt that the Rebbe was waking and shaking me up, cleansing my soul, and giving it a dose of renewed vitality.”

This dream was the cornerstone of the establishment of the Yeshivas “Ohr Simcha” complex. Since then and to this day, four buildings have been constructed and several others have undergone renovations.

“Of course, I no longer needed an answer to my letter, and I didn’t wait for a written response. I got my answer in a way more powerful than anything I could have possibly imagined. The next morning as I came to work, I had already removed any thought of closing the institution. I was now concentrating all my efforts on one mission: building a dormitory on the new grounds that we had just received, establishing the foundation for more and more buildings, and working to accept additional students.

“That same day, I came to Rabbi Simcha Gorodetzky and told him that I am planning to take the grounds that we had received from Beis Rivka, and we would build not one, but two dormitories there ourselves. When he heard this, he was certain that I had lost my mind. Just a few days ago, I had been prepared to walk away from it all, and now I was coming to him with a plan for building two new facilities. However, once I told him about the dream, he understood everything.

“We decided that I should now compose another letter to the Rebbe. Just as I knew to write about my desire to leave, I would now write about my desire to build. We sent a letter in which I noted the entire chain of events, and unlike the previous letter, this one elicited an immediate reply. In his correspondence, the Rebbe drew two lines under the words ‘two dormitories’ and drew another line toward the name of Rabbi Shlomo Maidanchik, which suggested that he should be a partner in the project.”

Since that time, R’ Berke Schiff saw much success in all his toil and effort. Any time he encountered difficulties, he reminded himself of the dream. Later, he also founded a yeshiva k’tana, a yeshiva g’dola, and an institute for rabbinical studies, thereby giving those students who have become connected to Chassidic teachings and have made a significant change in their lives the opportunity to continue their studies through k’vutza.

CONNECTED WITH ALL HIS HEART AND SOUL

Rabbi Schiff was instilled his entire life with a strong hiskashrus to the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach, openly supporting the approach of spreading the announcement of the Redemption in the clearest possible terms.

In later years, together with running the institution, he would go each morning to the kollel for seniors in Lod’s Shikun Chabad neighborhood. One day during the Shiva, students from the kollel came to the Schiff family home. They spoke about the great diligence of his Torah study each day in the kollel, and the Chassidic stories he would share with them about his life during the days of the Soviet Jewish underground. Rabbi Schiff’s sudden passing left a tremendous void among his many students, his friends, and the Chabad Chassidic community in general. The many people who came to his house and comfort the mourning family are a living testimony to that.

Rabbi Schiff leaves behind an outstanding and blessed Chassidic family, may they live long: his wife Basya and his children: R’ Yerachmiel (Lod), Mrs. Chana Mishulovin (Los Angeles), R’ Yoske (Kfar Chabad), R’ Yitzchak (Kfar Chabad), R’ Michoel (Kfar Chabad), R’ Shneur (Kfar Chabad), Mrs. Malki Chaviv (Kfar Chabad), and R’ Mendy (Netanya).

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