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Tuesday
Oct152019

“The Great Shofar” has been sounded

By Levi liberow  •

Undeterred by the KGB, he sat down and wrote this impassioned audacious letter to Leonid Brezhnev, the secretary-general of the Communist party. It was a furious confession that opened with three words he would have been reluctant to utter just two years before:

“I am a Jew” he wrote, and “I want to live in the Jewish state. That is my right, just as it is the right of a Ukrainian to live in the Ukraine, the right of a Russian to live in Russia; the right of a Georgian to live in Georgia. I want to live in Israel. That is my dream. That is the goal not only of my life but also of the lives of hundreds of generations that preceded me, of my ancestors who were expelled from their land.

“I want my children to study in the Hebrew language. I want to read Jewish papers, I want to attend a Jewish theater. What’s wrong with that? What is my crime … I am not asking for mercy; listen to the voice of reason: Let me out!

“As long as I live, as long as I am capable of feeling, I will do all I can to leave for Israel. And if you find it possible to sentence me for it, so be it. If I live till my release, I will be prepared to go to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going on foot.”

The author of this courageous letter was Boris Kochubievsky, a thirty-year-old loner from Kiev with a long gaunt face dominated by round, watery black eyes.

Boris was not a committed Jew mere months before he wrote his letter. In fact, he tried his best to disassociate himself from the Jewish community and rise in the ranks of his army engineering career to make for a good life, at least by Soviet standards.

But six days in May 1967 and a propaganda lecture by a KGB officer in the presence of over fifty Jews like himself, made him into one of the thousands of Jews that heard the “sound of the great shofar” in his own unique way.

***

The second large group of Jews that were completely out of touch with Yiddishkeit in our generation, were the Soviet Jews, upwards of 3 million, who were left behind the Iron Curtain until when it came down.

Mitzrayim” means constraints, embodying all the oppressive forces in life that trap and overwhelm us. Diametrically opposed to the prosperity of “Ashur,” “Mitzrayim” denotes the suffering state to which some people may be “banished.”

These were “Jews of silence.” Not silent by choice; they were silenced by the oppressive Soviet government from expressing their Jewishness in any way, be it religious, cultural or a love for Israel.

The Soviet Jews didn’t enjoy the “good life” of their brethren in America and anyone who expressed interest in Judaism of any sort was at risk of losing his job and even his limited Soviet version of liberty, to land up in a Siberian Gulag.

And thus, many of them became silent over time and tried to make the best of their meager life in Russia.

Even if they wanted — and some did — to leave for Israel, they were locked up in the largest prison in the world.

Like in America, the embers of Judaism were indeed burning hot in the Soviet Union and quite a few notable Ba’alei Teshuva like Professor Herman Branover came from these “pockets” of secret Jews.

They popped up mainly after Stalin’s death and like in America, formed a trickle of Jews returning to their roots, but only a trickle, not something that can amount to a movement back to Judaism.

The striking question, with regard to both the millions of “banished” Jews and the “lost” ones, in the prophetic discourse of the Previous Rebbe written in 1943, was “How will G‑d’s promise be fulfilled? What will bring these Jews to return to their people?”

***

When you want to call to someone close, you raise your voice slightly, when you need to call someone far you need to use a louder voice. The dire state of Hashem’s lost children required something outstanding.

A regular shofar cannot reach the hearts of the “lost” and “banished.” It can wake up those who are drowsy, but not completely asleep. It can also keep people semi-awake. But, they may fall back into sleep.  There will be those who are in a deep slumber, utterly unaware of their own souls and inner spirituality, totally consumed with their lives – either in prosperity or in struggle. The only way they can be awakened is through the “great shofar,” an all-powerful call from above that pierces even the hardest armor and deepest levels of “loss” and “banishment.”

This explains why Yeshaya says simply “yitoka – will be sounded,” without defining who is blowing the shofar, unlike Zechariah who says “The Lord G-d shall sound the shofar.” The names of G-d imply visible and revealed levels of Divine expression. They have the power to reach analogous to a regular shofar that reaches only those who are themselves conscious and sensitive (at least somewhat) to the world of spirit. But to reach the deepest recesses of the souls that are “lost” and “banished,” with no revealed spiritual consciousness and awareness, requires the call of the “great shofar.” The Great Shofar is rooted in the Divine Essence, beyond any name or definition.

To best illustrate what the war did to Jews in Soviet Russia, I will just quote several (lightly abridged) paragraphs from an afterword to Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence, containing a historical overview of the events of the time by world renowned historian Martin Gilbert (all emphasis mine): 

In Paris on December of 1965, the Soviet prime minister, Alexi Kosygin, issued a formal declaration that Jews could, if they applied to do so, go to Israel to be reunited with members of their family. In that year, indeed, 2,027 exit visas had been granted. This change in Soviet practice electrified Soviet Jewry, rousing hopes which had hitherto been impossible even to contemplate.

In June 1967, just as those hopes were spreading throughout the cities of the Soviet Union, the verbal threats President Nasser of Egypt had unleashed against Israel were transformed into actual military preparations, in which both Syria and Jordan joined. The Jews of Moscow, like those throughout the World, watched with apprehension as the small state awaited the onslaught. Israel, endangered, struck first, destroying Egypt’s air forces on the ground. Then the three Arab armies attacked. Radio Moscow, jubilant at the initial Arab successes in breaking across the 1949 cease-fire lines, announced the imminent destruction of the nineteen-year-old state.

This trumpeting of Israel’s last hours of existence as a state released the hidden Jewishness and national pride of Russia’s silent Jews.

With each Radio Moscow broadcast of another Arab victory, fear for Israel’s existence turned into a passionate longing to be a part of the struggle: “to die with my people,” as one of those affected by the new awakening expressed it to me in Moscow sixteen years later.

“At first,” another of my Moscow friends wrote to me, “it was the anguish at the thought that the Jews (I mean also Israel as an independent state) once again will be the victims.” Then, several days after Soviet Jewry‘s instant and instinctive identity with an apparently defeated brother, the truth became known: Israel had driven back the invading armies.

Israel’s victory gave Soviet Jews a clear, indisputable reason to be proud of being Jewish.

With pride in Israel came a deep desire to make a personal contribution to the life and future of the Jewish state, a desire the Kosygin declaration of December 1966 seemed to bring within the bounds of reality. But no sooner had the Six Day War ended than the granting of exit visas came to a halt. All those who persisted in applying for exit visas were told that there was no chance of applications being granted as long as diplomatic relations with Israel, broken off in the war, were not restored.

The awakening of Soviet Jewry, however, could not be reversed by a political decision not to issue any further visas, and in the aftermath of the Israeli victory there was an upsurge of activity.

The small Hebrew-language classes which had sprung up in the mid-roads now burgeoned. Even larger meetings now took place at the sites of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Private discussion groups exchanged information about Israeli life. The applications for exit visas continued, with hundreds of Soviet Jews trying to find relatives in Israel from whom an invitation could be sent—the formal invitation without which no visa application could even be begun.

Tens of thousands of Soviet Jews now embarked on an exhilarating, and for many an ultimately satisfactory, voyage: the road to Jewish identity, and then to Israel.

Beginning on a tiny scale in September 1967, and rising rapidly in the following four months, exit visas were granted to 379 Soviet citizens … Thousands of Soviet Jews now began to ask for these invitations, the first step in a long and complicated procedure. This procedure included the requirement that one obtain the permission of one’s parents to leave. It also involved revealing to one’s employer and local Party organization the intention to leave, thus risking—and normally losing—one’s job.

The number of Jews (230) actually allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1967 was lower than for any of the previous six years, almost the lowest since 1955. The impossibility of all but a tiny fraction of exit visas being granted, however, did not deter the awakening of Jewish national consciousness.

Gilbert speaks here of a clear “explosion” of Jewish activity by previously unaffiliated Jews both in quantity of its participants, and in quality of its brazenness that caught the vintage Jewish activists of the pre-war era by surprise.

Another historian of the time, Gal Beckerman, in his book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, has this to say in the clearest of terms:

The war that consumed the Middle East in June 1967, pitting Israel against four Arab enemies, led to a Jewish victory that felt delivered by G-d, miraculous in its magnitude. The Jewish State quadrupled its area in less than a week and took hold of the old city of Jerusalem. And the implications—for Israel’s place in the world, for Jewish identity, for how Jews in the Diaspora were perceived — reverberated far and wide.

It wasn’t just the small band of committed [Jews] in the Soviet Union who suddenly felt emboldened, their lonely cause now validated. The Six-Day War’s impact was felt in the most unlikely of places, such as the military factory on the outskirts of Kiev where Boris Kochubievsky worked as a radio engineer.

“The Six-Day War affected Jews all over the Soviet Union” writes Beckerman. “Very few went to the lengths that Kochubievsky did or suffered his fate. But, to varying degrees, the war instilled in thousands a new and unfamiliar sense of pride. They felt a subversive joy in the fact that their own people, derided and ridiculed as they often were in Soviet society, had triumphed over this vainglorious power and its allies. Some of them felt for the first time that there was value in belonging to the Jewish people that it didn’t have to be only a line in a passport that weighed one down.”

 “I am a Jew”

The story of Boris Kochubievsky which Beckerman mentions, will help us to appreciate this “great shofar” phenomenon better. It contains all the qualities needed to identify this trend; a man who was so alienated from any form of Jewishness, so much so that he thought that very fact of his previous non-affiliation with any actively Jewish group might aid him when he began his journey back. Yet his awakened soul rose to heights that led him to acts so bold which veteran Jewish activists in Russia never dreamed of doing!

Abridged portions of the remarkable story are hereby reprinted from Beckerman’s book:

On one of the last days of the Six-Day War, he was sitting in a factory-wide meeting listening to a lecture delivered by a local army officer. These types of propaganda meetings were taking place all over the Soviet Union in the first weeks of June.

After predicting a humiliating defeat for the “imperialist” Israelis, the Soviets now had to explain how their Arab client states had been so badly beaten, how Israel had managed to destroy almost the entire Egyptian air force—consisting of Soviet-made planes—in a single morning. The solution was to portray the Israelis as demonic aggressors. In typical Soviet fashion, the Soviet propagandists, blamed Israel for nothing less than “imitating the crimes of the Hitler invaders.”

When the officer speaking at the Kiev military factory made similar allusions, something in him snapped. He stood and asked to speak. He wanted to know how the state had put him in the terrible position of having to help kill his own people. The room filled with engineers — more than half of them Jews — fell silent.

He went on to defend Israel, saying it had the right to attack preemptively against an enemy that was clearly preparing for war—offering an interpretation diametrically opposed to the Soviet one. When he was finished, he sat down.

In that instant, Kochubievsky ‘s life changed. He knew little about what it meant to be a Jew, and even less about Israel—which he imagined to be a vast desert filled with camels. But he was determined to find out for himself by going there.

At that moment, Kochubievsky also became a marked man. A union meeting was called to put pressure on him to resign. He began desperately looking for relatives in Israel so that he could apply for an exit visa through family reunification—the only basis for emigration that the Soviets would even consider. Eventually his application for an exit visa was refused.

After an unauthorized speech he gave at the Babi Yar memorial, the KGB came knocking, throwing his apartment into disarray in a search meant to intimidate. He began to feel it was only a matter of time before he was arrested. He decided to preempt the impending arrest.

Less than a week after he posted the letter to the Kremlin, on December 4, 1968 Kochubievsky was summoned to the local KGB bureau. It wasn’t his first visit. In the weeks since the Babi Yar incident, he had been questioned many times and asked, sometimes politely, other times more firmly, to desist from his provocations. But this time, there was no conversation. Almost as soon as he arrived, Kochubievsky was put into a black Volga and driven to Kiev’s local mental institution where he spent the next few months. Only under international pressures, a “troika” (the Soviet version of a court of justice) found him guilty of “systematically disseminating by word of mouth slanderous fabrications, defaming state and social systems of the USSR” and sentenced him to three years of forced labor in a gulag in the Ural Mountains.

Within a month, he was in the Urals, head shaved, in a prison uniform, and eating soup with rotten fish out of a wooden bowl.

“Jew Living in Moscow Hits Regime”

While Kochubievsky’s head-on confrontation with the Soviet government failed for the time being (he was ultimately released and allowed to immigrate to Israel) another Jew in Moscow tried to do same and was successful.

On December 19, 1968, the Washington Post ran an article headlined “Jew Living in Moscow Hits Regime.”

The article reported that Yaakov (“Yasha”) Kazakov of Moscow, twenty years of age, wrote the following in a letter to the Supreme Soviet:

“I, Yaakov Iosifovich Kazakov, a Jew, born in 1947 … renounce Soviet citizenship, and, from the moment that I first announced my renunciation of USSR citizenship, that is, June 13, 1967, l have not considered myself a citizen of the USSR.”

“I am a Jew.” he wrote, anticipating Kochubievsky’s letter to Brezhnev later that year. “I was born a Jew and I want to live out my life as a Jew. With all my respect for the Russian people, I do not consider my people in any way inferior to the Russian or to any other people and I do not want to be assimilated by any other people.” His words were harsh and combative:

“I do not wish to be a citizen of a country that arms and supports the remaining fascists and the Arab chauvinists who desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and to add another two and half million killed to the six million who have perished. I do not want to be a collaborator of yours in the destruction of the State of Israel because, even though this has not been done officially, I consider myself to be a citizen of the State of Israel … On the basis of the above, I renounce Soviet citizenship, and I demand to be freed from the humiliation of being considered a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

Kazakov was gambling that his bombast would force the Soviets to resolve his case one way or another. They’d either send him to jail or they’d allow him to leave for Israel, and either option, he figured, was better than his interminable state of limbo.

He tried desperately to get his letter to the West, stuffing copies in the mailboxes at the British embassy and stopping tourists to ask in broken English if they could take his statement out of the country. Eventually a copy did make it out and portions of his letter were broadcasted on the radio waves and appeared in Western papers.

His insistence that his story make it out to the West proved to save him from the fate of his Ukrainian brother.

Two weeks later, Kazakov received a phone call asking him to appear at the OVIR (the Office of Visas and Registration) with all his documents. When he got there, an official told him he was being given an exit visa and had two weeks to leave the country. He couldn’t believe his luck. The OVIR official leaned in close and told him he’d better not engage in any anti-Soviet activity during his remaining days.

A few months later, Yasha Kazakov was starting his basic training in the Israeli army, and went on to become a central activist in helping more Jews out of the Soviet Union.

These two outstanding tales are iconic of the “great shofar” phenomenon, and were repeated in thousands of version. Both Kazakov and Kochubievsky prior to the Six-Day-War were unaffiliated with any Jewish underground, that’s why they attempted acts so bold, hoping that the regime will release them quickly as they weren’t known as “troublemakers” to the authorities.

The “boring” American side of the story

The American “great shofar” stories are much less remarkable tales to tell. There was no KGB, no arrests, not even antisemitism that sparked the Jewish soul. The stories are unequivocally boring because the basic plot was repeated thousands of times: unaffiliated Jewish boys and girls who had a Hebrew School education at best and just got onto planes to Israel. They volunteered in Kibbutzim and toured Judaism’s holy sites whose holy stones struck a previously numb chord in their hearts. Many stayed in Israel and landed up in one of the many Ba’al Teshuvah programs that opened up in the early 1970s like mushrooms after the rain, adopting a Jewish way of life.

Even those who didn’t make that step became more aware of their Judaism, and one mustn’t underestimate the importance of a Jew — especially if he considers himself non-religious— living among Jews with the implications on the next generation.

It wouldn’t be baseless to say that would the Orthodox community be more prepared to “absorb” this wave in terms awareness and logistics, we would have many more Jews joining the fold.

More than anything else, official Aliya statistics of the Jewish Agency tell of this spiritual awakening bringing Jews “back home” literally and religiously:

As mentioned above, the upwards of 2 million Jews that doubled the Jewish population in the first two decades of the Jewish state came overwhelmingly from European and Arab countries, more out of need than out of ideology. Between 1968 and 1970 a remarkable surge took place – more than 110,000 Jews from well-to-do countries came to the land of their forefathers!

Russian Jewry also came in astronomical numbers – over 100,000 Soviet Jews came home between 1968 and 1973, and they kept coming since, ultimately multiplying tenfold reaching over 1,000,000 Soviet-Jewish immigrants!

Even those who didn’t come live in the Holy Land became once again proud Jews who wanted to feel connected to their roots. While assimilation was a growing problem in the 1960s, and still is, the post Six-Day War spirit certainly helped to curb and slow it down.

If we were to point to one historic event in the past century that more than anything else had a negative impact on world Jewry, it would unequivocally be the Holocaust; if we were to point to one historic event in the past century that more than anything else had a positive impact on world Jewry, it would unequivocally be the Six-Day War.

***

Stage two of the pre-Geulah awakening was finally taking place; what the death of six million couldn’t do, G-dly driven acts of mischievous Russian diplomats and the threats of a lunatic Arab leader did.

In his talk, the Rebbe continues to contemplate these amazing events:

The amazing thing is this: the powerful awakening did not come as result of any change of status in people’s lives. The challenges of the pleasures of “Ashur” and the oppression of “Mitzrayim” remained intact. The pleasures were not weakened and the difficulties were not alleviated. Still, a soulful awakening stirred the entire world.

What caused this sudden, unprecedented awakening – one far greater than any inspiration following the two World Wars? It would seem far more likely that the horrors of World War II would have brought on powerful spiritual revival and a profound sense of responsibility. The annihilation of six million Jews who died sanctifying G-d’s name in a most dreadful fashion – a Holocaust of unparalleled proportions – should have evoked the deepest awakening of all?

Instead, we find that initially many denied the extent of the tragedy. Then, when it was no longer possible to ignore the enormity of the losses, one would think that Jews all over would have been shaken to the core and that they would have been moved to do everything possible for our brothers and sisters, our own family, in Europe. Simple mentshlechkeit would have dictated as much!

And the Rebbe offers an explanation:

One of the most fundamental consequences of spiritual dissonance is called “galus” (exile) – displacement. Galus is a physical and spiritual sense of not feeling “at home” in this world (“because of our sins we were exiled from our land”).

Therefore, one of the great developments at the end of days will be the “gathering of the exiles.” “G-d will bring back your exiles… He will gather you from all the nations, where He had dispersed you. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, G-d will gather you from there” (Devarim 30:3-4).

This is what the prophet Yeshaya is telling us, in the previous verse (27:12), “And you will be gathered up, one by one, O children of Israel.” As Rashi explains, the “gathering of the exiles” will be such a monumental and difficult process, “that it is as though G-d Himself must literally take each individual with His very hands,” taking him out of his place in exile.

The purpose of the “Great Shofar’s” call is to prepare the world for the Redemption by awakening the innermost levels of spirit embedded in the darkest corners of the world. The souls that are “lost in the land of Ashur” and “banished in the land of Mitzrayim,” after their initial inspiration, “shall come and bow down to G-d on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”

So, What Now?

As we stand now over 50 years later, we ask ourselves the inevitable question, “what now?”

The question is a multifaceted one: was this burst of spiritual awakening a fad of the past, or did it create continuous currents felt until current times? Can we duplicate it and recreate it with the new generation that has not seen it with their own eyes?

The answer lies in us; after “The Great Shofar” has been sounded, will we trumpet its call?

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