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Wednesday
Mar222017

THE HUGE DEMAND FOR TORAH SCROLLS IN RUSSIA

Rabbi Hollander and the RebbePART I

In contrast to the cold weather that night in Moscow, in the small but pleasant restaurant near the Marina Roscha shul, the atmosphere was particularly warm. Dozens of bachurim from Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Ohr Yehuda sat together with their fathers and farbrenged with the yeshiva’s teachers and the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Hendel. They sang one niggun after another and then another inspirational talk, by way of preparing them for their trip to the Rebbe.

Everyone’s spirits were uplifted. This trip was the culmination of the special Torah learning contest that took place in the yeshiva for the past half a year. The dream for which the bachurim had worked by learning and reviewing nonstop was now being realized. This was their stopover in Moscow and the next day they would be taking an Aeroflot flight from Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow to Kennedy airport in New York.

At about one in the morning, when the warmth of the farbrengen was still strong, in walked Rabbi Berel Lazar, shliach and Chief Rabbi of Russia. He had just returned from a long trip to Oryol where there had been a big hachnasas seifer Torah celebration. It was a celebration that provided another opportunity to connect the Jews of Oryol to the holy Torah, to the Federation of Jewish Communities and to the Rebbe’s shliach there, Rabbi Alexander Grishin. It was an opportunity to encourage him in his shlichus.

Despite the many hours of travel and despite an event that included a meeting with the district governor, and the other official and unofficial parts of the visit, Rabbi Lazar did not go home. He went straight to the farbrengen with the talmidim from Ohr Yehuda. It was manifestly clear that he was happy to be there. This environment was where he felt at home; here was his source of strength – the yeshiva boys. There was no sign of tiredness in his eyes; on the contrary.

PART II

R’ Lazar told about experiences he had on the long trip he had just made and he reviewed at length what the Rebbe said on Shabbos Parshas VaEschanan 5751, when the shluchim in Europe convened for the first Kinus HaShluchim since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Rebbe had spoken at length about the special significance of the gathering being held in this place.

And then R’ Lazar told the following:

One of the prominent rabbis in America at the time was Rabbi David Hollander z”l. He was the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis (Agudas HaRabbanim). Over the years he had many kiruvim from the Rebbe, who always showed him special consideration.

Many years after it happened, R’ Hollander told of a special story he had with the Rebbe and the reason that he was sharing the story at that time.

It was in the mid 70’s and the Soviet Union allowed a delegation of American rabbis to visit Russia and stay in various Jewish communities throughout the country. Despite it being a communist police state, Russia was interested in hosting such a visit. Among the rabbis chosen for this delegation was Rabbi David Hollander.

At the Agudas HaRabbanim, they knew that if there was someone in the world who knew what was really going on among the Jewish communities in Russia, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn. The Rebbe knew this information in detail and he knew how to use this visit to help the downtrodden Jews of Russia trapped under the communist boot.

R’ Hollander arranged an appointment to see the Rebbe in order to talk things over before he left. This was not the first time that R’ Hollander was going to communist Russia. He went for the first time in 5716/1956 with a delegation of rabbis to visit Russian Jews. It was after the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s rise to power. The Russian government, wanting some rapprochement with the west, allowed the visit. Even then, before leaving for Russia, R’ Hollander consulted with the Rebbe who instructed him to be very careful in how he spoke with Russian Jews. The Rebbe explained that even if what he said did not harm R’ Hollander, since he was an American citizen, the Jews listening to him could be harmed by irresponsible talk. The Rebbe also told him that if Chassidim wanted to meet with him, to do so with great care.

Since that trip, R’ Hollander had gone to visit Russian Jewry seven more times, sometimes alone and sometimes as part of a delegation of rabbis. This is why, before this trip in the 70’s, he arranged a yechidus to get direction. The yechidus lasted an hour. Nobody knew what was discussed, what instructions R’ Hollander received, and what he was told to do on this trip.

The delegation set out and visited a number of Jewish communities. The Rebbe knew that the KGB had them under surveillance and they acted accordingly. And yet, R’ Hollander cleverly managed to make connections and to drop messages to the intended recipients.

At the end of the lengthy trip, the delegation returned to the United States. This time, R’ Hollander had yechidus in order to report to the Rebbe about what he saw and heard. He also conveyed regards from Jews in Russia who asked him to do so.

At the end of the yechidus, R’ Hollander hesitated for a moment and then said to the Rebbe with deep admiration, “The Rebbe knows everything that is going on among Russian Jews. Still, if I may, I would like to make a suggestion that, in my humble opinion, is worth implementing.”

The Rebbe nodded his agreement and R’ Hollander said, “In my various encounters with Jewish communities, I noticed that in the shuls there are dozens and hundreds of old sifrei Torah that are in disuse. Some of them are still in the Aron Kodesh and some are in the shul storage rooms.

“Of course, these shuls hardly use these sifrei Torah. Therefore, I suggest that visitors to Russia take out sifrei Torah with them and bring them to Jewish communities in the United States, Europe or Eretz Yisroel. There would be a two-fold gain – that these sifrei Torah will be redeemed, and the Jewish communities in the western world will be able to use them.”

When R’ Hollander finished speaking, the Rebbe’s face changed completely. R’ Hollander could not help but notice the pallor on the Rebbe’s face. The Rebbe fixed his gaze on the opposite wall and seemed to disconnect from the room and the person sitting facing him. There was utter silence in the room for two minutes that seemed like an eternity to R’ Hollander. He regretted saying what he did and realized that he had unwittingly touched on a very sensitive point.

Then the Rebbe suddenly roused himself and returned his gaze to R’ Hollander.

“If you ask me,” said the Rebbe slowly, “I would say exactly the opposite! Not only is there no need to take sifrei Torah out of Russia; if I was able to, I would tell scribes to prepare more sifrei Torah for the Jews of Russia. The day will come when Russian Jews will need far more sifrei Torah than there are today.”

R’ Hollander was taken aback as he had not expected this answer. He was the man who had visited Russian communities many times; he was the one who had felt the communist oppression that stamped out every sign of Judaism; he was the one who had seen from up close the fear in the eyes of Russian Jews whenever anyone spoke to them, and he knew that what the Rebbe said was a distant dream that would never happen.

Out of respect for the Rebbe he remained silent. After saying goodbye, he left and went home.

In the days that followed he reviewed in his head the yechidus, mainly the part about the future of Russian Jewry. He knew the Rebbe as a genius, as a great leader, and a first class military leader, but this time he felt the Rebbe had erred in his estimation of the future of Russian Jewry. As much as he loved and admired the Rebbe, he felt that this time the Rebbe had exaggerated.

“I decided,” he said many years later, “that in order to preserve the Rebbe’s honor, I would not repeat what he said and would take his prophecy to the grave with me.”

About 25 years passed. The Iron Curtain fell and freedom returned to the citizens of Russia, including Russian Jews, who received permission to reconstruct Jewish life in all cities, large and small. The Rebbe’s shluchim began arriving, one after the other, and reviving Jewish life among thousands of Jews who thirsted for authentic Jewish life.

Only then, when Judaism began flourishing there anew, did R’ Hollander first tell of the yechidus he had and the Rebbe’s prophetic words.

“When I see how the Rebbe’s prophecy came true, I know that he did not make a mistake and that the spirit of G-d speaks from his throat. Whatever the Rebbe told me came true.”

PART III

R’ Berel Lazar finished his story and said, “Oftentimes I am invited to participate in events like the ones I attended today. I see the work of the shluchim around Russia and I think that the concentration of Jewry today that buys the most sifrei Torah in the world is Russian Jewry. I don’t think a week goes by without the celebration of a new Torah scroll somewhere in the former Soviet Union. The Rebbe’s words were exactly on target.”

The bachurim sat there, fascinated by this story. After a long silence in which everyone contemplated what was said, one of them began the Hisvaadus niggun, but R’ Lazar raised his hand, wanting to say one more thing.

“We as Chassidim know that the Rebbe not only prophesied and saw the future but he, with his heavenly abilities, created the reality which we see today. Just as the Rebbe’s prophecy was fulfilled in this matter, so too, we have no doubt that we will soon see his prophecy of ‘hinei, hinei zeh Moshiach ba,’ and ‘kvar ba.’”

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