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Wednesday
Jul232014

THE REBBE’S SHLIACH TO LEAD GEORGIAN JEWRY

Under the watchful eye of the communist government, Chacham Moshe Michaelashvili went from house to house teaching Torah. He was arrested several times and one time was even sentenced to death. * In Eretz Yisroel, he was sent by the Rebbe to Nachalat Har Chabad to work with new Russian immigrants and he became the leader of the Georgian immigrants. * Erev Shabbos Parshas BaMidbar, after 45 years of shlichus, he passed away.

A SON, WITHIN THE YEAR

Chacham Moshe Michaelashvili’s life was one of mesirus nefesh and Chassidus. While still a young man, he learned Chassidus and became strongly connected to Chabad. While he lived in Soviet Georgia, he was moser nefesh for chinuch and he continued this work his entire life.

He did not speak much about the great work of his father and grandfather among Georgian Jewry. Those who knew Chacham Moshe knew that everything he did was dedicated to spreading Judaism and Chassidus. Every free moment was devoted to this goal and not to telling his history or his deeds. But his family members longed to document his youth and after much effort, they got his two brothers to open up and tell about the days when they operated under communist oppression. It was a great privilege for me to be the one to interview them, one summer Motzaei Shabbos fourteen years ago.

Woven into this obituary are pearls from that conversation in which the three rabbinic brothers spoke about their fascinating history.

***

Chacham Moshe Michaelashvili was born in 1933 in Kulashi, Georgia. His father was Chacham Shabtai and his mother was Rabbanit Tzippora. His father and his grandfather, Chacham Avrohom, had a special relationship with the Rebbe’s shluchim to Georgia, R’ Shmuel Levitin, R’ Shmaryahu Sasonkin, R’ Mordechai Perlov, and R’ Avrohom Slavin.

R’ Levitin, R’ Perlov and R’ Slavin, would go to the grandfather, Chacham Avrohom’s home before Pesach in order to buy handmade matzos from him. These matzos were baked in his private bakery. They knew that Chacham Avrohom’s matzos were baked with utmost kashrus and hiddur.

One year, on their visit before Pesach, during a meal held in honor of the distinguished guests, Chacham Avrohom told them about something that was worrying him. “My son Shabtai is married for several years and still does not have children.” The shluchim wrote a letter, then and there, to the Rebbe Rayatz and asked for a bracha on his behalf. A few weeks went by until the telegram from the Rebbe, who was in Riga at the time, arrived. It said, “Within a year you will have a son.” Indeed, in less than a year a son was born. This was Yaakov Michaelashvili, Moshe’s older brother.

MESIRUS NEFESH FOR CHINUCH

As opposed to the iron fist which oppressed Russian Jewry, in Soviet Georgia the oppression was not as harsh. The government was tough on only one thing, Jewish education, which was absolutely forbidden. Nevertheless, Chacham Shabtai insisted on Jewish children learning Torah. In the morning he worked as a shochet at the municipal slaughterhouse. When he returned home in the afternoon he would gather the local children in the shuls and private homes and teach them Tanach, Mishna and Gemara.

In addition to his activities in Kulashi, he traveled to towns and cities throughout Georgia and strengthened Jewish life. These activities entailed great mesirus nefesh and he was caught, more than once, by the secret police. However, thank G-d, these were only brief arrests.

Then, one time, he was caught red-handed as he taught Torah to about eighty boys. He and another five teachers were arrested and brought to the headquarters of the secret police in Tbilisi. They were sentenced to death but miraculously their sentence was not carried out. He was interrogated and tortured for several months until, with the efforts of Jewish friends, he was released after being warned not to teach Torah to Jewish children.

He broke this promise immediately after his release. Apparently, the authorities knew of his work but chose to look away. However, during the period of the infamous Doctors’ Plot in 1953 when many Jews were arrested, they also came to the Michaelashvili house. They took away Chacham Shabtai who suffered greatly in the interrogation cellars. Even after Stalin’s death, when the Doctors’ Plot was dropped, he was not released. For months he endured terrible torture. When he returned home, he was paralyzed on his right side and it was hard for him to talk.

THE CHILDREN WERE PARTICULAR ABOUT THE HOLINESS OF SHABBOS

His children, including Chacham Moshe, were educated by him to mesirus nefesh, as Chacham Moshe related in the interview:

“We had to go to public school, but in the afternoon and evening we learned Torah at home. My father and grandfather devoted themselves to our chinuch. The big problem was Shabbos when we refused to go to school. There were years when it was still possible to give various excuses like being sick, the need to help out at home, etc., but then the authorities wised up and began to crack down. The principals and teachers were no longer willing to accept excuses. There were parents who were punished when their children did not attend school on Shabbos. When my grandfather heard that we might attend school on Shabbos, he said sadly, ‘Everything I’ve given you, my dear grandchildren, is worth nothing if you go to school on Shabbos.’

What did they do? Chacham Moshe went on to tell us:

“Friday in Georgia was a day devoted entirely to preparing for Shabbos. All the food was prepared on this day. My grandfather was also involved in the Shabbos preparations, but he did not begin until he sent ‘gifts’ to our teachers so they wouldn’t snitch on us. 

“In Kulashi there were several shuls. The shul we davened in was quite a sight on Shabbos as hundreds of people attended despite the persistent persecution.”

CHACHAM MOSHE ON THE BLACK LIST

Chacham Moshe married Leah Batuniashvili, who supported him in all his endeavors. She passed away nearly two decades ago.

The Michaelashvili sons followed in their father’s footsteps. In the morning they worked at the slaughterhouse and in the afternoon and evening they went from house to house in order to teach Torah to Jewish children, to read the Shma with them, to put t’fillin on with some and for those whose level of knowledge was higher they taught Chumash, Mishna and Gemara.

A few children gathered in each house and the brothers made the rounds and taught them.

One day, the secret police caught on to what they were doing and began shadowing them. This went on for a long time and yet they were never caught. They bribed one of the KGB agents and every time a raid was planned for a certain block, the brothers were given advance notice. If the KGB put people near the house where they were going to teach that night, the brothers would not show up. Of course, this also entailed great miracles.

One day, the brothers’ names were put on the blacklist of the KGB. These lists were published in the newspapers and citizens were warned not to make contact with them. “They poison our young children,” said the paper.

During the conversation with the Michaelashvili brothers, I asked them from where they got the strength and courage to continue teaching under these circumstances. Chacham Moshe said, “It is hard to explain to someone who wasn’t there, but during wartime, every soldier has strengths and inner powers which he does not have in ordinary times. There is also no question that heavenly assistance and the merit of our Rebbeim stood by us.”

The three brothers learned Chassidus with the Chassid, R’ Dovid Skolnik, who lived in Kulashi at that time. They learned together for five years, two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. R’ Skolnik would give the brothers maamarim which they copied by hand. Sometimes they copied entire kuntreisim so they could learn them. Chacham Yaakov has a handwritten copy of Kuntres Ha’t’filla which he showed me.

Over the years, teachings of Chassidus came to Kulashi, each time in a secret way, as Chacham Moshe related:

“Luba Eliav was the first secretary at the Israeli embassy in Moscow (at the request of Chabad Chassidim, he traveled to cities throughout the Soviet Union and distributed holy items and sifrei Chassidus). He often went to Kulashi. He would stay in the city for only a few hours during which he would distribute s’farim and t’fillin. Then he would leave. He never spent the night in Kulashi. A Jew who spoke to him would be in danger. Whoever was seen in contact with him was quickly interrogated by the KGB about their relationship.

“R’ Notke Barkahan, who lived in Riga, once came to Kulashi. He came under the guise of an innocent tourist. In order to look authentic, he stood in the central marketplace and began taking pictures. He was not aware that in a small town such as Kulashi a camera was a rare item. Passersby seeing a stranger taking pictures thought he was a spy and called the police. He was taken for interrogation in the course of which they found a HaYom Yom in his bag and sichos of the Rebbe.

“The Jews of the town heard what happened and after intervening and with a lot of bribing, he was freed. It was a Friday and the Jews of the town were afraid to host him since he had been suspected of being a spy. Someone who lived on the edge of town was willing to endanger himself for the mitzva of hospitality. On Motzaei Shabbos, we (the three Michaelashvili brothers) went to this man’s house and R’ Notke farbrenged with us and gave us Jewish books and holy items that were difficult to obtain. For us it was a veritable bonanza.”

LEAVING THE SOVIET UNION

Diplomatic ties between Israel and the Soviet Union were cut with the outbreak of the Six Day war, when Russia sided with and supported the Arab nations. Miraculously, on the very day that the war began, the Michaelashvilis were finally granted permission to exit the country. It was an open miracle as the brothers related with great excitement:

Chacham Moshe: 

“Fear of the authorities in those days was enormous. Parnasa problems were also great since we did not work on Shabbos and we lived poverty stricken lives. We did not have the money for tickets to Eretz Yisroel and we were known as a family whose actions opposed the government, so it was only a dream that we would ever get out.

“Then one day, I got to talking with someone, a Jew, who was the prosecutor general of Georgia. He said to me, ‘According to the law, you cannot be punished for your wanting to make aliya. But, as you know, if they want, they can make false accusations against you and send you into exile for many years. So it pays to measure your steps patiently and carefully.’”

After much effort, in Shevat 5727, Chacham Shabtai, his wife, their three sons and grandchildren, received their visas. But then, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, Chacham Shabtai passed away. That left them with a bureaucratic problem. Their documents no longer matched because it said 21 people and now they were only 20. Not much time elapsed and the wife of one of Chacham Moshe’s brothers gave birth to a girl and she was put on the papers instead of the deceased grandfather.

The tension between the Arab countries and Israel caused the government to delay the Michaelashvili’s departure, even though they had exit visas. In the end, they managed to overcome the difficulties and the departure of the brothers and their families was a very joyous event for the entire community. On the day they left, the entire community gathered, the chachomim and everyone else, in order to say goodbye and wish them well.

From Kulashi the family traveled to Moscow and from there they flew to Vienna. However, the plane unexpectedly landed in Kiev. They were terrified. Dozens of policemen and KGB agents stormed the plane and conducted a thorough search and it was only after a long time that they left the plane and the flight continued on to Vienna. From Vienna, the family traveled to Venice where they boarded a ship for Eretz Yisroel.

ARRIVING WITHIN THE YEAR

The family settled in Kfar Chabad and the three brothers flew to the Rebbe for Tishrei. The Rebbe treated them in the most amazing way. At every farbrengen he waited until all the brothers were present. One time, one brother was delayed and the Rebbe asked where the third brother was.

When they arrived at 770, R’ Shmuel Levitin told them that on Simchas Torah 5727, he had asked the Rebbe for a bracha that the Jews of Georgia be able to leave the Soviet Union. The Rebbe said that they would be here within the year. The Rebbe’s prophecy had been fulfilled and the rabbis of Georgia were there.

During Tishrei, they asked the Rebbe whether to pursue private lives or to continue as chachomim. The Rebbe said they should continue in their family’s tradition. Chacham Moshe said that the Rebbe told them not to change from their traditions in Georgia and to preserve their community’s niggunim. 

They began working with Georgian immigrants but they were few in number. However, plenty of work awaited them in the years to come.

THE REBBE CHOSE CHACHAM MOSHE AS HIS SHLIACH

About two years passed since they arrived in Eretz Yisroel, Chacham Moshe’s life changed instantly after the Rebbe told him to move from Kfar Chabad to Nachalat Har Chabad which was under construction. 

On 7 Adar 5729, ten Lubavitcher families settled in the new neighborhood. A few days later, about fifty Georgian families arrived. The Rebbe sent a telegram to the vaad of Kfar Chabad, in which he instructed one of the Michaelashvili brothers to move to Nachalat Har Chabad to serve as the rav, to lead the community and help with material and spiritual absorption.

R’ Shlomo Maidanchek, chairman of the vaad of Kfar Chabad, called in the three brothers and showed them the Rebbe’s telegram. Each of them said he was willing to move to Nachalat Har Chabad immediately. The three wrote a joint letter in which they informed the Rebbe that they were each willing to go on the Rebbe’s shlichus to the new neighborhood. The answer was clear – the Rebbe circled the name of Chacham Moshe.

Chacham Moshe did not delay, but immediately began his intensive work among Georgian Jews who settled in Nachalat Har Chabad. Every day he traveled to work in Beit Shemesh where he worked as a shochet, and at the end of the day he went to Nachalat Har Chabad to work with the Georgian immigrants. He did this on weekdays, while on Shabbos and Yom Tov he stayed in Nachalat Har Chabad.

Despite all his work, there were complaints on the part of people who had been accustomed, in Georgia, to live in a spacious home surrounded by a yard in which they grew vegetables and where they had a cow for milk and all had jobs. In Kiryat Malachi a few families sometimes lived in one small apartment and the sources of income were dependent on government offices which were supposed to arrange it. Nevertheless, Chacham Moshe worked hard to better their lot. Since he was almost the only one who read, wrote and spoke the language of the immigrants, along with Hebrew, all complaints were directed at him. This did not stop him from doing all he could to carry out the Rebbe’s directives to settle Georgian immigrants in Nachalat Har Chabad. In this, he worked in cooperation with other Chabad askanim. 

BUILDING TORAH JUDAISM

In 5731, he moved to Nachalat Har Chabad and his activities were broadened considerably. Chacham Moshe served as rav, chazan, and mohel. In addition to his work in Nachala, he also worked in many places throughout Eretz Yisroel, as his son Avrohom relates:

“My father worked together with Chacham Refael Alashvili, Chacham Yehuda Butrashvili (Kulasher), Chacham Yaakov Dobrashvili and other chachomim. Their work in building shuls, mikvaos and schools were done with other activists led by R’ Sholom Ber Lifschitz a”h. The chachomim would go to locations where immigrants were concentrated and see whether they had a Georgian shul. These shuls were started with the help of activists in every Georgian immigrant center throughout the country.”

Chacham Moshe addressed his congregation and demanded of them that they strengthen their observance of mitzvos and send their children to learn in a Torah framework. He did a great deal for Shabbos observance, tznius, Torah study, and also taught many teachings of Chabad Chassidus. He enjoyed much satisfaction from his efforts. From the Georgian immigrants in Nachalat Har Chabad some became Chabad Chassidim, among them rabbanim and shluchim in Eretz Yisroel and around the world.

Aside from his local work, he also looked out for members of the extended community throughout the country, and together with his brother Bentzion he initiated the founding of a special kollel to train Georgian rabbanim in Lud. He gave smicha to many rabbanim who later went on to serve in various Georgian communities.

Chacham Moshe was appointed as a member of the vaad of Nachalat Har Chabad, by the Rebbe’s instruction. He attended shiurim in the Georgian shul and the Chabad shul in the neighborhood, and gave countless shiurim in Nachalat Har Chabad and other places. He often lectured on halacha and told tales of tzaddikim. He always strongly demanded that his community strengthen Torah and mitzvos.

Gabi Ben David (Tzalakashvili), an old-timer from Nachalat Har Chabad, spoke very emotionally about his chochom who passed away:

“This world did not interest him at all. He constantly worked on behalf of strengthening the community. He wanted them to learn Torah and strengthen their Torah and mitzvos. When he spoke at a memorial gathering and would be given money, he did not take it for himself but donated it to institutions of the community, and he would give the family an official receipt that the money had been donated to the mosdos. He himself gave nice sums of money to the shul and mosdos of the community whether by buying aliyos or other donations.”

A “Merkaz Torah V’Chesed Chabad l’Yehudei Georgia” was founded and Chacham Moshe was the president. He was the man who started dozens of clubs for youth, shiurim for men, women and youth. He was also one of the founders of an organization that held a national halacha contest.

After the passing of Chacham Refael Alashvili, chief rabbi of the Georgian community in 5771, he succeeded him and was appointed to serve in the important role of rav of Georgian Jewry. He was elected to serve as president of Igud Rabbanei Yahadus Georgia.

Although his health continued to deteriorate, he intensified his work for his flock. Together with his son R’ Shabtai, he convinced the Israeli-Georgian billionaire Mikhael Mirilashvili to donate to his people. Within a short time, large sums of money were provided for the spiritual activities of the group which were raised to an unprecedented level.

I was amazed to see him, in his final months, being brought in a wheelchair to the mikva, then lifted out and with much effort, with the help of family members, he entered the mikva, immersed, and went back to his wheelchair.

In Nissan, Chacham Moshe was hospitalized. In Iyar, members of the Georgian community and Chabad Chassidim united to say T’hillim and pray for his recovery. Unfortunately, he passed away on 23 Iyar.

At the funeral, R’ Yaroslavsky announced that he appointed Chacham Moshe’s son Shabtai to succeed his father as rav of the Georgian community in Nachalat Har Chabad, with the consent of the family and leaders of the group. 

One of the eulogizers said that when Chacham Moshe first arrived in Eretz Yisroel, he met with the Rishon L’Tziyon, R’ Ovadia Yosef and said to him, “The Torah scroll of our group is on the ground and our task is to pick it up and raise it high.” For many decades, he did just that. The eulogizers emphasized that Chacham Moshe was the loyal shliach of the Rebbe who was sent by him to Nachalat Har Chabad. He did all he could to instill Judaism and Chassidus in his people.

Chacham Moshe was survived by a beautiful family who all go in his ways, the way of Torah and Chassidus. His sons: R’ Avrohom Aryeh – Kfar Chabad; Chacham Shabtai Menachem Mendel. His daughters: Rochel, Chava, Esther, Avigayil.

 

CHACHAM MOSHE – LEADER OF THE CHABAD IMMIGRANTS

A few months had gone by since Georgian immigrants had settled in Nachalat Har Chabad and the newspaper Davar wrote an upbeat article about the important work of Chacham Moshe:

“Chabad olim who are not Ashkenazim” was the headline and there was a picture of Chacham Moshe. This is what it said about the picture: Chacham Moshe, leader of the Chabad immigrants, with the buildings of Kiryat Malachi in the background, made aliya two years ago and arranged for the aliya of his group. To the complainers among them he says: Only when Moshiach comes will the tzaros stop.

Here are some quotes from the article:

“In the new neighborhood called Nachalat Har Chabad in three elongated buildings, 45 families, about 200 people, were set up. They will be, it is hoped, the pioneers for the entire group. Chacham Moshe leads the olim. He made aliya two years ago. Upon instructions from the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York, and with the help of Israeli authorities, he began dealing with the aliya of his flock. Chacham Moshe, with a rounded beard, says that the olim came not because of economic need. On the contrary, they were quite comfortable where they were. What pushed them to make aliya was love for Eretz Yisroel …”

The article enumerated the complaints of the olim about narrow apartments and problems with schooling and work, and ends with Chacham Moshe’s response to these complaints. He is optimistic and he works hard to fill the requests of the olim: “Jews love to complain; it is the nature of our people. I tell people here, only one who has passed on has no worries. There will always be tzaros until Moshiach comes.”

 

 

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