Communism was a religion that tolerated no other religion. As an earlier article discussed, the Soviets almost totally destroyed organized Jewish education during the 1930s, and as Chazal say, “without kids there are no goats.” By the 1950’s rabbis in the Soviet Union were a dying breed. Throughout the vast realms of Russia, 117 religious functionaries, fi ty percent of them with no formal training, fought to retain a semblance of Judaism in their communities. Eighty percent of them were over sixty years old.
Since Stalin’s death in 5713/1953 there had been a slight thaw in religious persecution and Jews worked up enough courage to point out to the authorities that the lack of rabbis was opposed to Soviet law that required every registered synagogue to have a religious leader of some sort. Were Jews different than the Christians and Moslems who were permitted to run training institutions for their future clerics?
Although the Soviet authorities cared little about punctiliously observing their own rules, they did feel a need to project a positive image in the West where many still believed that Russia was the working man’s paradise. This false impression was in danger, as just one year earlier a Warsaw Yiddish newspaper had revealed that thousands of Jews had perished in Russia both before and after the Holocaust and the West was accusing Russia of human rights abuses. What better way to allay such fears and accusations than to open a yeshiva in the middle of the Red Capital! The main instigator of this visionary plan was Rav Solomon Shlifer who had served as the Chief Rabbi of Moscow since 5689/1929 and also served as Chairman of the Moscow Jewish Community.
“Confident that students would be found who would be willing to devote years in the yeshiva to religious studies and afterwards would link their destiny and future to Jewish religious life,” he pressed the “Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults” (CARC) to allow the opening of a yeshiva that would offer a three year course grounding its students in Gemara and Halacha, and also give them practical training in shechitah, kri’as HaTorah, and bris Milah. The curriculum would also include mathematics and physics. The inclusion of bris Milah in his list is an example of the inconsistency sometimes found in Soviet affairs. While parents were offi cially barred from circumcising their children as this was regarded as religious coercion, this law was generally brushed under the carpet and even Jewish Communist offi cials often sneaked a mohel into their homes to perform circumcisions.
A tentative agreement was reached. The new yeshiva would accept fifty bochurim for three years and eventually build up to 300 students. Even before the last details were ironed out, Rav Shlifer was already sending letters all over Russia announcing the good news:
“In our days when our holy Torah is neglected and there is no one to ensure that it is handed on to our heirs, the younger generation, I have taken an initiative, with strong desire and will, to reestablish the strength of our Torah and restore its grandeur…. I am confident that all Jews devoted to our holy faith will spare no effort to transform the yeshiva into a genuine treasury of Torah and will participate enthusiastically in the holy enterprise of organizing the yeshiva.”
Jews everywhere were electrified and requests to join the yeshiva flew in from all over Russia. However, becoming a student in the Moscow Yeshiva was no easy matter. Besides passing the standards of the yeshiva’s acceptance board, students also had to undergo the scrutiny of Soviet Secret Police.
On top of that, out of town students had to run the complicated gauntlet of receiving resident permits for Moscow, a document so coveted that prospective students needed to convince the police that they were not using the yeshiva as an excuse to reach the Red Mecca. All this meant that few applicants made it through the grindstones of offi cialdom and the yeshiva opened with a grand total of thirteen students.
They came from everywhere. As the head of the yeshiva reported the following year, “The students speak various languages, Russian, Hebrew in two accents, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and Yiddish. Hence classes too had to be conducted in a mixture of languages and dialects.”
NO WORSE THAN VOLOZHIN
A historical day dawned on January 6, 5717/1957. This was the date set by the Soviet authorities to festively open Moscow’s Kol Yaakov Yeshiva. In his inauguration speech, Rav Shlifer announced that the yeshiva would “educate its students in the spirit of the Torah and in the spirit of Communism and Soviet patriotism.” He continued that despite its small beginnings, no one should despair because even the renowned Volozhin Yeshiva had started out with only ten talmidim. Jews world wide were elated at this new development even though the yeshiva was not quite what they imagined. Its beis medrash was located in a corner of the famous Moscow Choral Synagogue where thousands of Jews used to gather on Simchas Torah in later years. This landmark shul had its centennial last year. The students ate in a kosher restaurant set up inside half a wooden building in the shul’s courtyard.
Some time later, this restaurant roused the ire of the Soviet government when it became a popular meeting place between visiting Westerners and Russians; apparently, the commotion inside made it easier to exchange a few words without being overheard by the omniscient police informer always lurking behind one’s back. As a result it was shut down in 5721/1961.
Meanwhile, of course, the Soviets made a grand propaganda coup out of the whole affair, pointing out that no greater proof of their tolerance to Judaism could exist than the existence of a yeshiva and kosher restaurant in the heart of Moscow.
Due to the small number of students who were mostly in their thirties and forties, and the variety of languages and skills in learning, studies were generally conducted in small groups and concentrated less on theory and more on practical matters such as shechita and Milah. Lectures to the whole student body were generally for propaganda purposes.
Funding the yeshiva was a never ending problem as the Soviets were not forwarding one ruble to the Jews for its running expenses. Jews were expected to support it from their own limited resources. Agudas Yisroel’s offers of assistance were rejected due to a Soviet policy that proscribed foreign funding for religious institutions. When Rav Shlifer attempted to publicize the yeshiva throughout Russia in order to solicit funds, the Soviets branded this an attempt “to perform the function of a [chief] rabbinate in the Soviet Union” and Jews were warned to remove the labels from the collection boxes he had sent out. Nevertheless, Jews continued dropping coins into the bare boxes, knowing well for whom they were destined.
At that time another historical event was unfolding which helped supply the yeshiva with funds for a few months. This was Rav Shlifer’s publishing of the fi rst siddur offi cially published in Russia since 5687/1927. Though mostly an exact replica of earlier siddurim, this siddur had one innovation, a special prayer for peace which gave it its name, “The Mir (peace) Siddur.” Sales of 3,000 copies of this precious volume helped get the yeshiva through its first few months. That March, a few months after opening his yeshiva, Rav Shlifer suddenly passed away, and he was replaced by Rav Yehuda Leib Lewin who had studied years earlier in the Slabodka Yeshiva. By now, the yeshiva body, which consisted mostly of married men in their thirties, had dropped from thirteen to ten.
THE BIG FREEZE
By this time, the Soviets’ temporary thaw towards religious life since Stalin’s death was beginning to freeze up, and they informed Rav Lewin that from now on the yeshiva student body could not exceed thirty students. In addition, they clamped a special religious functionary tax on the faculty’s wages which persuaded some of them to leave. Only three rabbis remained, one of them was Rav Chaim Katz of Polotsk who had once been a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. By 5718/1958 things didn’t seem to be going so badly after all, as the student body had increased to twenty students, half of them still in their twenties. The Jews of Soviet Georgia had sent a number of young men to become their future shochtim and mohelim.
However, as the 1950’s came to an end the financial situation of the yeshiva worsened, largely due to the beginning of an intensive anti-religion campaign directed specially against Judaism. By 5721/1961 the yeshiva had shrunk to 12 members; by 1962 the enrollment was down to five and three years later it had dropped to three. By the time anti-religious extremism ended with the passing of the leader Nikita Kruschev in 5724/1964, it was too late. The yeshiva had quietly perished without the Soviets having to bother to close it down officially. For over twenty years no yeshiva existed on Soviet soil until 5749/1989 when the Soviets allowed a brand new yeshiva to open in the heart of Moscow.
The New York Times announced that February: “Moscow, which got a new Jewish cultural center last week, will get a yeshiva this week, the first such academy of Jewish learning on Soviet soil in 60 years.”
Evidently, the writer never heard of Rav Shlifer’s desperate attempt to reignite Torah study in the Soviet Union back in the 1950s. Too many Jews had forgotten about the Kol Yaakov Yeshiva that shone in Soviet skies for a handful of years until axed by Communist hate.
(Source: Altshuler, Mordechai. “Ten Years of the Yeshiva in Soviet Moscow.” Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. Jerusalem: The Avraham Hartman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem at Mount Scopus, Summer 2003.)