Jewish World Review Oct. 1 1998 / 11 Tishrei, 5759

Questions Most
Can't Answer

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich challenges us to remember the Forgotten Jews of the former Soviet Union.

THINK QUICK. Can you name a country -- somewhere in Europe -- with a population of only 500,000 Jews, yet with nearly 20 Jewish day schools open year-round, educating the community's young for up to 8 hours a day; a community that refuses to become part of Jewry's "continuity crisis," but is receiving relatively little help in areas of financial resources and moral encouragement?

Let's face it, most of us can't. And the question we should be asking ourselves is: Why not?

One could, I suppose, answer "because the Ukraine is just so far away. Out of sight, out of mind. What do you really expect?"

But that's more of an excuse than an answer.

IT HAS BEEN A DECADE since I made my first trip to what was then the Soviet Union. Actually, a "pilgrimage" would be a more accurate description. We were 20 Chasidic youth in search of our roots in a faraway land that, during our formative years, had served as the setting whence our cultural heritage had been sprung; on whose ground our most revered sages had walked. We had come to draw inspiration; to pray at the grave sites of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, and his disciple, Rabbi Ber of Mezrich, and other greats, in order that they should act as our "proxies" Above. We prayed to the Creator for continued success in our endeavors and for a good life; for happy marriages and dutiful children.

As Karlin-Stoliner Chasidim, we were particularly excited to be visiting the burial place of the famed Beis Aharon, one of the Founding Fathers of our sect, who lays in the Western Ukrainian hamlet of M'linov. We were said to be the first Jews who would visit the site as a group since the outbreak of World War II.

But it was not to be.

Upon returning from prayer services on Shabbes morning, we were greeted by an official who promptly informed us that our permission to visit the site had suddenly been revoked. (The USSR in 1988, it must be remembered, had many towns and villages that were closed to outsiders. At any time -- and for any reason -- the authorities could simply cut off a region from the rest of the world. And nothing, absolutely nothing, could be done to rectify the situation.)

We chose an alternative location: the local and nearby cemetery in Kiev.

IT WAS A WEEK AFTER SUCCOS, a bitter cold Sunday morning. I remember the details well, as it was the highlight of our trip, and an epiphany for me.

The cemetery was like most in the USSR -- decrepit, yet other-worldly looking. Most of Kiev was sound asleep as our group made its way through the region's silent streets and countryside. But to our surprise, the eternal home for residents of this city, so rich with history and ideas, was fully packed with Jews. These were individuals who, for one reason or another, apparently could not visit before Rosh HaShana, in accordance with Jewish custom. Despite the spiritual starvation so rampant at the time, this custom, it seems, was for some reason never forsaken.

As we wandered about, we suddenly noticed ourselves being watched intently by the assembled. And for a flicker of a moment, we wondered if the Motherland, which had just put a damper on our other plans, had actually gone to the bother of sending so many of her dutiful "deputies" to watch us here as well. This was the Soviet Union, after all.

It didn't take us long to find out. Our group was suddenly surrounded from all sides.

An elderly, hunched-backed Jew wearing a tattered cap and supporting himself with a cane was the first to come forward. It was obvious that our presence had moved him. But in which direction?

He began to run his hands up and down the sleeves of my coat, trying to hold back tears that must have been welled-up just under the surface for a half-century. He asked in a gruff, thickly-accented Yiddish: "Are you real? Am I still on Earth? Is this some sort of dream?"

He wasn't kidding.

"I am very much real," I responded. "And there are many more like me from where I come."

An elderly woman then asked if she could hold my friend's prayer book. "The last time I saw one," she said, as hot tears ran down her wrinkled face, "was so, so many years ago."

Our encounter in Kiev left us moved. We had come here to go "grave-hopping," in the Chasidic vernacular. But we left with a lesson in geo-politics that even the most proficient professor could not have conveyed better.

IN KIEV, AT THIS TIME, there were some 150,000 Jews. And millions more were still trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Yet we knew so little about them, and they, of course, knew even less about us.

It's now almost ten years later. The world is, by all accounts, a far different place. The Soviet Union is no more. There are organized Jewish communities -- with synagogues, daily minyanim, and institutions of Jewish learning -- scattered all throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States. Yet I dare ask: Has the Jewish world really changed?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the struggle for Soviet Jewry united Jews the world over. In the early 1990s, after the fall of Communism and the fulfillment of the "cause," the USSR suddenly became a novelty to the West. It was sort of like opening a time capsule and taking inventory of what had survived and what had not, a mere amusement.

Of course, there are some establishment Jewish groups doing their part. But it sometimes seems that the only time the average Western Jew is reminded of our existence is in sensationalistic stories and coverage of visits by political leaders. Does the average Jew, in fact, care that the 7,000-member Jewish community of Lemberg has gone to great lengths to organize a Judaic renaissance -- complete with social service agencies, educational facilities and the like? Do the Jews of (relatively) nearby Riga deserve more attention than merely serving as a backdrop in a newswire story about a resident who will be receiving a check from the Swiss Holocaust fund?

There are still millions of Jews living behind the Plastic Curtain. It's a transparent partition. But who will be the ones to push their outstretched hands through?


Rabbi Yaakov Bleich is Chief Rabbi of the Ukraine.

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©1998, Jewish World Review