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Russia – from harsh persecution to freedom of religion

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MOIRA SCHNEIDER

                                                                                        

PHOTOGRAPH BY MOIRA SCHNEIDER

CAPE TOWN

Pictured: Rabbi Mendel Popack, head of Chabad Centre; Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar; and Rabbi Asher Deren of The Shul of Blouberg – West Coast, who spearheaded the Siyum HaRambam and Yud Tes Kislev celebration. 

Yud-Tes Kislev is remembered as the date the founder of Chabad Chassidim Rabbi Schneur Zalman was released from a czarist Russian prison and it is regarded as the birthday of the movement. It was for this reason that it was appropriate that the chief rabbi of Russia was present, Rabbi Mendel Popack, head of Chabad Centre, told the gathering.

Rabbi Popack also noted that it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had instituted the learning of the Rambam, which he believed was a prelude to the coming of Moshiach.

Rabbi Lazar spoke of an “amazing” turnaround in the community’s fortunes since the severe restrictions on the practice of religion began to be lifted.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe had always believed that things would improve for the Jews in the Soviet Union and some 30 years ago had sent a message to the locals to build a mikveh “in the shortest time possible”, Rabbi Lazar related. It was duly built – underground – but the KGB came a few days later and closed it.

When the people asked the Rebbe what they should do, he advised a policy of “quiet diplomacy”. So former President Mikhail Gorbachev was approached while attending an international meeting and asked how the mikveh could be closed when there was supposed to be freedom of religion in Russia.

Gorbachev later admitted that he had no idea what a mikveh was, but the upshot was that the KGB came back to the synagogue and gave permission to rebuild the mikveh. They were told, however: “We’ve built it once, you closed it, you rebuild it.”

“Until today, it is the only mikveh the KGB has built!” Rabbi Lazar said, to the audience’s amusement.

On the “miracles” that had taken place since, the chief rabbi said: “You have to see it to believe it. The government is giving back synagogues, it is opening Jewish schools. There is a state-of-the-art Jewish museum in Moscow with 2 000 visitors a day – it is (among) the top 10 museums in the world.

“How come such a strong regime against religion turned around completely and they’re really interested in Jewish children getting a Jewish education?” Rabbi Lazar asked. “There are different ways of getting freedom,” he ventured.

“Chassidus teaches us that if you want to change the world, do it in a peaceful way. It is amazing how they have embraced the Jewish community, embraced religion and how Jews feel comfortable in Russia. It is the only country where anti-Semitism is declining year by year.

“You can walk in the street dressed like a rabbi and people come up to you and say, ‘We support you, we support Israel.’”

No fewer than 6 500 brissim had been performed, “sometimes on 60-, 40-, 30-year-olds” who had been unable to undergo them before. “People are coming back and they want to embrace Yiddishkeit,” he said, mentioning the “hundreds” of community centres, schools, mikvehs and synagogues that are being established.  

Most rabbis serving the community today were locally born, having gone to Jewish schools, yeshivot and married local girls. 

Rabbi Sam Thurgood of Beit Midrash Morasha, spoke on the life and teachings of the Rambam. 

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