A Vain Battle
If there was ever a battle fought in vain, this was it. Or at least, so it seemed at the time.
The year is 1924. Vladimir Lenin, the father of the communist revolution, is dead; over 900,000 people pass through the Hall of Columns during the four days and nights that Lenin's body lay exposed to the public.
Josef Stalin succeeds him as the new leader of the Soviet Union. During the following thirty years, he would murder 50 million of his own people. Jews and Judaism would be one of his primary targets. He sets up a special government organization, the Yevsektzye, to ensure that Russian Jewry in its millions embraces the new ethos of Communism, introducing a paradise constructed of bullets and gulags.
Stalin would rule with an iron fist till his death in March 1953, when four million people would gather in Red Square to bid farewell to the tyrant still revered and beloved by much of his nation and by many millions the world over.
At his home in Leningrad (today Petersburg), a 44-year-old rabbi, heir to some of the great Jewish thinkers and leaders of Russian Jewry, summons nine young disciples. He offers them an opportunity most would refuse: to take responsibility for the survival of Judaism in the communist Soviet Union; to ensure that Jewish life and faith would survive the hellish darkness of Stalin’s regime. He wants them to fight—in his words—“till the last drop of blood.”
They embrace the mission. He gives his hand to each of them as a sign that they are accepting an oath, one that would transform their destiny forever. "I will be the tenth, he says; together we have a minyan"...
An Underground Revolution
The nine men were dispatched throughout the country. With assistance from similar-minded colleagues, they created an impressive underground network of Jewish activity, which included Jewish schools, synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths used by Jewish woman for spiritual feminine reinvigoration), adult Torah education, Yeshivot (academies for Torah learning for students), Jewish textbooks, providing rabbis for communities, teachers for schools, etc. Over the 1920s and 1930s, these individuals built six hundred (!) Jewish underground schools throughout the U.S.S.R (1). Many of them last for only a few weeks or months. When the KGB (the secret Russian police) discovered a school, the children were expelled, the teacher arrested. A new one was opened elsewhere, usually in a cellar or on a roof.
One of the nine young men was sent to Georgia. There were dozens of mikvaot there, all shut down by the communists who buried them in sand and gravel. This young man decided to do something radical. He falsified a letter written supposedly by the KGB headquarters in Moscow, instructing the local offices in Georgia to open two mikvaot within 24 hours.
The local officials were deceived. Within a day, two mikvaot were open. Several months later, when they discovered the lie, they shut them down again.
And so it went. A mohel (the person performing the mitzvah of circumcision) was arrested, and another one was dispatched to serve the community; a yeshiva was closed, and another one opened elsewhere; a synagogue was destroyed and another one opened its portals in secrecy. It is a chapter in Jewish history unbeknownst to most.
But it sure seemed like a lost battle. Here was an individual rabbi, with a small group of pupils, staging an underground rebellion against a mighty empire that numbered in the hundreds of millions, and aspired to dominate the world. It was like an infant wrestling a giant, an ant attempting to defeat a military tank. The situation was hopeless.
Finally, in 1927—ninety-three years ago—they lost their patience with this man. The rabbi behind the counter-revolutionary work was arrested and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Foreign pressure and nothing less than a miracle convinced the KGB to alter the sentence to ten years in exile. It was then converted to three years, and then—quite unbelievable in the Soviet Regime where clergy and laymen alike were murdered like flies—he was completely exonerated. The 12th and 13th of the Hebrew month of Tamuz (this year it is July 4-5), mark the 92nd anniversary since he was liberated from Stalin’s death sentence in 1927.
The individual behind the spiritual mutiny was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), who became the leader of Chabad in 1920, after the passing of his father. He selected nine of his young pupils to wage battle with him. The one sent to Georgia, falsifying the KGB document, was my grandfather, Simon Yakabashvili, my father’s father (1900-1953). He, together with hundreds of his colleagues, Chassidim throughout the Soviet Union, was arrested in 1938, tortured mercilessly and given a 25-year sentence in the Gulag. Most of his eight colleagues who accepted the oath never made it out of Stalin’s hell. They perished in the Soviet Union.
(My grandfather, Reb Simon, made it out of the USSR, but died several years later at the age of 53 in Toronto. He died on 2 Tamuz, 5713-1953, leaving behind there young sons, Gershon, Bezalel and Sholom. My father died in 2005, my uncle Bezalel died seven years ago. Their mother, Freida, passed on in 1954, one year after her husband. She was 44. One child remains, may he enjoy many long and healthy years).
Investing in Eternity
More than nine decades have passed. This passage of time gives us the opportunity to answer the question: Who won? Stalin or Schneerson?
one century ago, Marx's socialism and Lenin’s communism heralded a new era for humanity. Its seemingly endless power and brutality seemed unbreakable.
Yet one individual stood up, a man who would not allow the awesome war machine of Mother Russia to blur his vision, to eclipse his clarity. In the depths of his soul he was aware that history had an undercurrent often invisible to most but discernible to students of the long and dramatic narrative of our people. He knew with full conviction that evil might thrive but it will die; yet goodness, holiness, G-dliness—embodied in Torah and Mitzvos—are eternal.
And he chose to invest in eternity.
He probably did not know how exactly it would work out in the end. I am not sure he believed he would survive. But he knew that his mission in life was to sow seeds, though the trees were being felled one by one.
Cynics scoffed at him; close friends told him he was making a tragic mistake. Even many of his religious colleagues were convinced that he was wasting his time and energy fighting an impossible war. They either fled the country or maintained a low profile. Some great rabbis at the time felt he was trying to do the impossible and it was futile.
But 90 years later, this giant and what he represented have emerged triumphant. Today, in 2020, in the republics of the former Soviet Union stand hundreds of synagogues, Jewish day schools, yeshivot, mikvaot, Jewish community centers. Since communism fell, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (the son in law of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe who was liberated in 1927) sent hundreds of ambassadors to create a Jewish renaissance. They span the entire length and breadth of the country, from Siberia to Tashkent; from Tbilisi till Krasnoyarsk. Over the last 30 years, they have built more than one hundred (!) full-time Jewish day schools, in which more than 100,000 Jewish children received a Jewish Torah education. As this summer season began, dozens of Jewish day camps opened up throughout the former Soviet Union with tens of thousands of Jewish children who will enjoy a blissful summer coupled with the celebration of Jewish life.
I have a cousin, Rabbi Yerachmiel Garelick, who serves as the Chabad ambassador to Western Siberia. Jewish women had to travel for seven hours to visit a mikvah. He just completed building a magnificent mikvah in Tuman, Siberia!
And the Chabad couple in Birobidjhan, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway, near the China-Russia border, where Stalin wanted to exile three million Russian Jews, opened a Glat kosher restaurant there.
Last Chanukah, a large menorah stood tall in the Kremlin, casting the glow of Chanukah on the grounds where Stalin walked with Berya and Yezhov. On Lag Baomer (a Jewish holiday), thousands of Jewish children with kippot on their heads marched the streets of Moscow with signs proclaiming, "Hear oh Israel... G-d is One." Jewish life is bustling in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, etc.
Visiting Russia last summer, Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar, pointed to a massive Jewish school he built in Moscow stretching over a full block. “Right across from here were some of the main offices of the KGB, where the orders to decimate Judaism came from,” he said.
Across the street was a massive Jewish museum, one of the nicest I have ever seen, attracting thousands of weekly visitors, telling the story of the Jewish people and its heritage. “How did you get the money for this?” I asked Rabbi Lazar. He smiled and said that the first million came from the private charity of Vladimir Putin. "The rest was easy."
I then entered, two streets over, the Marina Rashtze synagogue in Moscow, a massive and beautiful 8-story structure. Hundreds of Jews were praying and studying Torah.
Comrade Stalin is dead; communism has faded away as hopelessly irrelevant and destructive. The sun of the nations is today a clod of darkness. The ideology of the Soviet Empire which declared "Lenin has not died and Stalin will not die. He is eternal," is now a mockery. Stalin and Lenin are as dead as one can be. But the Mikvaot built by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1927, they are still here, from Siberia to Moscow, to Tashkent.
If you will visit Russia this coming Shabbos, I am not sure you will find anybody celebrating the life and vision of Stalin, or even Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov. But you will find tens of thousands of Jews celebrating the liberation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1927 and the narrative of one holy man’s triumph over one of the greatest mass-murderers in human history, sharing his vision, committing themselves to continue saturating the world with the light of Torah and Mitzvos.
So on this Shabbos, the 12th of Tamuz, lift up your glasses and say L’chayim! L’chayim to a Rebbe who inspired such heroism in so many disciples, many of them who paid the ultimate price. L’chayim to the incredible Jews of Russia who maintained the embers burning for seven decades, and then—when the opportunity came—fanned them into glowing flames. L’chayim to my dear Zeide, Reb Simon, whom I never met but whose life-story is engraved in the core of my heart.
Today, we have many battles to fight, and plenty of darkness to conquer. It is easy to become cynical or depressed, leading to emotional paralysis. But our greatest leaders always knew better. They never allowed the mask of evil to define the narrative of history; they ensured that another story would dominate our imaginations and actions.
So can we.
1) This figure was given to me by Rabbi Sholom Ber Levin, chief librarian of the Central Lubavitch Library in Brooklyn, NY.