The importance of a thorough grounding in Jewish history for non-observant Jews is easily grasped. The Jewish story is one of the few remaining points of positive connection to their identity as Jews: They are no longer likely to grow up in largely Jewish neighborhoods; Israel carries more and more negative baggage on the campuses where they matriculate; and as intermarried families become the norm, Jewishness is more often a point of friction than a source of familial glue.
The continual survival of the Jewish people as a lone lamb among seventy wolves constitutes the greatest story ever told, and still retains the power to inspire Jews far removed from Torah and mitzvos to seek the source of the Jewish people's endurance and success against all odds.
Less obvious is the need for young Jews raised in observant homes to delve deeply into the Jewish past. Yet the Torah seeks to imbue us with a historical consciousness. We are enjoined to remember many things: the going out from Mitzrayim; the day we stood at Sinai; what Amalek did to us on the way.
The Ramban writes that Hashem reveals Himself in history through the miracles done for the Jewish people. Just as the study of the wonders of Creation can bring one to a greater awe of Hashem so can contemplation of the manner in which He has shepherded us. "Zachor yamos olam binu shnos dor b'dor – Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation," can be read variously as a command to understand the relationship of one generation to another (Malbim); contemplate the manner in which Hashgacha is bringing mankind to its ultimate goal (Seforno), or to reflect on the patterns of continuity (Emek Davar).
But quite apart from the mitzvah aspects of the study of Jewish history, it must be admitted that many of our youth, even those in no danger of leaving the path of mitzvos, are going through the paces without a great deal of passion. They too could gain from an understanding of their place in history's longest running saga.
AN IMPORTANT NEW BOOK, The Underground (Judaica Press) on the ba'al teshuva movement in the former Soviet Union, details another amazing chapter in the history of Jewish resilience and courage, and demonstrates once again the yearning for connection with Hashem in every Jewish soul that no oppressor can completely extinguish.
Though the events recorded took place within recent decades and almost all of the main protagonists are still alive, the story is too little known. Parts have been told from the point of view of the Russian ba'alei teshuva themselves: The Silent Revolution (ArtScroll) focuses on the Moscow circle around Rabbi Eliyahu Essas; Carmela Raiz's Blue Sky over Red Square(Feldheim) on the Vilna circle headed by her husband Zev, a student of Rabbi Essas; Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich's Unbroken Spirit (Gefen) chronicles his eleven years in Soviet prison, which inspired many others.
The Underground adds the perspective of the hundreds of shlichim (emissaries) sent to teach Torah by the Vaad L'Hatzolos Nidchei Yisroel under the leadership of Mordechai Neustadt, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those teachers were many talmidei chachamim of the first rank – e.g., Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, and l'havdil bein chayim l'chayim Rabbi Mordechai Shapiro. They encountered ba'alei teshuva with an insatiable desire to learn Torah, capable of sitting 14 hours straight in cramped apartments.
The Russian ba'alei teshuva had no one from whom they could learn at an advanced level apart from shlichim from abroad. The first teacher of most Russian ba'alei teshuva -- or the teacher of their first teachers -- was Rabbi Eliyahu Essas. Yet even he, after he had been learning halacha on his own for some years, had to travel fifteen hours by train from Moscow to Riga to find an old Jew to show him how to make Kiddush and run a Shabbos table.
After the fall of the FSU, the Vaad, helped the heroes of the underground create vibrant Torah communities for Russian-speakers in Eretz Yisrael and America, as well as the FSU itself.
A single expensive camera smuggled into the Soviet Union by a Vaad emissary was enough to rent a summer dacha on Latvia's Baltic coast. There a bit further removed from KGB surveillance and the preying eyes of neighbors, 35 families crammed into a small, primitive, two story building. Fifty would sit in a room twenty by ten feet, with the windows closed (to avoid being reported by the neighbors) in the stifling heat. News of the Yurmala dacha run by Rabbi Essas flew by word of mouth; a mother and son came by train 6,000 miles from Vladivostok to learn Torah.
In that dacha, they could live as part of a Jewish community for the first time. And their children could learn Torah. (Teaching religion to children was a severe offense under Article 142 of the Soviet penal code.)
The first thing a tourist noted in the Soviet Union was the gray, sullen faces of every Soviet citizen, but in the dacha, Rabbi Mordechai Shapiro reported, "You can see simchah on their faces. It's an intensity of simchah that's difficult – perhaps impossible -- to find outside the Iron Curtain. They are the happiest people I've ever seen. The poorest, the most deprived, the most harassed, the most tormented – but the happiest! You can see it in their eyes. They learn. They sing. They undergo a total transformation. They come out different people."
Author Yaakov Astor does a superb job capturing the constant, pervasive fear under which Soviet citizens lived and which served as the backdrop to everything that took place. Under Stalin's Great Terror 1937-38, the Politburo issued monthly quotas of those to be executed, exiled, or sent to hard labor. Guilt or innocence, even in Communist terms, was irrelevant; the only point was to thoroughly terrorize the population. Prudent people began any private social gathering with toasts to "our dear Comrade Stalin," just in case the KGB was listening – not that such precautions offered much protection.
Stalin's successors were not quite as brutal, but the KGB supervision remained omnipresent. Every participant in a clandestine learning session in the '70s and '80s knew that any moment could bring a knock on the door, followed by detention and exile. Visitors from abroad experienced the fear from the moment they landed. Every item of luggage was combed through at the airport and the contents listed. Wherever they went they were followed, their hotel rooms were tapped, and the cab drivers they hailed outside their hotels were KGB agents. Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller and Rabbi Avraham Abba Friedman were arrested and interrogated for ten hours.
Lev Katzin (today Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, principal of Sinai Academy) received a phone invitation from the KGB to meet their agents downstairs in 1980. They informed him of a government decision "to crush your entire movement. All of you. Jewish nationalists. Religious Jews. All of you will die. You will rot in Siberia in concentration camps. No one in the West will be able to help you because no one will know who you are or that you are even there."
That warning was followed by the offer of a brilliant career in the KGB as an informer. The young man replied that for all their dialectical materialism, the agents had apparently forgotten their history. He suggested they review what happened to Pharoah when he refused Moshe Rabbeinu's request to "Let my people go."
A very large percentage of the ba'alei teshuva were mathematicians, engineers, scientists, holders of PhDs. They demanded solid answers and proofs, but once they were convinced they could not be deterred. Their mesirus nefesh to keep mitzvos shames us. Sasha Kogan and his wife, leaders of the religious revival in Kishinev, shared a small kitchen and bathroom with eighteen other families. They arose at 3:00 a.m. every morning to scrape and burn out the oven so they could keep kosher. Yet when granted permission to emigrate to Israel and leave their hovel, the Kogans refused: Too many Jews in Kishinev depended on them.
When Carmela Raiz and other women in Vilna began observing the laws of Jewish family life, they traveled 14 hours by train to Moscow to immerse in the mikveh. Later they gained permission to refurbish a long abandoned mikveh in Vilna, which they filled with thick blocks of ice hewed from a local river, before immersing in the icy waters in an unheated building.
But in direct proportion to their mesirus nefesh was their miraculous growth in learning and commitment. Under the eyes of the KGB, with only a smattering of seforim, and teachers but a few years more advanced than they, talmidei chachamim were produced.
Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, who opened a yeshiva in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union, told Rabbi Mattisiyahu Solomon, "It is a neis and a peleh that a bachur learning here in Russia progresses and achieves aliyah in Torah in Torah and yiras Shomayim in three years, steadily managing to accomplish what it takes a bachur in Mir or Slabodka fifteen years to achieve."
The heroes of The Underground experienced kefitzas haderech in every aspect of their spiritual development. Because Torah was precious to them they were moser nefesh in a way beyond our comprehension, and because they were moser nefesh for Torah it became ever more precious.
What can those of us who were privileged to learn Torah in safety and comfort and did not appreciate the gift say in our defense? The history of the remarkable movement of Russian-speaking ba'alei teshuva not only inspires but demands something from us. That is but one more reason for reading this gripping account of the Soviet baal teshuva movement.