Saturday, August 15, 2009

What an amazing Shabbos!

I’m on high from Shabbos.

Chabadniks traditionally host a farbrengen (an informal get-together with lots of Torah, song and lechaim) on Shabbos Mevorchim (the Shabbos before each new month). Elul is a special month on the Jewish calendar; it’s when we review the past year and begin gearing up for the High Holidays. Predictably, the Shabbos that blesses this exceptional month calls for an exceptional farbrengen. Our community always has an uplifting Shabbos Mevorchim Elul, but this year’s was on a completely new level.

What made it so special was a guest appearance by Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin. Rabbi Raskin is over sixty, but that didn’t stop him slipping on a pair of running shoes and walking seven kilometers to join us for Shabbos. Rabbi Raskin is originally Russian, now lives in Israel and is visiting South Africa to raise funds for his son who is the Chabad Shliach (representative) in Cyprus.

Zevi, his son, spent time in Joburg’s Chabad Yeshivah and that’s where we met. He is a big guy (comfortably over six foot) with the biggest hands I’ve ever seen and a matching big heart. In five years, he and his wife have created a Jewish revolution in Cyprus that is quite remarkable. After last year’s terror attacks in Mumbai, Israeli intelligence insisted that Chabad Cyprus upgrade their security and Raskin snr. is helping raise funds to cover his son’s security system.

After Shul, we sat down outside (we’ve, thank G-d, outgrown our Shul) for our traditional Shabbos Mevorchim cholent lunch. Soon enough, Rabbi Raskin started to share incredible stories of absolute dedication to Judaism, against unimaginable odds in a world behind the Iron Curtain that many of us don’t even realize existed. He described his clandestine bar mitzvah- celebrated with exactly a minyan and a smuggled Torah scroll- that the KGB bust despite all the family’s strictest precautions. He described how difficult it was to get kosher chicken, how he had to pretend to be sick every Shabbos or Yom Tov to avoid school, and how his father feigned insanity to dodge army conscription.

One story stood about from the rest. In his words, it’s the story of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe personally rescued his family from under the nose of the Communists.

The Raskin family lived in Gorky. Gorky was apparently a closed military zone (it housed certain military production plants) and one of the most dangerous places to live as an observant Jew, considering how many KGB agents lived there.

Rabbi Raskin, then a teen, studied in an underground Yeshivah in Samarkand. One day, unexpectedly, he received a telegram that his uncle needed to speak to him and he should head home. “Uncle” was the family’s code word for the Rebbe.

Rabbi Moshe Vishedski, Raskin’s uncle, had managed to leave Russia (not before the Russians threw him from a building, almost killing him and leaving him with permanent facial and cranial wounds). In New York, he visited the Rebbe and requested two things: 1) A “big miracle” for his brother-in-law (Raskin’s father) to dodge the KGB investigation of his business (which was illegal because it made a profit) and 2) Advice as to which city the Raskins should go to in order to lodge a request to leave the USSR.

The Rebbe’s response was reassuring- and perplexing. First, the Rebbe noted that G-d had managed to spirit Rabbi Vishedski out of Russia and that for G-d small miracles and big miracles are all the same, so He could help the brother-in-law too. Then he advised Rabbi Vishedski to tell his family to apply for emigration in their hometown, Gorky. This, of course, was the message in the telegram. The perplexing part was that Gorky had no Emigration Office, so the family couldn’t understand where the Rebbe wanted them to go.

Shortly afterwards, an official letter of invitation to move to Israel arrived. They now had the letter, but still no idea of where to present it.

Eventually, Rabbi Raskin’s mother figured that all applications to the Emigration Office would inevitably pass through the KGB’s hands, so they may as well go to the KGB offices themselves and apply to leave Russia. The KGB building in downtown Gorky was designed to instill fear in the hearts of the city’s residents. Outwardly, it was a four-storey imposing building, but everyone knew that there were many basement levels too, and unspeakable things happened there. Gorky’s citizens preferred to avoid the streets around those offices for fear of hearing the screams from underground or, worse, of being summoned into the building itself. Mother and son (Raskin’s father couldn’t join them, as he had claimed insanity to avoid the draft), two observant Jews, headed voluntarily into the lion’s lair.

Once inside, they presented their request to the officials on duty. Nobody seemed interested in assisting, claiming that this was not an official Emigration Office. Suddenly, a short, stout female KGB captain emerged, saw their official letter from Israel and phoned through to Moscow for advice on how to deal with them. Moscow told her to open a file, collect all the relevant documentation from them and send it to Moscow for processing. She promptly took down a thick file and a black marker and wrote “Raskin- Emigration Office” on its spine.

The Rebbe had indirectly opened an Emigration Office in Gorky.

Within ten days, they were ordered back to the KGB office to hear whether their request had been accepted or not. This was 1967 and the Russian government was denying most requests to leave- except occasionally for family reunion. The KGB summoned them on a Shabbos and they had to walk well over an hour to get there.

Arriving at KGB HQ-Gorky, agents led them to a room with tables lined with high-ranking officers. One led the proceedings, berating the family for even considering leaving Mother Russia. He thundered down at Mrs. Raskin, warning her that she was making a grave mistake to have asked to leave for Israel, a country in peril (this was shortly before the Six Day War and Russia was an Arab ally). He recommended that she reconsider, adding benevolently that the government would ignore the family’s application if she did. If they insisted on going, the family would have to face potentially dire consequences.

Mrs. Raskin explained that she and a brother were the only family members to have escaped the Nazis. Her brother lived in Israel and was not a well man. Had he been well, she explained, she would have encouraged him to come live in “this wonderful country”. Considering his ill health, she felt obliged to travel to live with him. Since family reunion was the ticket to leaving Russia, she hoped that the authorities would grant her request.

Hearing her story, the official reached beneath the table and extracted their exit visas, which had been there all along. At a time when some of their own family had disappeared without a trace into Siberia, when anyone who did make it out of Russia first spent years of frustration over failed attempts, the Rebbe’s brocha had obviously worked.

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