• Chabad Empire In Kazakhstan

    Seventy-five years after the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, and twenty-five years since the start of the shluchim’s work in Alma Ata, the spiritual desert that they saw in the summer of 5754 has changed its face with active and dynamic Jewish communities • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Avrohom Reinitz, Beis Moshiach

    I conducted the interview with R’ Yeshaya Cohen, shliach and rav of Kazakhstan and his brother R’ Elchanan, director of the mosdos and rav of Alma Ata live via whatsapp. R’ Yeshaya sat in his office and R’ Elchanan was preparing for a Chassidus shiur that would be starting in a few minutes in the yard of the Chabad House and I was in my office in New York.

    A small world indeed, but twenty-five years ago, when R’ Yeshaya told his mother about the offer he got to go on shlichus to Alma Ata, they hadn’t yet dreamed of the technology we use today. A trip to Kazakhstan back then meant being almost completely cut off from family and a Chabad community; a real spiritual and physical desert. Throughout this huge country, which is the ninth largest in the world, not one Chabad House had been opened.

    And it was for these reasons that R’ Cohen decided to go to Kazakhstan!

    R’ Yeshaya: “It was 5754 when Chassidim around the world were concerned for the Rebbe’s health. My friend, R’ Yaakov Kubitshek who was on shlichus in Riga, called me and said we had to do something special for the Rebbe and open a Chabad House in a new country that had no Chabad presence. He checked things out and discovered that in Kazakhstan, where the Rebbe’s father lived in his final years, and where his grave is located, there was no shliach.

    “’What do you think about going there and staying there until Moshiach comes?’ he asked. I agreed without hesitation. The feeling back in those days was that it was clear that Moshiach was right around the corner. We did not imagine that twenty-five years would pass and we would still be here, but as far as our decision, even if Moshiach would tarry and we would marry, we would continue the shlichus with our families. Just one thing could change our plans and that was the Rebbe’s hisgalus and everyone coming to Yerushalayim with Beis Rabeinu sh’b’Bavel.

    “Before that, I had been on shlichus twice to Petersburg so that I had some familiarity with the Russian mentality and could even stammer some words in Russian. While getting ready to leave, the Rebbe had his second stroke on 27 Adar 5754. This, of course, only spurred us on with the feeling that we had to take immediate action.

    “My friend, R’ Yaakov landed in Kazakhstan a week before Pesach along with a Russian-speaking bachur. I left for Moscow to arrange a visa. I could get a flight to Kazakhstan only on the night of bedikas chometz. I took all the matzos and wine with me for the seder and naturally, it was over the weight limit. By the time I got permission to take it, I had missed the flight.

    “Upon the advice of a friend, I immediately ordered a ticket for Tashkent from where I could take an hour and a half’s flight to Alma Ata. After a four hour flight, I arrived in Tashkent toward morning. I contacted the shliach, R’ Abba Dovid Gurevich, and found out that there were no flights that day. I had no choice and had to leave all the luggage in Tashkent until chol ha’moed.

    “R’ Gurevich, who had connections with some Jews in Kazakhstan, through the humanitarian aid of Ezras Achim, decided to fly with me to help me get started. On the second day of chol ha’moed, on R’ Levi Yitzchok’s birthday, I landed in Alma Ata for the first time. We went from the airport directly to the ohel of R’ Levi Yitzchok.”

    WITH THE KOACH OF THE MARA D’ASRA, RABBI LEVI YITZCHOK

    The young shluchim, upon their visit to the shul on Shabbos, received their first shock regarding the spiritual state of the community. The shul was closed the rest of the week and they were told that it was open only on Shabbos at 10:00 and until 12:00. When they arrived, they saw the gabbai pouring water into the barrel in the entrance hall (at the time, there was no faucet in the shul) and then opening the aron kodesh, take out the pushka and put it near the bima so that when someone promised a donation, he could pay it immediately.

    “They were not Reform; they were ignoramuses!” explains R’ Cohen. “When I explained to the rosh ha’kahal that it was forbidden to do this on Shabbos, he apologized and said there was no choice because he only saw the community members on Shabbos. If they did not pay right away, how would he have the money to pay for the electricity and property tax? It was only after I promised to take responsibility for the budget of the shul that he agreed not to take the pushka out on Shabbos.”

    The pair of shluchim realized that the change had to come from “below,” from the people of the community, and they focused on making house calls. Every evening, they visited another family and stirred the sparks of their Jewish souls.

    How did you handle the difficulties?

    R’ Yeshaya: “When a shliach knows and feels the Rebbe’s joy with his activities, it gives him the strength to endure the difficulties. In our shlichus, in the city where the Rebbe’s father is buried, we constantly felt the Rebbe’s nachas ruach.

    “Rabbi Binyamin Klein, the Rebbe’s secretary, once related what the Rebbe’s reaction was when he received a document with the signature of his father on it. Although it was not a letter or manuscript but just a signature, the Rebbe stood up, put on his sirtuk, hat and gartel, and only then examined the signature. This story, and other stories that are known about the Rebbe’s astonishing level of kibud horim (respect for parents) brought to life for me what pleasure the Rebbe takes from every good deed done in the city where his father lived with mesirus nefesh in his last days, and where he was laid to rest.”

    Whenever R’ Cohen speaks about R’ Levi Yitzchok, he adds the description “mara d’asra” (lit. master of the city, i.e. the Torah authority of the city). He considers it an enormous zechus to have founded a shlichus on ground suffused with R’ Levi Yitzchok’s tears. “Over the years, there were plans of moving his aron to Eretz Yisrael or near the Ohel, but the Rebbe decided it should remain here. For whom? For the Jews of our community! We have no doubt that R’ Levi Yitzchok looks out for his community even now and this is the only way to explain Chabad’s miraculous success in Kazakhstan. R’ Levi Yitzchok sowed and we are reaping.

    “What moves us the most is that we don’t feel alone. Despite the great distance from Chabad centers, we feel the great love that Chabad worldwide feels for the shlichus in the city and country of R’ Levi Yitzchok. Anash donate and help happily and with special devotion and it’s encouraging!”

    Government representatives also honor the tzaddik buried in their city and are greatly admiring of the shluchim of his son, the Rebbe. For example, when the student body from the yeshiva in Netanya went on a trip from Alma Ata to Chili, where R’ Levi Yitzchok was in exile, the local police sent a police escort out of respect. Remember, seventy-five years ago, policemen escorted R’ Levi Yitzchok to exile and now they escorted Chabad Chassidim in an honor guard!

    22 YEAR TRIAL PERIOD

    R’ Elchanan has been wisely navigating the shlichus work throughout the country for twenty-two years now. “I arrived here for a trial period,” he says with a smile. “When R’ Yeshaya was ready for a shidduch, I replaced him for eight months. When he came with his wife, he said to me, ‘Now, it’s your turn. After your wedding, you are invited here!’ In fact, a short time after I married, I came here for a trial period that was successful and has continued until now.”

    R’ Elchanan is director of the mosdos; in addition, he oversees the entire fields of brissin and shechita. “When I went on shlichus, I was an average young man without experience in any of these fields. When we had to make a bris, we were helped by Bris Yosef Yitzchok who sent us mohalim with all the necessary equipment. A bris for an adult necessitates an assistant to the mohel and I got pulled in. At a certain point, I decided to study and become a mohel myself, mainly to avoid the need to arrange a visa for a mohel. We were not always successful in producing a visa within eight days and we had no choice but to delay brissin. Since I was certified as a mohel, we have no problem doing brissin on time and usually, when I go someplace, there is the possibility of convincing some other adults to have a bris too.”

    What was the most moving bris you did?

    R’ Elchanan: “A few years ago, the shluchim in Ust-Kamenogorsk who worked with Jews in the entire nearby region, told me about a Jewish baby born to a single-parent family in Semipalatinsk, a three hour trip from Ust-Kamenogorsk. It was in the middle of a particularly cold winter. The temperature was forty degrees below zero! We drove for three hours in the freezing cold. The heater in the car barely helped and we tried to warm up in our coats. When we went out for a moment to ask someone if we were going in the right direction, we thought our ears would fall off!

    “Before heading out, I remembered that the baby’s uncle was not yet circumcised and I took an additional bris set in case he would agree. When we arrived at the house, we found out that the baby’s mother had gone shopping and we had to wait so we could perform the bris with her consent. We waited several hours and in the meantime, I said to the uncle, ‘Perhaps we should do another bris today?’ At first he was taken aback but after a long soul searching talk he agreed.

    “We set up an improvised table and gave him a bris. The entire process took an hour and just as we were finished, the mother arrived and we could start the baby’s bris. It was very moving when the uncle, who had just had a bris, was the sandak who placed the baby on the chair of Eliyahu Ha’Navi.

    “The story of this family turned into a moving rescue story. For various reasons, the mother was unable to raise her children and the welfare department put the children in an orphanage. As soon as we heard this, we mobilized to remove them from the gentile orphanage. Boruch Hashem, eight months ago, we succeeded in arranging for the older brother to be recognized as the guardian of the children. I went with my wife to take the children from the orphanage. The moment the little children met with the older brother was one of the most moving moments in my life. Tears came to my eyes when the big brother hugged them and said, ‘I promised and I kept my word.’

    “It was heart-wrenching to hear how the welfare people came with the police to take them from their home to the orphanage. We took them out on a Friday and they saw the lighting of Shabbos candles for the first time in their lives. The look in their eyes was intensely emotional. They were thrilled to be out of that restrictive environment. They stayed with us for several weeks until we were able to arrange the necessary permits to send them to a special hostel in Moscow which is run by R’ Menachem Gol. We speak with them via whatsapp and see flourishing, happy children.”

    HAIR-RAISING STORIES ON THE WAY TO SHECHITA

    Most readers of Beis Moshiach can buy meat at a nearby store but in Kazakhstan, for many years, there was no such option. Today, in Alma Ata and other Chabad centers in Kazakhstan, it is possible to buy meat with Lubavitcher shechita. R’ Elchanan is in charge of this.

    R’ Elchanan tells us some shechita stories: “In the early years, there were few providers of kosher meat and every time we had to replenish our supply, we called R’ Emanuel Shimonov from Samarkand, an hour and a half’s flight away. Every trip that he made was an entire project for us including plucking the chickens and kashering them. The great difficulty was because in all of Kazakhstan there was no meat factory. The local gentiles buy imported meat or buy fresh meat from local villages. When we began shechting cattle, it was like a ‘story from the olden days.’ We had to go from village to village to find cows for shechita. The villagers did not understand why we needed cows. ‘Go to the market and buy meat …’ We had to explain to them the requirements of Jewish kashrus and to arrange with them that if the animal would be a treifa, we would not buy it. In addition, we would buy and pay only for the front of the animal. Go and explain all this to a goy who never heard of these concepts.

    “After buying the cows, we had to bring them to the primitive slaughterhouse near the market and work with half-drunk goyim in the middle of the night. There were hair-raising situations that we miraculously got out of …

    “Today, boruch Hashem, we produce 1000 kilograms (over 2200 pounds) of meat every week and before holidays the demand is much higher. Over the years, I learned shechita too, but today we employ another shochet, Rabbi Saadya Liberow who joined the shluchim three years ago. Each time, we shecht about twenty cows out of which ten are kosher to the highest standards. The cows are very small here and out of every kosher cow we get 100 kilograms of meat. However, the meat here is more tasty and natural.”

    R’ Elchanan is also responsible for the mosdos in Alma Ata and some of the programs in other parts of Kazakhstan.

    A CHABAD EMPIRE

    Success has many partners, and the partners in the Chabad empire in Kazakhstan include all the shluchim and their families who work with great devotion. In Alma Ata, aside from the Cohen brothers, there are: R’ Saadya Liberow, who helps with shechita and general administrative duties. R’ Liberow’s great-uncle, the Chassid, R’ Hillel Liberow, was rav of the community and a shochet in Alma Ata for many years. He remained on shlichus there until his passing in 5743. In Rebbetzin Chana’s memoirs, she mentions him favorably for providing them with kosher meat.

    R’ Mordechai Cohen is in charge of shiurim and kollelim. A few years ago, an evening kollel was started for the study of Judaism and these classes made an enormous change in the spiritual level of the community. R’ Yeshaya illustrates this, “Previously, the questions asked of rabbanim consisted of ones like this: What is the din of a magen david with a corner that is not exactly aligned? Today, we get serious questions.” Thanks to these kollelim, local Jews acquire broad knowledge in Tanach and can even repeat sichos of the Rebbe. Members of the kollelim also take part in whatsapp groups to learn the daily Chitas and Rambam and are very involved in these shiurim.

    In addition, five branches were opened in Alma Ata and on the day this interview was conducted, we were told of another branch, in Shymkent, where Rabbi and Mrs. Mordechai and Shoshana Morosov of Crown Heights will soon be going.

    Rabbi Shmuel Karnaukh is the shliach in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. He also brought out and assists two other shluchim: Rabbi Shimon Ash who directs the activities in the Pavlodar area, and Rabbi Ashker Tumerkin who works in the city of Karaganda.

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zalmanov works as a shliach in Kostanay. It is bitterly cold there in the winter but the young, dynamic shliach has added an element of excitement to all the shluchim. In Kostanay, there isn’t a large community and he works mainly one on one.

    The shlichus in the Ust-Kamenogorsk region is directed by Rabbi Asaf Feinstein who aside from the local activities helps the other shluchim with his enormous Torah knowledge and his fluency in the local language.

    In general, the shluchim in Kazakhstan are united and each of them contributes of his unique abilities to his fellow shluchim.

    SAYING THANKS TO THE REBBE’S FATHER

    When R’ Cohen speaks about the ohel of R’ Levi Yitzchok, you can hear the emotion in his voice. Over the years, he has seen many astonishing miracle stories that happened at the ohel and he also heard about Chassidim that the Rebbe sent to the ohel of his father. For example, R’ Yirmiyahu Branover, who lived in Riga and wanted a bracha from the Rebbe for leaving Russia, was sent by the Rebbe to pray at the gravesite of his father in Alma Ata.

    At the European Kinus Ha’Shluchim in the summer of 5751, the shluchim visited Alma Ata and the original plan was to arrive in the evening and to leave the following morning right after shacharis. When the shluchim arrived in Alma Ata, the Rebbe was at the Ohel in New York. The Rebbe suddenly came out to the secretary and told him to contact the shluchim and tell them to stay in Alma Ata for mincha too.

    The organizers of the Kinus had a dilemma because the plane they had chartered was bound to a strict timetable which did not allow for waiting until noon. Of course, the Rebbe arranged things and the pilot announced that they had to delay for a few hours. It was only after the shluchim davened mincha, as the Rebbe wanted, that the plane left.

    In recent years, there has been great interest in visiting the gravesite of R’ Levi Yitzchok on his yartzeit and dozens of bachurim sit and learn near the gravesite for 24 hours on the yartzeit. R’ Cohen tells about the people behind this project:

    “A few years ago, two people, R’ Shmuel Stern and R’ Avi Shaulson, came to visit the tziyun close to the yartzeit. They flew from the United States to Kazakhstan for just two hours, just to be at the tziyun and then go home. At that time, there were hardly any visitors to the tziyun and aside from the locals who visited in the morning, the rest of the day the tziyun was closed.

    “I opened the ohel for them and I heard them sing all the niggunim of the Rebbe with great emotion. When they left, they asked in surprise how it was possible that Chassidim were not at the tziyun around the clock on the yartzeit? ‘It’s enough that R’ Levi Yitzchok was in exile in his lifetime; why, on his yartzeit, should he remain alone?’ they asked.

    “On the spot, they decided to open a yeshivas kayitz during bein ha’zmanim so that on the day of the yartzeit there would be ‘a yeshiva over his gravesite’ and the entire 24 hour period they would say Tehillim and Mishnayos and learn from the teachings of R’ Levi Yitzchok. When I told them that the Rebbe does not remain in debt, they corrected me and said, ‘We are the ones who owe the Rebbe! This is why we came here, to say thank you to the one who brought us the Rebbe!’

    “Since then, every year, these two men donate the costs of the yeshivas kayitz. The tmimim learn Nigleh and Chassidus in the Chabad House, a seven minute walk from the tziyun. On the day of the yartzeit, they go and learn at a special campsite that was opened on the inner road of the cemetery, next to the ohel. Also, in recent years, they provide refreshments and sleeping arrangements for hundreds of bachurim and Anash who come to the ohel on the yartzeit.”

    When you visit the ohel of R’ Levi Yitzchok and see the Jewish section which is inside the general cemetery, you realize the depth of the exile … At first, people entered the ohel via a back entrance of the cemetery and only in recent years did the shluchim manage to arrange a path from the main entrance.

    For many years, kohanim, including the shluchim R’ Yeshaya and R’ Elchanan, were unable to enter the ohel. When R’ Yeshaya wanted to daven, he would stand at a distance from where he could see the ohel. A special project was needed to enable kohanim to enter the ohel since the entire area was full of large trees that covered the graves. They had to clear away about forty trees that were close to a meter in diameter! A professional company was paid who spent a few days working to cut down the giant trees without having them fall on the graves. After removing the trees, a path was possible for kohanim and kohanim were finally able to enter the ohel.

    Local government agencies joined the tree-removal project after R’ Cohen explained that exposing the area would also help reduce criminal acts that would take place in the cemetery under cover of the trees. Today, the place is completely clean and is also under surveillance by internet linked cameras that cover the entire area. When visitors come to the ohel, they can call the shluchim who open the ohel via a special app, even if they are in 770 in New York at the time!

    As mentioned, Rabbi and Mrs. Morosov are opening a Chabad House in Shymkent. When I asked R’ Yeshaya how he has the money to open additional Chabad Houses, he told me about the astonishingly positive response from Chabad Chassidim worldwide to the annual fundraiser that they do around the time of the yartzeit. Anash donate generously and see the special bracha that the Rebbe bestows on donors to Keren Levi Yitzchok, that they should merit to receive in return “up to five hundred times as much.”

    “These donations maintain the regular programming throughout the year,” he says. “To open additional Chabad Houses though, we are connected with some big philanthropists who understand the importance of donating to institutions associated with R’ Levi Yitzchok. They donate huge sums to open beautiful Chabad Houses in cities of Kazakhstan.

    “For example, Mr. Alexander Moskowitz has built a network of shuls in this country that are called ‘Beis Rochel Chabad Lubavitch.’ In Alma Ata, aside from the central Chabad House, we have a special guest house for eighty people. Lately, that isn’t enough …”

    [People think that sometimes, when they come here in the middle of the year, it bothers us. On the contrary, every Chassid who comes here during the year greatly strengthens the local community. We do not charge for hospitality and everyone donates what he likes.

    The best payment that guests can give us is when they bring food products from the U.S. or Eretz Yisrael. Many products are unavailable here and we are very happy when people ask us what they can bring. Sometimes, children of shluchim go through half a year without cheese or frankfurters and it is very encouraging when someone thinks of them. Of course, we pay people for these products and only need the favor of bringing them to Kazakhstan.]

    “Another philanthropist who helps us a lot is R’ Shlomo Geller. I met him for the first time at the airport as we waited for our luggage. We got to talking and I found out that he does business in Ust-Kamenogorsk. He understands that if Hashem gives him parnassa in this city, he should return the favor and help establish the Jewish community here. He undertook this with a very interesting approach. He first built a beautiful home for the shluchim. He said he does the same in business; he first makes sure that the manager has a nice place to live. After the shluchim’s home, he built a shul and mikva called Ohel Eliezer for his father. We are now marking ten years of Chabad activity here and no doubt, his father is enjoying a special delight in the next world. There is no comparison to a shul located in an existing community to a shul established in a city where there was never an organized Jewish community!”

    ***

    R’ Yeshaya concluded the interview as follows:

    “We arrived in Alma Ata exactly fifty years after the passing of R’ Levi Yitzchok. This year marks twenty-five years of “open” activity, but there was “undercover” work throughout the years. The Rebbe sent disguised shluchim here who did great work in those days.

    “Recently, there came to light the story of a Jewish professor who joined the entourage of an American president to Russia, on the presidential plane. Before his trip, he went to the Rebbe to ask where to visit. The Rebbe asked him whether he could visit Alma Ata and asked him to visit his father’s grave. When the professor returned with a picture of the tziyun and told the Rebbe about his visit, the Rebbe emotionally thanked him and said that he had done a magnificent thing for him since he could not do so himself, and through that he fulfilled the mitzva of honoring his father!

    “If one visit to the tziyun of the R’ Levi Yitzchok gave the Rebbe such nachas, I think of what enormous nachas the Rebbe has from the work we are doing here on shlichus year-round!

    “As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, going on shlichus was to hasten the hisgalus of Moshiach with our commitment to staying here until Moshiach comes. Until then, naturally, the entire shlichus is permeated with this point, i.e. how this leads toward welcoming Moshiach!”

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