How Chassidim Stayed In Touch Without Seeing the Rebbe




    Shifra Vepua

    How Chassidim Stayed In Touch Without Seeing the Rebbe

    Two-and-a-half decades have passed since we last saw the Rebbe. Many ask how we can be truly mekushar under these circumstances • Let us go back many decades to life behind the Iron Curtain where many Chassidim were trapped without a direct connection to the Rebbe, where the bond of love and longing connected them and melted any iron curtain that threatened to separate between them and the Rebbe • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Shneur Zalman Berger, Beis Moshiach

    A large and terrifying but invisible Iron Curtain separated the Soviet Union from the rest of the world. An even more powerful curtain separated between Chabad Chassidim in the Soviet Union and their leader, the Rebbe. Just the word “Schneersohn” alone was enough to incriminate someone and send him to prison, exile, or worse.

    And yet, a Chassid needs his “head” and he knows that the Rebbe is the source of his light and divine flow, spiritual as well as material and cannot feel disconnected. He is thirsty for anything from the Rosh B’nei Yisrael. An Iron Curtain? We can overcome that too; otherwise, life is no life and who wants a life like that?

    Above all else, there was longing for the Rebbe and everything associated with him – his teachings, pictures of him, his sichos and letters. Every crumb of information from the Rebbe was precious to the Jews of Russia to the point that they would sometimes walk for hours in order to peruse a sicha that came from “there,” or a new hora’ah or the like. To them it made no difference whether it was a sicha “hot off the press,” which was just said, or an old sicha. These baalei mesirus nefesh were connected to the Rebbe with all 248 limbs and 365 sinews and held on to their hiskashrus to the Rebbe despite or perhaps because of the disconnect.

    The Rebbe always wanted to know how the Chassidim in Russia were doing and he wrote many letters about them. For example, we see a moving letter that the Rebbe wrote to the mashpia, R’ Nissan Nemanov, in 5712, who had sent the Rebbe a list of names of Chassidim who lived in Russia. In his letter, the Rebbe wrote about the importance of the connection and care of Jews who live in free lands for their brethren behind the Iron Curtain:

    I had especial pleasure when receiving the names of Anash in Russia which indicate two main points: 1) the idea of Ahavas Yisrael and the nonstop bond between them and our brothers in Russia, 2) it is nearly certain that by being in touch with them, at least in thought, this strengthens the idea of every Jew being responsible and intermingled with one another. Consequently, just as the hiding and concealing forces of that country have no control over those located outside that country, the bond with those who are still in that country gives them added strength to rise up and strengthen their position and situation and diminishes the control that could be upon them by the enemy.

    This is like when part of the body is in a place with clear, pure air. This increases the chayus to that part of the body which is in a cellar where the air is putrid, but this necessitates being like one body. This is the idea of the power of thought, especially the power of imagination as explained in several places in the Sichos of the Rebbe, my father-in-law, that time and location are not limiting in this. See also the sicha of the Rebbe, my father-in-law (Shemini Atzeres night in the sukka, 5693), and although there he speaks about a Nasi in Israel, there is something like this in all those who are connected to him, especially when it is a tzibbur about which it says that Hashem will not repulse their prayers, and surely they will maintain this hiskashrus in the future. And without a doubt this will be of great benefit to those who are there and even to those who are here, as in the saying of the Rebbe, my father-in-law, that Hashem does not remain in debt. (Igros Kodesh vol. 6, letter #1564)


    Fourteen years passed since I excitedly looked through the modest archives of the Chassid, R’ Berel Rikman. He learned together with the Rebbe as a child in cheder, and in the years that followed he went in the path of Judaism and Chassidus with self-sacrifice. In his archives there is a detailed diary about the suffering he endured in the KGB cellars. The rest of it contains letters from the Rebbe to him. In the middle of all this appears a page with the heading, “The blessing of our grandfather on Erev Yom Kippur 5731.”

    I learned that this was the Rebbe’s bracha that was said on Erev Yom Kippur, written in R’ Berel’s handwriting. He heard the wording of the bracha from someone or maybe he saw it written and copied it for himself.

    He lived in Moscow under communist rule and yearned to leave. As a Chassid and mekushar he wanted to know the wording of the Rebbe’s bracha on Erev Yom Kippur. Somehow, he obtained the wording that remains an authentic testimony to the hiskashrus of the Chassidim at that time. Two months after that Yom Kippur, R’ Berel received permission to leave Russia and together with his wife moved to Eretz Yisroel.

    How precious was every word that reached them from the Rebbe.


    Despite the great fear in receiving a letter or package from the US, new books of Chassidus, maamarim and sichos were constantly smuggled in and even recordings of Nichoach. For example, there is the story of the unbound HaYom Yom, unbound so there would be no indication that it came from the US, that got passed around among Anash in Tashkent and Samarkand.

    In the archives of the mashpia, R’ Bentzion Grossman of Migdal HaEmek, there is a HaYom Yom which is entirely handwritten. R’ Grossman told me that it belonged to a Chabad Chassid in Soviet Russia who copied it so he would own a copy of something the Rebbe wrote.

    Likewise, the first four volumes of Likkutei Sichos were smuggled in to Tashkent where dozens of Lubavitcher families lived. For the next long while, the lights burned long in one of the houses, night after night, until the entire set was copied by hand.

    Whenever a maamar, sicha from the Rebbe or any other Chassidic work arrived in a Chabad center of the Soviet Union, whether it was Tashkent, Samarkand, Moscow, or Leningrad, there were homes where the light was on all night as the Rebbe’s words were copied a few times and given out afterward, secretly, to mekusharim. They never saw the Rebbe but their hearts burned bright with hiskashrus and love toward the Rebbe.

    For example, at a bris mila that took place in Tashkent around the year 5722, someone present was able to obtain a recording of the niggun, “Eimasai ka asi mar” and dared to play it. These and other actions helped the chassidim strengthen and preserve their feelings of hiskashrus toward the Rebbe.


    How did a printed copy of a maamar or sicha actually get into Russia under the noses of the communist police who looked out for anything connected to Torah, Judaism and Chassidus?

    It seems some of the Rebbe’s teachings arrived via Israeli diplomats and Lubavitchers who went to Russia under the guise of tourists. Over the years, the Israeli government put in much effort toward helping the Jews of Russia through the Israeli embassy in Moscow. The Mossad also had a department called the Contact Office whose role it was to keep in touch with Jews in Russia. One of the first steps taken by Israeli personnel was to supply Jewish ritual items for Russian Jewry.

    But this wasn’t enough for the Chassidim and they also asked to receive sichos from the Rebbe. Mr. Nechemia Levanon, who was an agricultural attaché at the Israeli embassy in Moscow, also ran a Jewish underground whose purpose was to fortify the Jews of Russia morally and spiritually:

    “They were not satisfied with what we had done for them until then, but they worked up the nerve and asked that we give them the divrei Torah that the Rebbe says in New York. At first I tried to object and explained that it was not our job to disseminate the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe throughout the Soviet Union, but the pressure exerted by the Chassid [with whom I met in Moscow] was enormous until I could no longer refuse and I caved in. I transmitted this odd request to the Mossad and to my great surprise they agreed to the request and began regularly sending the Rebbe’s teachings. The Chassid’s joy was boundless.”

    Mr. Avrohom Cohen who served as the second secretary of the embassy in Moscow also helped the Chabad Chassidim a great deal in obtaining what they desired. A few years ago Mr. Cohen told me about his work. He was born to a religious family in Poland and he learned briefly in Tomchei T’mimim in Lodz in his youth. He saw the Rebbe Rayatz and so he knew the Chabad Chassidim and their uncompromising hiskashrus to the Rebbe.

    When I asked him to tell me the names of Lubavitchers he knew during those years he immediately said, “Mottel Olidort, Yaakov Elishevitz, R’ Yehuda Butrashvili (Kulasher) with whom I met many years later in Israel.”

    Mr. Cohen described how he gave Chabad Siddurim to the Chassidim and when I asked him to remember other details, he suddenly recalled some details about delivering specific sifrei Chassidus:

    “Maamarim of the Mitteler Rebbe and other Admorim. Nearly all of it went to Malachovka (a town near Moscow) where there was a concentration of Chassidim.”

    All this stopped when relations between Israel and Russia cooled in 5727 and the Israeli embassy in Moscow was closed. Instead of diplomats bringing Chassidus, in the years that followed a new network was built that helped transmit Jewish ritual items as well as new divrei Chassidus from the Rebbe. These were Chassidim in the guise of tourists who were sent by the Rebbe to the Soviet Union. They brought sefarim, ritual items, sifrei Chassidus and new sichos and maamarim of the Rebbe.

    The tourists’ trips began at the end of the 60’s and continued for about twenty years until it was possible to legally enter the Soviet Union in order to spread Judaism.

    The tourists would also farbreng and strengthen the Jews in general and the Chassidim in particular. At these farbrengens the Chassidim would want to hear every drop of information about what was happening with the Rebbe, what the Rebbe said, when he farbrenged, what new niggun he introduced, etc. Every new crumb of information was received with delight. Sometimes the tourists would film these farbrengens in the course of which the Chassidim would speak to the Rebbe, mention their names and their mother’s names and ask for brachos. Later, these videos were viewed by the Rebbe.


    A Chassid does not make a significant move in life without asking the Rebbe for his counsel and bracha. What did Chassidim in Russia do when they had to make important decisions? It was not possible to send a letter directly to the Rebbe and ask him because of the censorship of every letter that was sent abroad, especially to the US. All the more so for Chassidim who were blacklisted by the KGB.

    The Chassidim found a solution for this too by sending their questions to a relative or friend who lived in Eretz Yisrael. The question was written in code and then decoded by the recipient and sent to the Rebbe.

    The answers were transmitted the same way, in reverse. The Rebbe would send his response to a friend or relative who was the go-between in Eretz Yisrael and who would forward the answer to its destination in the Soviet Union.

    From the time a question was sent to when an answer was received, weeks could go by. For example, when deciding about a shidduch, the details were written in code and sent to Eretz Yisrael and from there to the Rebbe. The answer was sometimes given in Lashon HaKodesh and sometimes in Russian. In the meantime, the young man and woman and their parents waited weeks and sometimes months! But as always, the Rebbe’s answer and bracha arrived, even when the Chassidim were behind the Iron Curtain, because mekusharim receive an answer, no matter the circumstances.

    Sometimes, the Rebbe sent a letter directly but in code, not on office stationery and without the Rebbe’s full name. The Rebbe sometimes signed his first name and sometimes signed as Zeide.


    Leaving Russia was every Chassid’s dream back then, but the gates were locked. Needless to say, questions pertaining to this sensitive topic were in the category of pikuach nefesh and were not decided without the Rebbe’s approval and consent. Just posing the question about leaving Russia was dangerous.

    The Rebbe touches on this in a fascinating letter that he sent about ten years after accepting the Chabad leadership, on 20 Teves 5720. In the letter, the Rebbe expresses his esteem and special regard for the Chassidim living with mesirus nefesh behind the Iron Curtain. This is a letter with an unusual style that was written in English and refers to how the Chassidim in Russia were separated from their leaders for over thirty years and the young ones never even saw the Rebbe. They certainly couldn’t rely on the leadership and decisions of others to shape their lives. And still and all, these Chassidim were the most powerful force for Jewish life in Russia. They preserved their independence and way of life despite the cruel persecution and having to constantly make critical decisions, sometimes life and death decisions. This was at a time when others could not make decisions and went with the flow, taking the easy way out.

    The Rebbe said that this exceptional inner strength of the Chassidim was apparent when many Chassidishe families with their children and grandchildren were allowed to leave Russia.

    With the difficulty in obtaining horaos, guidance and brachos, there were many instances in which Chassidim demonstrated resourcefulness and were able to receive instructions from the Rebbe about various matters, particularly about whether, when, and how to ask for visas. There were also cases of miracles and the Rebbe’s ruach ha’kodesh in these matters.

    For example, R’ Berke Chein was a wanted man for many years. In 5711 he was able to escape imprisonment a moment before the secret police came to arrest him. After that he hid in various hiding places. At a certain point he used the name Chaim in order to hide his true identity. Due to his complicated situation he made the effort to receive the Rebbe’s bracha through his father-in-law, R’ Zalman Kalmanson, who lived in Eretz Yisroel.

    Since he and his wife lived in Russia while his two sons had already left, the question arose as to whether it paid to try to leave Russia. His father-in-law was able to convey the message from the Rebbe that he should try and leave. Nevertheless, R’ Berke thought maybe his wife should try to submit a request for the family since he was a wanted man and his picture was at every police station.

    His son Mordechai asked the Rebbe and received the answer, “Your father should submit a request to leave for the entire family and may Hashem help them.” The son expressed his surprise to the Rebbe about the sensitive and dangerous situation but the Rebbe responded with a smile, “They won’t realize it is him.”

    R’ Berke submitted the request and lived in fear lest he be caught, but after a year and a half he received the visa. R’ Michoel Mishulovin described R’ Berke’s great joy when he received the papers:

    “When he received the passport he danced for joy and his friends and family joined him. Then and there he composed a tune to the words ‘Vayaaminu baShem uv’Moshe Avdo.’ Nobody could understand how a wanted man received permission to leave.”


    The members of the Lebenhartz family also received instructions and brachos from the Rebbe while they lived in the Soviet Union. Their contact person was the brother, R’ Zalman Lebenhartz, who left Russia for Eretz Yisroel in 5719. He was their go-between, receiving requests from his family and conveying them to the Rebbe and then conveying the Rebbe’s responses back to his family.

    In order to hide their connection to the Rebbe, the family wrote in code and the same was done with the Rebbe’s responses. They were coded letters which only the family could understand.

    A brother, R’ Moshe, related:

    “Before Zalman left Russia, we set up a code with him. Whenever we would want to convey a letter to the Rebbe through him, we would use the title ‘Uncle Chaim’ and not ‘Zeide’ – the title usually used by Russian Jews to refer to the Rebbe. This was because the Russian government already knew about this title.”

    Upon first settling in Eretz Yisroel, R’ Zalman reported to the Rebbe that his sister Bella Gorowitz would be giving birth and he asked for a bracha for her. In a letter dated 13 Adar II the Rebbe responded, “At an auspicious time your sister Baila will be mentioned at the holy tziyun, that she complete the pregnancy in a good way and give birth to a healthy son and together with her husband raise him to Torah, chuppa, and good deeds.”

    After the, R’ Zalman reported this news to the Rebbe who responded on 12 Nissan 5719: “In response to your letter of 6 Nissan, thank you for the good news about the birth of a son to your sister Baila. May his parents raise him to Torah, chuppa, and good deeds.”

    What was routine for every Lubavitcher Chassid in free countries, i.e., receiving a bracha, was a joyous occasion for those behind the Iron Curtain. Despite the hardship and danger, the Lebenhartz family wrote to the Rebbe about everything that came up. Even a curtain of iron would not separate them from the Nasi Hador. The physical disconnect between the Rebbe and the Chassidim in Russia began when the Rebbe Rayatz left Russia, the day after Simchas Torah, on Isru Chag Sukkos 5628/1927. That yom tov, numerous Chassidim from all over the Soviet Union endangered themselves in order to be with the Rebbe before he left.

    We learn about the bond of love between the Rebbe and the Chassidim and vice versa from the fact that despite the great danger and the spying eyes that constantly looked at the people surrounding the Rebbe, a large crowd gathered at the train station to say goodbye.

    The Rebbe Rayatz himself described his emotions in a moving letter:

    “ … When parting from my brothers and friends, hundreds of people or more, whom I was with for six years, whose depth of their hearts and their plights I know, from them, from these beloved ones and friends, I parted, and who knows when I will be able to see them and where I am going with my walking stick and satchel.

    “The scene was frightening with thousands of emotional people pushing one another without any intentions of pushing and shoving, just each one displaying his great emotion, his face and movements testifying upon him that he is compelled by the event taking place in those moments. And the ‘I’ [meaning himself] is standing at the window of the train and looking at everything, standing and melting and only his lips moving with his voice inaudible: Please Hashem, please have mercy on Your flock and bless them, their household and children and descendants and may I also merit to soon see satiation of joy, amen v’amen.”

    The Rebbe added:

    “ … and in another few minutes we will hear the toot of the train and then the outcry of those accompanying with the blessing of Yevorechicha and the Kohanim present will spread out their hands and the Yisroelim, the men and women waving their hands and with their white handkerchiefs and all of them blessing us with a successful trip. And the ‘I’ takes his wandering staff in hand and turns aside and weeps … woe to the son and grandson who is expelled from all that is precious to him in life.”


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