A Moscow Simchat Torah Heard ‘Round the World

September 28, 2012 4:09 pm 0 comments

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Avital Sharansky, and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, at a Soviet Jewry rally organized by Rabbi Lookstein's Ramaz School, in New York City in 1982. Photo: Courtesy of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

Much of the struggle for Soviet Jewry was waged by picketers, marchers, and lobbyists in the United States. But a lesser-known part of the battle was waged by individual American Jews who journeyed to the USSR itself. Forty years ago, a Manhattan rabbi helped ignite a Simchat Torah celebration in Moscow that was heard ’round the world.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s upper east side was one of the first major synagogues in the U.S. to take an active interest in the plight of Soviet Jewry. As early as the mid-1960s, Kehilath Jeshurun sponsored petitions, organized rallies, and was one of the first synagogues to institute the practice of adding a “matzo of oppression” to Passover seders to raise awareness of Soviet Jewry.

In 1972, Rabbi Lookstein decided to take it a step further. At the urging of the Rabbinical Council of America, he and his wife Audrey agreed to enter the belly of the beast—to undertake a mission to the Soviet Union itself. Posing as tourists, their goal was to smuggle in Jewish religious items, meet with refuseniks, facilitate Sukkot and Simchat Torah celebrations, and bring back an eyewitness report on the oppression of Soviet Jewry.

On Sept. 20, two days before Sukkot, the Looksteins landed in Leningrad, their suitcases stuffed with religious books, sets of lulavim and etrogim, and enough canned tuna fish and soup cubes to last them two weeks—their primary source of kosher food during their time in the USSR. The rabbi later told me that he and his wife each lost 15 pounds by the time the trip ended.

After word spread of the Looksteins’ arrival, more than 1,000 worshippers jammed into the Leningrad synagogue. Barred as a tourist from delivering a formal sermon, Rabbi Lookstein devised a roundabout way to bring a message of encouragement. Instead of reading that week’s scheduled haftarah portion, he read the vision of the valley of dry bones from the book of Ezekiel, concluding by announcing in Yiddish—which he had studied in preparation for the trip—“Like those bones, you thought you were dried up, finished, but God says, ‘I will bring you out of your graves and plant you on your land, I promise and will do it.’”

In the synagogue’s sukkah after services, the rabbi and rebbetzin taught the congregants holiday songs that focused on the ingathering of the exiles. Among those present was 96 year-old Mikhail Abramovich Lokshin. He introduced himself as the brother of Rabbi Lookstein’s grandfather, who had left Russia more than 50 years earlier. The surprise reunion was “an incredibly emotional experience for everyone,” the rabbi recalled.

After meeting with refuseniks in Leningrad and Kiev, the Looksteins, trailed at least part of the time by a KGB agent, proceeded to Moscow for Simchat Torah.

An estimated 1,500 people—twice the normal capacity—filled Moscow’s main synagogue on the first evening of the holiday and spilled out into the surrounding streets. As the final prayers were uttered, Rabbi Lookstein, who led the service, exhorted the crowd to rejoice with the Torah scrolls.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Avital Sharansky, and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, at a Soviet Jewry rally organized by Rabbi Lookstein's Ramaz School, in New York City in 1982. Photo: Courtesy of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

A Washington Post correspondent described the scene: “Inside the temple, the singing and dancing was encouraged by an American rabbi, Rev. Haskel Lookstein of New York City. He repeatedly tried to arouse the congregation to sing more loudly, remarking that Jews in New York were trying to sing loud enough to be heard in Russia and asking the Moscow Jews to reciprocate in kind.”

They did.

For long hours that evening and again the next morning, enormous crowds of Soviet Jews exuberantly embraced their roots through song and dance. “They were waiting for a [Jewish] experience,” Rabbi Lookstein recalled. Fifty years of forced assimilation by the Soviet authorities had not eradicated their yearning for Judaism.

Shortly after he and his wife returned to the U.S., Rabbi Lookstein submitted a 14-page, single-spaced report to the Rabbinical Council of America on how future emissaries could operate most effectively within the harsh environment of the USSR. The report remains one of the most remarkable documents of the Soviet Jewry struggle, covering an extraordinary range of concerns:

Keep customs officials from uncovering smuggled messages by engaging them in long conversations about exchanging currency, “so that there is very little time left for the examination of baggage.” Memorize the text of the ketuba (the religious marriage contract) in case a wedding ceremony needs to be conducted under unusual circumstances or severe stress. If one wants to use the Moscow synagogue’s mikveh to perform a conversion ceremony, “a few rubles will go a long way” in persuading nervous synagogue staffers. When there are two emissaries, such as a rabbi and rebbetzin, they can maximize their interaction with Soviet Jews by walking separately to and from the synagogue, thus conversing with twice as many people.

Most of all, he emphasized that while the Soviet Jewish struggle had to focus primarily on the Jews’ right to emigrate, it also needed to be recognized that since “they do not know when their ultimate goal of aliyah will be reached,” their Jewish spiritual needs should not be neglected in the meantime. “They want to deepen their Jewish experience beyond the purely national and social,” he wrote. “They hunger for God and religion; we must help to satisfy their hunger.”

The Simchat Torah celebrations of September 1972 undoubtedly were an important step in that direction.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author or editor of 15 books about Jewish history, including “Rav Chesed: The Life and Times of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Sports US & Canada Israeli-American Group Congratulates Cavaliers’ Blatt on Reaching NBA Finals

    Israeli-American Group Congratulates Cavaliers’ Blatt on Reaching NBA Finals

    JNS.org – An organization whose work focuses on the estimated population of 500,000-800,000 Israeli Americans congratulated David Blatt, the Jewish head coach of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Cleveland Cavaliers and a longtime Israel-based coach, for clinching an appearance in the NBA Finals. The Israeli-American Council (IAC), whose stated mission is “to build an active and giving Israeli-American community throughout the United States in order to strengthen the State of Israel, our next generation, and to provide a bridge to [...]

    Read more →
  • Food US & Canada Bacon Flavor Ben & Jerry’s ‘Not Gonna Happen’ Because it Wouldn’t be Kosher

    Bacon Flavor Ben & Jerry’s ‘Not Gonna Happen’ Because it Wouldn’t be Kosher

    Famed ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s will not be introducing a Bacon flavored product to its offerings because the company intends to keep its entire line kosher, Marketing Director Alison Gilbert told AOL’s morning show Rise recently. “It’s kind of funny, a lot of people look for bacon in our ice cream, which is probably not gonna happen because all of our ice cream is kosher,” she said, referring to Jewish dietary restrictions that proscribe the consumption of pig [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Judo Team Faces Antisemitic Harassment in Morocco: ‘We Will Murder You’

    Israeli Judo Team Faces Antisemitic Harassment in Morocco: ‘We Will Murder You’

    Israeli athletes at a world Judo championship in Morocco reportedly faced antisemitic slurs during the competition, news site WorldNetDaily reported on Monday. “We will murder you,” and “you’re not wanted here, go home,” were among the vituperative attacks directed at the Israeli Judo Association team, which was in Morocco last week for the World Masters Judo Tournament. According to Haaretz, each Israeli teammate was met with boos and jeers upon entering a fight. Additionally, no Israeli flags were present at [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.