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e r m m a H e h t

DID RABBI YEHUDA LEIB LEVIN PLACATE THE

n e e w t e B

the Sickle
SOVIETS FOR OR T THE SAKE OF JEWISH SURVIVAL?

and

The Choral Synagogue interior in Moscow, Russia

BY DOVID ZAKLIKOWSKI

In
1968, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin arrived from Russia for a visit to the United States, igniting one of the most heated controversies in American Jewish history. Although he had deftly headed the Soviet Jewish community as Chief Rabbi of Moscow for many years, some American Jews suspected he was merely a puppet for the Soviet regime to ease Cold War tensions. Their suspicions were confirmed after Rabbi Levin made a number of public statements praising the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Jews under the Soviets, going so far as to say that anti-Semitism was nonexistent anywhere in the country. By the trips end, Rabbi Levin found himself the target of contempt of a significant portion of American Jewry, vilified by newspapers across the nation. What Levins critics didnt know, however, was that his statements were a skilled political tactic, a heartfelt and desperate attempt to ensure the safety and protection of thousands of Russian Jews whose lives were in danger. Rabbi Levins trip, while certainly interesting as a historical footnote, was in fact a microcosm of one mans lifelong struggle to placate an antagonistic government while protecting Jewish survival at any cost. The gripping story of his life, spanning the most tumultuous periods in modern history, is profiled in a new volume entitled Lev Yehuda. His granddaughter, Ella Skoblo, has also come forward to give insight into the life of this singular individual. Born in 1894 to Rabbi Eliyahu Shmuel Levin and his wife Bluma, young Yehuda Leib was the scion of a long line of rabbinical giants. Reb Eliyahu Shmuel was the rabbi of Nikopol, where his son was born, and also served on the beis din of Rabbi Meir Leibush, known as the Malbim.
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Rabbi Levin during a shiur

In 1921, Rabbi Levin married Freida Feldman and later became the rabbi of Grishino, Ukraine. When the Nazis captured the city in 1941, he escaped with his family to Uzbekistan until the wars end. Later, Rabbi Levin returned to Ukraine and became a rav in Dnepropetrovsk until 1953, when he was forced to leave because of false accusations against him by the Soviet government. From there he moved to Krasnokamensk, Russia, to be close to his three daughters. At the time Krasnokamensk was without a shul, and Rabbi Levin felt compelled to make one in his home, despite the risks it entailed for him and his family. They would search his house every day, his granddaughter tells me, ransacking the place, looking for evidence of anti-revolutionary activity. In Russia there was always a fear of being arrested. My grandfather would tell them every time they came that no one else was involved in his activities. This has to do only with me, not my wife or children, he would say. That fear of arrest persisted long after the fall of the Iron Curtain; indeed, even today Mrs. Skoblo voices reservations about sharing certain details for fear of reprisal from the KGB. Life in Krasnokamensk was difficult, as Rabbi Levin had no official rabbinical position and was unable to find other work. He was a very clever man who could have found any number of respectful jobs, Mrs. Skoblo said, but it would have been dangerous for him not to work on Shabbos. So he supported his family by going around with a wagon collecting old clothes to sell for scrap. The community, though, felt that it wasnt befitting a rav of his stature, so they collectively purchased a stock of needles and thread for him to sell to provide him with a steady and

respectable income. In 1953 the infamous Soviet despot Josef Stalin died, giving the persecuted Jews some breathing space. Life became a little easier for everyone, not just those who were Jewish, explained Mrs. Skoblo. But that didnt mean the pressure was off entirely. The government began to let older people who wanted to be frum... observe mitzvos. But for the younger people, especially those in school and college, it was a different story.

Into the spotlight


Still, Rabbi Shlomo Shleifer, then Chief Rabbi of Moscow, took advantage of the reprieve and obtained permission from the government to open a yeshivah, the first one to operate publicly since the Communists had closed down Jewish schools in the early 1920s. The school, Kol Yaakov, opened its doors in 1957, and Rabbi Levin was called upon to serve as its rosh yeshivah. It was this position that first placed Rabbi Levin in the international spotlight. Young Jewish men from across the Soviet Union clamored for acceptance to Kol Yaakov, and it quickly gained a reputation for having a student body of yerei'ei shamayim. Rabbi Levin corresponded with communities throughout Russia in need of strong leadership, and handpicked his own graduates to fill the void. But that didnt mean the school was without its critics. The Leffler Rav of St. Petersburg openly condemned the yeshivah, believing it to be a front for the KGB trying to show the world that Russia accommodated the religious needs of Jews. It was the first but far from the last time that fellow Jews would accuse Rabbi Levin of working in tandem with the Soviets. However, when the Leffler Rav later visited the school he was impressed by the depth and breadth of the students knowledge, and conceded that the rosh yeshivah was clearly not a government pawn and that his efforts were solely intended to build up the Jewish people. A year after the yeshivah opened, the chief rabbi of Moscow passed away and Rabbi Levin was appointed as his replacement. Under the constant scrutiny of Soviet eyesand ears, after they placed bugs in his officehe would be forced to navigate the governments mercurial whims with the skill and dexterity of a tightrope walker. One of his first balancing acts was when the Communists decided they no longer wanted Kol Yaakov to remain open and began looking for ways to close it. According to Mrs. Skoblo, A lot of boys at the yeshivah were from Georgiaand they got someone to bring fruit from there to Moscow. [The weather was too cold in Moscow for growing fruit.] The students were arrested and charged with trying to smuggle food, which was illegal without an export license, and they closed the yeshivah down. My zeide worked to have them freed. He was ultimately successful and also got the school to reopen. At one point the Soviets even removed Rabbi Levin from his position as rosh yeshivah, hoping the school would fall apart with no one at the helm. As chief rabbi, Rabbi Levin was committed to protecting the

welfare of Moscows Jews. But the position inadvertently placed him in the public eye as the representative of all of Soviet Jewry. It was a daunting task, because even though the Communist oppression had lifted somewhat after Stalins death, remaining Jewish was still a struggle. In Russia, if you openly admitted that you were Jewish in front of other people you were a hero, said Mrs. Skoblo. To be frum in the Soviet Union, you had to... fight to survive every day. While older Jews had more freedom to observe mitzvos and attend shul, their younger counterparts, who were considered more valuable politically, were challenged at every step. Whenever we went to shul to bring something to zeide or pick something up, she recalled, there was always a Soviet official who would ask us what we were doing there. The authorities would also harass parents, warning them of the risks of raising an openly Jewish child in a Communist country. Letters were sent to schools informing them if a certain family wasnt toeing the Communist line. I was the only Jewish kid in my class. It wasnt comfortable to be pointed out as Jewish by

Rabbi Levin and his shadow Soviet official (left) who always followed him and reported his every move to Communist officials

The grand Choral Synagogue in Moscow

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Rabbi Simcha Elberg, chairman of the executive board of the Agudas HaRabonim wrote, Rabbi Levin was a captive."

ing out the presence of a government official in almost every picture taken of her grandfather during this time. When John Rothmann, a talk radio host and lecturer on Jews in the Soviet Union asked to interview the chief rabbi, Rabbi Levin agreed, but only on condition that he return on Shabbos afternoon. The interview lasted for an hour, during which Rothmann saw the lengths to which Levin was forced to go in order to protect himself and others. The interview room was bugged, and when Rothmann asked if he believed that life in Russia was good for the Jews, Rabbi Levin said yes while shaking his head no. Rothmann then asked him if Rabbi Levin brings the Torah to the Bimah on Shabbos at the the Russian Jews wanted to go to Israel, Choral Synagogue (photographed by a non-Jew). to which Rabbi Levin responded no while shaking his head in the affirmative. I think, recalled Rothmann, he was a man completely exhausted by his condition. He was not a free man. As a public figure, Rabbi Levin became something of a celebrity in the American Jewish media. Every conversation he had with a foreigner, every letter he sent to an Israeli or American rabbi, was widely reported on. In those years, many American Jews used their the teacher. opposition to the persecution of Soviet Jewry as a vehicle for Despite these challenges, Rabbi Levin was unafraid to do what expressing their Jewish identity; for better or worse, Rabbi Levin was right, even if it meant facing the consequences. Rabbi Aaron became the face of that struggle. Some admired his efforts on Chazan, who for many years was active in the Jewish under- behalf of the Russian Jewish community while others, particuground, recalls one instance when he refused to let his children larly anti-Soviet activists, believed he was only a ventriloquists attend school on Shabbos. The schools principal told him that puppet for the regime. she had spoken to Rabbi Levin, who said that it was perfectly In 1968 it was decided that Rabbi Levin would visit the United acceptable for Jewish children to attend school on Shabbos. States, the first visit by an official Russian rabbi since the foundWhen asked if this was true, Rabbi Levin replied, No one ever ing of the Soviet Union. While at first it was eagerly anticipated asked me that, and if they did, I would tell them the truth. He by the American Jewish press, opposition arose when it became then wrote a letter to the school board on Rabbi Chazans behalf, public that the trip was being sponsored by the American Council excusing his children from school for religious reasons. Not long for Judaism (ACJ), an openly anti-Zionist group that in the past afterward the Ministry of Religion gave Rabbi Levin a fierce repri- had taken extreme positions siding with the Arabs against Israel. mand. Rabbi Levin responded, Arent you the ones who granted Rumors began to spread that the Communists had orchestrated me permission to guide people according to the precepts of our Rabbi Levins visit to improve relations with the United States. religion? To a certain extent this was true; the Soviets had everything For his own safety, Rabbi Levin was constantly under guard. In to gain by sending Rabbi Levin to America. However, the raba 1966 story by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, it was reported bis visit was not the Communists idea. The ACJ had conceived that Rabbi Levin almost always had a government agent by his of it and then approached the Russians, who, according to Mrs. side. The chief rabbi can rarely be visited in privacy, the report Skolbo, saw the virtue in sending a rav from Russia who really said. His lay committeemen close in on him when a visitor looked like a rabbi, who was knowledgeable and could talk[to] arrives, and inject themselves into the conversation. The little he help with their isolation from the Americans. Regardless, by the was free to tell us about the conditions of Jewish life was care- time Rabbi Levin set foot on US soil, a maelstrom of debate had fully tailored to the sensibilities of his lay admonitors. The Rabbi erupted within the American Jewish community. would always report back to the officials...whom he was meeting As for Rabbi Levin, his intention was only to protect the lives with and what he did. Mrs. Skolbo confirmed the report, point- of the Jews in Russia, knowing that anything he said or didnt
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say could have a very real effect on their welfare. According to the biographer of the late Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, one of the foremost American activists for Soviet Jewry, Russian officials...could punish Jews under their sway if activities in the United States irritated them. [The] argument was that halachically we are obligated to avoid placing people in danger. Consequently, Rabbi Levin chose to speak out in defense of the Communists, even if what he said was untrue. There was another motivation compelling him to agree to the trip, despite the fact that he was not a young man and was then recuperating from a painful surgery: He had written a sefer filled with his own chiddushim that was too dangerous for him to have published in Russia. If he brought his manuscript to the States, there was a chance it would be printed. A copy was hidden under his bandages and smuggled in, which was later entrusted to a rav who promised to have it published. The ACJ had planned an event at Hunter College in Manhattan where Rabbi Levin was scheduled to speak, although he was not without reservations. I am concerned that there will be disturbances, he confided to Rabbi Teitz. My better judgment dictates that I shouldnt be there. Still, he went, and addressed the crowd after a series of ACJ-sponsored speeches spewing hatred against the Jewish State. Rabbi Levin described in glowing terms what Jewish life was like in Russia to the crowd of almost 2,000: There was kosher meat, a mikvah, a mohel, and matzah was readily available for Pesach. He declared that Jews in the Soviet Union enjoyed just as

Rabbi Shleifer gives a class at the Moscow Yeshivah. Standing next to him, Rabbi Katz (left) and Rabbi Levin. Reb Mottel Lifshitz, Mottel der Schochet is sitting in the first row, second from the left. Photo: Rabbi Levi Haskelevich

much freedom as any other religious group to contribute to the advancement of our country and to the happiness of the Jewish people as a whole. Looking back, Rothmann said that Rabbi Levin was never a traitor; he was doing the best he could in his situation. He was not an evil man; he was a victim of his times and circumstances. The people who were watching him in New York didnt know [this], and to them Rabbi Levin was a quisling. Reaction to the speech was hostile. Audience members loudly jeered the rabbi, shouting, Lies! One person stood up and challenged him directly. How can you as a rabbi say these things?! Let American Jews come to Russia and see for themselves,

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Instead of attacking him, said the Lubavitcher Rebbe, they should praise the tenacity of a man who lived for 50 years under an oppressive regime yet still looks like a true rav.
Rabbi Levin replied. But the damage was already done. Rabbi Levin was devastated. They killed me! he cried to Rabbi Teitz that evening over the phone. However, his pain was not for himself; he was terrified of the repercussions that would befall the Jews once word got back to Russia about what happened. The American Jews who thought they were improving the lot of Soviet Jewry by inciting hatred against the Communists were in reality doing the exact opposite. After the incident at Hunter College, the ACJ no longer wished to be associated with the trip and offered to return Rabbi Levin to Moscow as soon as possible. However, Rabbi Teitz and other Jewish groups stepped in to oversee the rest of Rabbi Levins visit, which then proceeded uneventfully. Rabbi Levin was greeted by New York Mayor John V. Lindsay as well as the American ambassador to the United Nations, and Rabbi Teitz hosted an event at his school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in Rabbi Levins honor. One of the most poignant moments was at a gathering for yeshivah students at which Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky spoke, recalling his time with Rabbi Levin in Slobodka. Looking at all the faces of the frum children, Rabbi Levin was moved to recite a Shehecheyanu, thanking Hashem for permitting him to see such a thing. Indeed, witnessing the vibrant Jewish world in America had a powerful effect on the Russian rabbi. Rabbi Teitz likened him to Choni Hameagel, the sage who slept for 70 years before waking up: Rabbi Levin has come back to life from seeing Jewish life in the United States. After meeting him in person, several prominent Jewish leaders stepped forward to speak on his behalf. Rabbi Simcha Elberg, chairman of the executive board of the Agudas HaRabonim wrote, It was always clear to me that [Rabbi Levin] was a captive, with his mouth tied up and chained. He never voiced anything that he was prohibited to state. Every word he said was precise and deliberate. It was clear to him that this was the only way he could advocate on behalf of Soviet Jewry. In response to Rabbi Levins critics Rabbi Elberg asked, Would you like to volunteer to become a rabbi in the Soviet Union? How much mesiras nefesh are
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Rabbi Levins funeral, which was attended by thousands and many dignitaries from Russia and abroad

you willing to have? I am sure I would not be able to find one candidatefor who would want to place himself in physical danger every single moment of the day? Perhaps the most vocal advocate of Rabbi Levin was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who met with him twice during his time in the States. The Rebbe had long been involved in the plight of Soviet Jewry, sending his own shluchim to Russia disguised as tourists to distribute Jewish items and train teachers in communities across the USSR. The Rebbe knew the reality of life there, and understood full well what Rabbi Levin was up against. Of those gathered at the [Hunter College] event, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, many did not know how to read alef-beis. No one who was present there said, Lets make an effort that anyone in our country who hasnt had a Jewish education should receive one. They worried about the education of the Jews in Russia, when they knew there was nothing they could have done at that moment to make [the situation] better. Instead of attacking Rabbi Levin, he said, they should have praised the tenacity of a man who lived for 50 years under an oppressive regime yet still looks like a true rav. While the original sponsor of the visit had evil intentions, according to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a pioneer activist for Soviet Jewry, Rabbi Levins subsequent contact with responsible leaders of the Jewish community was important to him and to the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. By the eve of Rabbi Levins farewell dinner, which was attended by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the tensions at Hunter College seemed a distant, unpleasant memory, as the roomful of guests danced and sang with the guest of honor. It was apparent to all that the bond between Soviet and American Jewry was firmly intact. Three years after his return to Russia Rabbi Levin passed away.

Family Ties
Although an invitation was extended to Rabbi Levin to stay in the US he declined to accept it, his granddaughter explained, because that could have gotten our family in trouble in Russia. He also told us that not many Jews were knowledgeable in Yid-

dishkeit and he was one of the last, so he wanted to return for the sake of the Jews in Russia. This included his own family members, who, despite his tremendous sacrifices to keep Yiddishkeit alive, had little connection to Judaism. Whenever he would talk about his illustrious rabbinical heritage we werent interested, Mrs. Skoblo recalled. We would say, Zeide, if you told us you were descended from some great Communist leader wed want to hear about it, but we dont want to hear about rabbis. Mrs. Skoblo remembers her grandfathers amazement at the sheer number of young religious Jews in America. But somehow his enthusiasm failed to inspire his own relatives. We were young and not interested in all that, she said. We wanted to know what life was like in America. Do they have nice boots? How long do you have to work to buy a pair? In Russia, it would take a whole month to earn enough money. Years later, however, Mrs. Skoblo, the matriarch of her own lovely frum family, can appreciate the import of her grandfathers words. Although his grandchildrens lack of interest was painful to him, Rabbi Levin understood that it was a result of their lack of access to Yiddishkeit in Russia. Still, he made one request of his young granddaughter: You should always remember your family, and never marry a non-Jew. Indeed, Rabbi Levins words would have a profound effect on the course of her life. On the advice of her father, Ella Skoblos mother, Rivka Rosenstein, took her two young children to Israel and raised them there. Later, as a young woman, Ella arrived in New York and found herself a place to stay in Crown Heights. Remembering the manuscript her grandfather had written and smuggled into the United States, she tried to find out if it had ever been published. She contacted the rabbi her grandfather had given it to, but he told her it had never been printed because it was too expensive and unlikely to make much of a profit. Despite her efforts to retrieve it, she never got it back from him. Sometime later, after becoming engaged to a fellow Russian immigrant, Mrs. Skoblo had a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He asked her how she had ended up in Crown Heights.

It just happened, she replied. Everything in the world occurs with individual Divine providence, the Rebbe said. Your grandfather was here twice and we spoke about your family. He must have arranged from Above that you should come here. That moment solidified her connection with her grandfather, as well as his encouragement to remember her roots. For many years she dreamed of publishing her grandfathers writings, but never possessed a copy. Back in Russia there had actually been one, but her mother had chosen not to take it with them when they emigrated, thinking that if had already been published in America it wasnt worth the risk of getting caught and not being able to leave the country. In 1987 Mrs. Skoblo returned to the Soviet Union to visit her fathers grave. While there, a cousin told her that she had discovered the manuscript in their grandparents house. She gave it to Ella, who was overjoyed and brought it back to New York. Still, it took many years for the book to be published. Each time she tried to move forward with publication something happened to prevent its printing. Finally, in honor of her daughters wedding, the manuscript was brought to press. Even after the book was printed, she said, I was still unsure if we had done the right thing. Maybe there was a good reason we had never been successful in printing it. Shortly after the books publication, she happened to see a picture of her grandfather in a Russian language newspaper. The accompanying article recounted how he had written a book of chiddushei Torah but was unable to have it printed in the Soviet Union. She also learned that he had tried to have it published by an American who was visiting Russia in 1965. Mrs. Skoblo was amazed. I felt it was a message from my zeide saying that it was a good thing we had printed it. As chief rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin worked tirelessly for many years, under the most trying of circumstances, to keep Judaism alive in Russia. He played a key role in the gradual revival of Jewish observance in the Soviet Union, and his visit to New York, although marked by controversy, was also pivotal in connecting the American and Soviet Jewish worlds. While many were quick to criticize him, they failed to consider the time and place in which he lived. It was the height of the Cold War, said Rabbi Schneier. It was a very dark period, and any religious leader in the Soviet Union was very much constrained by the limitations of what he could do. Under those circumstances, being in Rabbi Levins position was true mesiras nefesh. As I said at his funeral in Moscow, Dont judge a man until you have reached his place.

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