May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

(Note: The story below is one that I recently shared with my son, Yoni, who is a tour guide in Israel, for him to use in the special Selichot tours he conducts before Selichot are said at night. I hope you enjoy it.)

This story starts with a visit to the U.S. in 1968 by the then chief rabbi of Moscow, Rav Yehuda Leib Lewin (pronounce Levin) (1894-1971). Rav Lewin was a product of the Slobodka Yeshiva and the last of that generation of faithful servants who did whatever they could to defy the Soviet authorities.

On his trip, he was a guest at a reception in his honor being hosted at the home of the Hon. Arthur Goldberg, former Supreme Court Justice (1962-1965) and the U.S. permanent representative/ambassador to the UN who also played a decisive role to the benefit of Israel during the Six Day War. Rav Lewin was obviously trailed and closely watched during that visit, and at that reception as well, by KGB agents who watched his every move and spoken word. Ambassador Goldberg, anxious to have a word with Rav Lewin in private, finally managed to lead him away from the KGB minders’ watchful eyes, and guided him through a maze of long hallways in his very spacious East Side apartment in Manhattan until they were at last alone and out of earshot of the KGB.

At that point, Ambassador Goldberg said to the venerable rabbi, “Now and here we can talk.” To this comment, Rabbi Lewin responded, “If we can talk, then we have to shrai gevalt! (a Yiddish equivalent to ‘scream bloody murder’).”

Rav Lewin had a beautiful hadrat panim. He had a regal bearing and during the same visit to the U.S. he spoke at the annual RCA convention. He had a tall and imposing frame which was contrasted by the torn and tattered rabbinic frock that he wore, as the Soviets had apparently denied him the ability to have new ceremonial garb made for his official duties. It was a way of humiliating this last vestige of authentic religious leadership, so that his canonicals were old and torn and representative of the “ossified” religious lifestyle he still sought to promote.

But when he appeared at the RCA convention he was introduced by the Rav z”tl, who said of Rav Lewin that he reminded him of the great Russian rabbis that he used to see, hear and meet as a child in his grandfather Rav Chaim’s home in Brisk/Brest-Litovsk. And that Rav Lewin was one of the last of that lost generation.

Gadlut ha’adam (the greatness of man) at its essence, and its opposite—shiflut ha’adam (the lowliness of man)—by the design of the cruel Soviet authorities, converged with Rav Lewin’s visit and his appearances.

And it was at that moment, as recounted to me by an eyewitness to the event, that Shlomo Carlebach got up and introduced the well-known version/melody to the song “Am Yisrael Chai” that became a standard at all rallies on behalf of the struggle of Soviet Jewry.

The mussar haskel (the lesson to be derived) from this story for me is that at this time and place in history when the threat of a nuclear, belligerent Iran—despite a claimed decent deal, which many take serious exception to—looms large, it is our mission to never be silent. We must always be prepared to “shrai gevalt!”

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler is the former rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

By Rabbi Lawrence Zierler

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