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Two Rabbinical Visitors to USSR Differ on Status of Russ Jews

Rabbi Eugene J. Cohen, former president of the Jewish Chaplains Association of America, has challenged what he called Rabbi Pinchas Teitz’s “apparent inference that the spiritual and national aspirations of the Jewish people are satisfied” in the Soviet Union. Maintaining that Soviet Jews are deprived of religious necessities, Rabbi Cohen said of the former member of the presidium of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada: “I am pained to have to differ with my learned and esteemed colleague for he has achieved much for the Jewish community in Elizabeth, N.J. However, it is apparent that two people can see the same facts and reach totally different conclusions.”

Rabbi Cohen referred to Rabbi Teitz’s report, published in the JTA Daily News Bulletin Aug. 9, of an ambitious program, with young Jews already enrolled, to train religious functionaries. “I heard about this yeshiva while still in the US and discussed it with competent Soviet Jews upon my arrival in Russia, but heard nothing but derision of it,” Rabbi Cohen told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Although there are qualified students in the USSR, those selected had no previous Jewish training. There are, in Russia, many who have acquired Jewish knowledge privately, and hunger for the word of the Torah, but they are not registered in the school. Furthermore, the students will not be afforded sufficient time to study, for in addition to their studies each must work a regular tour of duty.”

Rabbi Cohen maintained that “this is not a yeshiva but an elementary Talmud Torah.” Jews, he said, are the only Soviet citizens denied religious literature. “With only three rabbis in all Russia, is it not necessary to train rabbis?” he asked. “In fairness,” Rabbi Cohen added, “it must be stated that there was a Torah class in the (Moscow) Choral Synagogue prior to the (July 21-22) services. It was well-attended and conducted. But there was no one under 60 years of age present.”

Rabbi Cohen also challenged Rabbi Teitz’s contention “that there are ulpanim studying Hebrew in Russia.” He remarked: “Though many men and women were outside the synagogue speaking Hebrew in the street, none entered the synagogue. I spoke to the Jews outside the synagogue in Hebrew and to those inside in Yiddish, and heard a tale of mistrust and fear from both sides. The young people in the street are brave enough to stand near the synagogue but afraid to enter for study or prayer.” Rabbi Cohen concluded: “As I saw it, three million Jews are in danger of disappearing unless they may leave Russia. It is nothing less than a miracle that there are those who still wish to live as Jews.”

Rabbi Teitz, reached by telephone in Miami Beach, disputed Rabbi Cohen’s arguments. Rabbi Teitz explained that in the Soviet Union “a seminary is not a place to sit and learn; it is a place to prepare for certain functions,” like ritual slaughter, There are 25 ulpanim in Moscow, he said, the Torah class has it’s students aged 22-45, and “if one claims that he did not see it, this is not evidence.”

Asked if Soviet Jewish youth are afraid to assert their Jewishness, Rabbi Teitz replied: “Not so, not so. Today’s youth in Russia are not afraid to enter the synagogue. Fear is a word of the past as far as Jewish youth in the Soviet Union are concerned.” Rabbi Teitz said he had visited the USSR seven times since 1965, including three times in the current Jewish year, and that when he was a guest at the July 22 reception for Moscow Rabbi Yaacov Fishman, Rabbi Cohen “left before I spoke.”

Rabbi Teitz, added that he had spoken by telephone on Aug. 15 with Rabbi Fishman and with Ephraim Kaplun, the new president of the Choral Synagogue congregation, to advise them when to be on hand for the delivery of 250 esrogim he had sent them for use on Succoth across the USSR. “Otherwise,” he told the JTA, “it goes to the warehouse, there’s a lot of red tape, and they may not get it until it’s too late.”

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