Special Interview Another View of Soviet Jewry

The Chief Rabbis of Moscow and Rumania fear that continued attacks on the Soviet Union by American Jews will endanger the Jewish community in the USSR, according to two New York Orthodox rabbis who recently met with them. Rabbis David Hollander and Abraham Gross, both former presidents of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, described their visits to Rumania, the Soviet Union and Poland Aug. 4-19 in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rabbi Yaacov Fishman, Chief Rabbi of Moscow who met with the two visiting Americans at his home where he was recuperating from an operation was, according to Hollander, “very clear and unequivocal that protests against the Soviet Union by American Jews makes Russian Jews potential targets of anti-Semites in Russia.”

Hollander said that when they met with Rabbi Moses Rosen, Chief Rabbi of Rumania, in Bucharest he also warned against antagonizing the Soviet Union. Rosen said that the Rumanian government might be praised sometimes by U.S. Jews for some of the good it has done for Jews.

Hollander stressed that he and Gross were members of the segment of American Jewry that “shares” this view. He said that when dealing with a major power like the Soviet Union, a negotiating spirit might accomplish more than hostility. They said for this reason they did not meet with any of the Jewish activists while in the USSR.

REASON FOR ESCHEWING PROTEST MOVEMENT

None of the American rabbis who were born in Eastern Europe are among the activists in the Soviet Jewry movement, according to Hollander. He said he could not join the protest movement here as long as there is a chance that it may endanger Soviet Jews. He said it is easy to be brave with an American passport in your pocket. Hollander also stressed that even if most Jews who want to leave are allowed to go, there will still be some three million Jews in the USSR and their Jewish religious needs must be met.

Both Fishman in Moscow and Rosen in Bucharest spoke out strongly against Jews who leave either the Soviet Union or Rumania with visas for Israel and then go to another country, the two American rabbis reported.

For Hollander, who is rabbi at Mt. Eden Jewish Center in the Bronx, this was his eighth visit to the USSR since he first went in 1956 when he was then president of the Rabbinical Council of America. For Gross, rabbi of Congregation Shaare Hatikvah in Manhattan’s Washington Heights section, the trip was his first.

CHANGE IN ATMOSPHERE

Hollander, whose last trip was in 1973, said he found the atmosphere much more relaxed than in previous year. People were more willing to meet with foreigners and for the first time he was allowed to visit a Russian Jewish official’s home when he went to see Fishman.

He also noted that Gross and he were met at the Moscow airport by Yaakov Michenberg, vice-president of the Moscow Jewish community. He said that Sholom Kleinman, president of the Moscow Synagogue, is a different type of official from the others who preceded him. He noted that Kleinman is learned in Judaism and wants to do in Moscow what Rosen has done in Rumania–convince the government that the Jewish religion can exist in an atheist state without disloyalty to the government.

Hollander and Gross said one incongruity they found was that in a Communist state which is officially atheistic, the government welcomes a prayer which is said for it in the Moscow Synagogue. In fact, they noted, the prayer was posted on the synagogue wall in Russian and Hebrew. It called the Soviet Union the “protector of peace for the whole world.”

NUANCES OF JEWISH ACTIVITIES

There is a yeshiva in Moscow which trains religious functionaries, Hollander said. It is not attended by children but by college graduates, some of whom are in their 30s and 40s, who can later take the jobs of shochets and mohels. In Moscow there is a daily minyan, but in Kiev and Leningrad the two rabbis found that there were only services on the Shabbat.

These two cities didn’t have any rabbis, but the two American rabbis pointed out that all Judaism requires is a Jew learned in the law. Someone to perform ritual slaughter and circumcisions is indispensable to Judaism, but not rabbis, they said. They also noted that in the Moscow Synagogue Jews carry out the normal synagogue function of studying the Talmud, something which does not occur in other cities. They said they found a Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidjan Star, which is published weekly in that central Asian republic but was distributed at the Moscow Synagogue.

Kleinman told the American rabbis that the Jewish community had enough wheat for matzo last Passover and one of the reasons it asked that none be imported from abroad is that the community makes some of its money from the sale of matzo. He said that last year they were given 160 tons of wheat for matzo and expect to receive 200 tons next Passover. Kleinman also told the Americans that new facilities have been provided for the kosher slaughter of meat and poultry and it will now be permitted to import Jewish religious articles and books from abroad.

The two rabbis said they also visited Samarkand in the remote central Asian republic of Uzbekistan because they wanted to see a community of Sephardic Jews. There they found daily minyans attended at 5 a.m. with a large number of young people. The two rabbis, who spent nine days in the Soviet Union, said the most pleasant part of their trip was their four days in Rumania. They visited Bucharest and eight other communities and were given official receptions by Rosen and members of the Jewish community.

The most unpleasant part of their trip was the two days spent in Poland, the rabbis said. They visited Auschwitz, Warsaw, Crakow and other places and wherever they went they were reminded of the Holocaust, according to Hollander. Poland only has 10,000-12,000 Jews, mostly elderly, they said.

Gross said the Polish government seems intent on erasing every memory of the Jews. He noted that in Ger, where there once was a large Jewish population and which the seat of a famous rabbinical dynasty was, there are only four Jews left and the former synagogue of the Rabbi of Ger is a furniture factory.

Gross said even in Auschwitz there is little to show that most of the victims of the infamous death camp were Jews. He said there is a hotel and thousands of tourists visit there but little is shown of Jewish content. They were told that the building housing Jewish content is being “renovated” and has been in the process of renovation for a long time.

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