The rabbi and cantor of the main Moscow synagogue began three months of study at Yeshiva University here last week under a cloud of criticism from U.S. Soviet Jewry activists, who claim the two men are KGB agents.
Moreover, activists maintained, the study program is an insult to observant Soviet Jews’ sincere desire to study Judaism, for which they are frequently harassed and have until recently been imprisoned.
Why, asked Glenn Richter, national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, did not Yeshiva University instead invite prominent refuseniks who are learning Torah on their own at great personal risk?
The SSSJ urged the university, with its record of involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement, to rescind its accord to teach Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, 50, and Cantor Vladimir Pliss, 33.
The group cited Shayevich for having “for several years spoken out against Israel on behalf of the Soviet Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public.”
University president Dr. Norman Lamm said he had critical phone calls from Morris Abram, chairman of the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, and former refusenik Natan Sharansky.
AGREEMENT TO STAND
But Yeshiva University “will not cancel the arrangement,” said Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), the university affiliate at which the two men are studying.
He claimed the university did not initiate the study program, but agreed to host the men “with our eyes open.” Charlop is an avid worker on behalf of Soviet Jewry and said he was aware of the controversy and the inherent problems.
Arrangements and funding for the study visit were made by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an inter-religious organization that has arranged for the distribution of Jewish books in the Soviet Union.
Lamm said his decision to admit the two men was a “religious, not a political statement.”
Charlop acknowledged that critics may see the unprecedented study program “in a political light,” but contended that the rabbi and cantor came only to learn. The university, he said, “is not now one wit less committed to activist Soviet Jewry than before.”
Jewish tradition, he said, mandates that “We teach Torah to whomever wants to learn Torah.”
Responding to criticism that KGB employees are by definition informers and that the Talmud says you may not teach Torah to an informer, Charlop said, “We have no evidence that these men have ever informed on Jews. And we have to be aware that any clergyman in the Soviet Union must work for the government.”
Asked if there had been student protests about the men’s presence, Charlop said three students had come to him quite upset.
Shayevich and Pliss, for their part, said they were aware that many of the students may be distant with them, “but they indicated they understood,” said Charlop.
The Soviet rabbi and cantor seem to be “very serious” about their studies, Charlop said, and are involved in intensive learning, beginning with services at 7:45 a.m. and ending daily at 10 p.m. They are tutored by three rabbis from the Gruss Kollel at Yeshiva University.
In addition, Pliss is studying at Yeshiva’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music. “Although he started with no background in ‘chazzanut’ (the Jewish cantorate), because he was unable to study properly in the Soviet Union, he seems very dedicated,” Charlop said.
“He did all his studying from cassettes that people brought from the United States. There has been no sheet music for chazzanut available in the Soviet Union. Now he is busy copying sheet music and will bring it back with him and, as he says, try to train others.”
Shayevich, said Charlop, is “an intelligent man. Although his level of Jewish learning is not up to our standards, he has demonstrated a total willingness to study intensively, as much as one can in three months. And that is all the two men are doing.”
The pair also will visit communities to observe both how rabbis and cantors function and “the vitality of Jewish life,” Charlop said.
At a news conference last week, Shayevich and Pliss spoke in limited but comprehensible Hebrew, Shayevich studied at a rabbinical seminary in Budapest, the only such institution remaining in the Soviet bloc, through Schneier’s arranging.
Pliss described his musical background as conductor of a chorus, for which he studied Russian and classical vocal music in institutes in Leningrad and Moscow. Charlop praised his training, voice and dedication.
SHAYEVICH ON SOVIET JEWS
Asked to compare the plight of Soviet Jews and the pair’s opportunity at Yeshiva University, Shayevich presented a lengthy explanation of Soviet Jewish observance.
“Jews in the Soviet Union are divided into two groups. The larger group is not religious–about 800,000–but they are committed to Judaism in one way or another,” he said.
“Religious people go to synagogue, although not every day. There are about 70-80 Jews in synagogue every day in Moscow. About 300 go on Sabbaths and holidays.
“Of the people who make aliyah or who are ‘baalei teshuva’ (newly observant)–I believe a portion of them have already left.”
He emphasized a “big difference” in the last three years. “It is better now not only for Jews but for everyone. And if it will be good for all people, it will be good for Jews also,” he said.
He said Jewish youth have recently shown concern with Judaism, although not necessarily the religion.
Pliss added that “young Jews have an interest in Jewish songs, but the idea was always there.”
Charlop fended off criticism that the study visit was but a public relations ploy. “If the Kremlin will indeed use this arrangement as a grand public relations gimmick–as Soviet Jewry activists claim–then isn’t there an equal chance that the Soviets will be in turn repaid by two Jewish men who will return steeped in knowledge and perhaps love of Torah?” he asked.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.