By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Rebuilding The Ohel Of The Yismach Moshe
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, zt’l (1759–1841), author of Yismach Moshe, was elected as rav of Ujhely in 1808. He was a disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz, zt’l (1715–1815), Lubliner Rebbe renowned as the Chozeh (Seer) and one of the main pillars of chassidism. The Yismach Moshe introduced chassidism into Hungary and was the founder of the Siget and Satmar chassidish dynasties.
Ujhely today is on the Hungarian-Slovak border. At times in history, Ujhely was actually divided between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Before WWII, Ujhely had a Jewish population of 4,500 Jews out of a total population of 13,000. Today, it has a population of 16,000, with between 10 and 100 Jews, depending on the criteria used. A famous Hungarian legend has the Yismach Moshe saving the life of a hopelessly ill non-Jewish child through intense prayer. The child was Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894), the “George Washington” of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. The oldest tombstone in the Jewish cemetery bears the date of 1760. Jews were always welcomed and respected. Virtually all of its Jewish residents were murdered in the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust, rabbis and chassidish rebbes regularly prayed in the ohel of the Yismach Moshe.
During the late 1970s, the local municipality set out to destroy the Jewish cemetery. Greatly alarmed, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt’l (1886–1979), Satmar Rebbe and author of Divrei Yoel, frantically dispatched Sender Deutsch, zt’l (1922–1998), president of the Satmar kehillah, to Ujhely to save the cemetery. Sender Deutsch met with municipal leaders and showed them the legend of the Yismach Moshe saving the life of Lajos Kossuth recorded in the official archives. Mightily impressed, the municipal leaders quickly relented.
In 1994, the local municipality was poised to cede the cemetery to the Hungarian Jewish council, which is predominantly Neologue (Reform). Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, zt’l (1915–2006), late Satmar Rebbe and author of Beirach Moshe, immediately dispatched Sender Deutsch, Yitzchok Yechiel Schlesinger, zt’l, and Yosef Weiss, members of Satmar’s chevra kadisha, to intervene. The delegation was successful and the municipality designated the cemetery as the responsibility of the Satmar kehillah.
At that time, the pre-burial building adjacent to the ohel of the Yismach Moshe was renovated. A large hole was dug and filled with water to serve for ritual immersions for those wishing to visit the ohel in a state of purity. The hole, kept covered by a plastic sheet, was not a kosher mikveh. In addition, a provisional kitchen was installed together with tables and chairs to serve as hachnasas orchim for the many visitors that come, especially for the yahrzeit of the Yismach Moshe on 28 Tammuz.
A campaign, titled “Bechatzros Elokeinu,” has been launched to renovate the ohel, to upgrade the pre-burial building, and to install a kosher mikveh. The campaign has been joined by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe. Work has already begun in excavating a hole to accommodate the strictest interpretation of halachah applicable to the building of a kosher mikveh. Blueprints have been drawn for a spacious modern kitchen and dining area to serve the anticipated larger groups. The facility will be expanded to have a number of separate rooms to serve for lodging. An important additional feature is the expansion and upgrading of the temporary beis medrash to enable large groups to pray together.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dramatic increase of travelers to Eastern Europe to the graves of ancestors, tens of thousands of visitors sojourning in Uman for Rosh Hashanah, and tens of thousands traveling to Lizjensk, amongst other hallowed sites, the news of the renovation and expansion of facilities in Ujhely is welcome and spectacular, yet not surprising. v
Yiddishkeit In Tomsk, Siberia
In 1721, Tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725) of Russia created a draconian class of military inductees that would serve for 25 years. A draft quota was imposed on every Jewish community. Boys would literally be kidnapped off the streets. Sadly, in a dark period of Jewish history, wealthy families bribed officials to replace their sons by kidnapping boys of poor families.
Boys were drafted at the age of 12 and forcibly given a six-year military education. Upon graduation, they served for a period of 25 years. The intention of the Cantonist decree was to integrate draftees into Russia’s general community. Needless to say, every semblance of Yiddishkeit was ripped out of the young inductees.
Herzl Yankel Tsam (1835–1915) was a Jewish Cantonist and appears to have been the only Jewish officer in the Tsarist army in the 19th century who rose beyond the rank of captain. Drafted as a 17-year-old Cantonist, Tsam served in Tomsk, Siberia. Tsam became an officer in 1873. Fellow officers attested to his qualities in the promotion petitions. After 41 years of service, he was “retired” with a rank and pension of colonel. However, the promotion was granted only on the day of his retirement, so that he would have the pension, but would not be able to actually serve as a colonel. An able commander and administrator, he turned one of the worst companies of his regiment into one of the best. In spite of pressure, he never converted to the state religion of Russian Orthodox Christianity. After retirement, Tsam took an active part in the Jewish community of Tomsk.
In 1856, the decree was abolished by Tsar Alexander II (1818–1881) in contemplation of the necessity of modernizing the army. All Cantonists under the age of 20 were returned to their families. However, those above the age of 20 were required to serve out their terms.
As the older Cantonists were discharged after 1856, they were exiled to Siberia. Many were assigned to the city of Tomsk. There, the liberated Cantonists renewed their Yiddishkeit and in 1906 built a large, intricately decorated wooden shul. The building stands to this day. During the Communist regime, religion was abolished and the shul building was converted into an apartment house where 15 families live.
With the dissolution of the Communist regime, freedom of religion was reinstated and the Jewish community there revived. Rabbi Levi and Rebbetzin Chana Kamenitzky, representing Chabad, arrived in 2005 and have assumed leadership, establishing a thriving, full-service Jewish community, with everything that would be found in a large city kehillah. Children are being educated in the Tomsk Yeshiva, adults have a smorgasbord of religious classes available, a kosher supermarket is open, a chevra kadisha stands at the ready, and a respected rabbi serves.
On Thursday, April 18, a hachnasas sefer Torah was grandly celebrated in Tomsk. Amongst the notables participating were rabbis of surrounding communities and, most significantly, Rabbi Shlomo Dov (Berl) Pinchas Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia. At the end of the ceremony installing the new sefer Torah, the cornerstone of a large new Jewish community center was set.
At the end of the joyous event, Hon. Nikolay Nikolaychuk, Mayor of Tomsk, invited Chief Rabbi Lazar and Rabbi Kamenitzky to meet with the members of the Duma (City Council), who also participated in the hachnasas sefer Torah, and discussed ways that the municipality can assist the Jewish community in its wonderful work and impressive growth.
In particular, the mayor and the Duma indicated their predisposition to accelerate the return of the Cantonist Synagogue building to the Jewish community. Mayor Nikolaychuk immediately earmarked a million dollars (more than 30 million rubles) of city funds towards the speedy relocation of the 15 families currently living in the building, so that the facility can once again serve the Jewish community.
The resurgence of Yiddishkeit in Tomsk, Siberia, is an indication of the renaissance of Torah-true Judaism throughout post–Iron Curtain Russia, as well as in other far-flung places throughout the world. These unimaginable developments are the direct result of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s leadership and the herculean efforts of Chabad rabbis and their wives that have accepted the challenge and, thank Heaven, are thriving. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.