Russian-speaking Jews number almost one million in the former Soviet Union, 1.1 million in Israel, and almost half a million in the United States. Who is teaching them Torah? Shvut Ami—a little-known group founded by passionate refuseniks with a history descending from the dark nights of Jewish persecution under the Soviet Union.
It is no understatement to say that Shvut Ami has helped to change the face of Russian-speaking Jewry. On Monday, April 22, at 8:00 p.m., the Five Towns community is invited to meet the leaders of this unique kiruv organization and hear the story of its tortured beginnings in the gulag, its formation in Israel, and its blossoming new campus under construction in Beitar. The parlor meeting will be at the home of author Mr. Roy Neuberger, 45 Harborview West in Lawrence.
Shvut Ami was founded in 1977 by Soviet refusenik Shimon Grilius. But not before his life was ravaged at the hands of the Soviet regime. In 1969, Grilius was an engineering student in Ryazan. He also was an activist for aliyah to Israel. It was after the Six Day War, when a new spirit of jubilant Zionism was on the minds of Soviet Jews oppressed by an atheist and anti-Semitic government. The Soviet leaders had made it illegal to pray in public, to study Torah, or even to read Hebrew. Zionist activities were conducted in secret. Even then the KGB, ever pernicious, uncovered most of them and sent perpetrators to prison or to labor camps deep in the gulag.
Grilius was arrested and sent by railway boxcar to Perm 36—a camp on the border of Siberia. Today it is the last camp in Russia still standing, and serves as a museum of conditions in the gulag: wooden barracks filled with men who slept on planks and had no heating in winters that reached 40 degrees below zero. He would remain in this condition five years.
But it was in Perm 36 that he met another prisoner, the famous Yosef Mendelevitch, who had attempted to steal a small aircraft with a group of refuseniks to fly out of Russia, and today is a rabbi in Jerusalem.
Mendelevitch knew a bit about Judaism. Grilius knew nothing. So Mendelevitch became his rebbi. Together they found ways to pray, learn Hebrew, and even keep Shabbos to some extent. All of it was forbidden in the camp. For their attempts, both suffered the evil cold and isolation of solitary confinement—a tiny concrete room where letters in or out were forbidden.
Of Chanukah, Grilius later wrote, “We used small pieces of stale bread, glued together with some leftover jam, to make a menorah. That way, when one of the guards would see us lighting candles in it, we could simply say we had made a birthday cake for a fellow inmate.”
In Perm 36, Grilius felt pained for the first time that he knew so little of his spiritual heritage. As a Jew, he wanted to do something to help his fellow Russians. He decided to create a group that would teach Torah to the Russians who had been denied this basic right.
After his release from the camp, he made aliyah to Israel. It was 1974, 13 years before a 1987 rally in Washington D.C. brought 250,000 people to the Mall to advocate the rescue of Soviet Jewry.
What Grilius did never received such notoriety, but its effects continue to be reaped. He found ten other Russian Jews who wished to learn Torah and teach their brethren. He organized them and then found Rabbi Eliezer Kugel, the grandson of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Rabbi Levin had inspired Rabbi Kugel to reach out to the newly arriving Russian olim. Rabbi Kugel offered his beit midrash to the group that Grilius had found, and together they created the first Russian yeshiva in Israel.
To name the group, Rabbi Kugel opened the Chumash. The name they found was Shvut Ami. Rabbi Eliezer Kugel said in an interview with Roy Neuberger: “We looked into the Torah. What name would be right for this unusual place? We found a verse that said G‑d wanted to return the captivity of his people—Shvut Ami: ‘The captivity of his people.’ My people is in prison; that’s what the term means.”
Since then, three generations of the Kugel family have headed the organization together with the now-ordained Rabbi Shimon Grilius. They have taught over 200 rebbeim who have opened Shvut Ami centers, schools, and orphanages throughout the former Soviet Union, in Germany, Israel, and America. They began a publishing house, translating Torah works into Russian. They created the Russian programming of Ner L’elef and Aish HaTorah. Today they continue to expand with a major campus under construction in Beitar.
While the fervor to free Soviet Jewry from physical and spiritual oppression has long passed, the new generations need as much support. Whether in America, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, or Israel, they are growing up in a community where Torah observance is a new phenomenon, where there are few who can understand them and also grasp the light of Torah Judaism.
That combination is uniquely found in Shvut Ami, and on April 22 Shvut Ami can be found at Roy Neuberger’s house in Lawrence. v