By Rabbi Berel Lazar
My relationship with Reb Shmuel Rohr started about twenty years ago, in the early 1990s. He was visiting Russia on a business trip, looking for investment opportunities.
Truth to tell, I looked at him kind of quizzically: “Investment? In Russia!?” This was a country that everyone was trying to get out of, figuring that it had no future. A dank and dreary place, where the store shelves were empty and there was nothing to eat; the only kind of economic activity was that of émigrés selling their goods and leaving the country with the little money they had gotten for them. Now this man is coming to invest? When does he ever expect to see any profits from this?
So I asked him, “Reb Shmuel, what are you doing?”
“I myself may not see any profit from it,” he replied, “but my children and grandchildren will. I’m investing for their sake. Now, when everything is collapsing here, when no one sees a future for the country—that’s the time to enter the market here. It’s a window of opportunity that opens only once in many decades. So, yes, it’s unlikely that in the near future I’ll see any benefits from this investment, but my grandchildren will see it.
“And this is just as true in spiritual matters, in matters of Judaism, as it is in business,” he continued. “On the face of it, there seems to be no future here: everyone is getting out as fast as possible, going to Israel, or America, or Western Europe. But I do foresee a future here—a bright future. Again, I may not get to see it, but my grandchildren most definitely will. Time will come when Russia gets back firmly on its feet, both economically and Jewishly!”
As Reb Shmuel spoke, I saw before me a Jew with great vision, a person with enormous foresight. He envisioned a revolution—and he took a leading role in making it happen. He was the Nachshon ben Aminadav who jumped into the swirling waves, into a sea where no firm footing could be seen—yet he walked into it with head held high and eyes affixed ahead, toward the future.
He encouraged, cajoled, pushed and worked on having shluchim sent to Russia. He not only talked the talk, but walked the walk—supporting them financially from the start.
In the many conversations I had with him, he’d often refer to his underlying inspiration. What indeed motivated him to spend such a fortune on behalf of Russian Jewry? His yardstick, he said, was simply this: “If Stalin could see this, he’d roll over in his grave!”
This idea was expressed in the wide variety of activities he funded, in each of which he saw the ultimate revenge against Stalin. A few come to mind now:
Return of Synagogues
Whenever Reb Shmuel would hear about a synagogue that had been nationalized by the Communist government and that there was a chance to have it returned to the Jewish community—he’d exert all possible efforts to make it happen.
That was his sweet revenge. A building that was seized by Stalin’s goons en route to ensuring the ultimate defeat of the Jews—to think that in that same building Judaism would be rebuilt and blossom anew—that would definitely make Stalin roll over in his grave, if he could only see it. So it must be done!
Brit Milah (Circumcision)
During that early period of Jewish awakening after seventy years of communism, there was a particularly urgent need to find mohalim who could arrange circumcisions in an orderly fashion.
One day I approached Reb Shmuel excitedly and told him that we identified an expert mohel, who was also a credentialed surgeon, who would be perfectly suited for performing adult milah.
After committing certain funding, Reb Shmuel told me, “The real revolution, the real Jewish victory, is performing a bris on an eight-day-old infant, a bris in its proper time. That’s what will make Stalin roll over in his grave.
“You see,” he continued, sounding like a sagacious chassid, “Stalin wanted to break the Jews’ intrinsic connection to G‑d. When an adult undergoes a bris milah, that’s on his own initiative: he’s weighed the pros and cons, and decided rationally that he needs to be circumcised. He’s taken Stalin’s view into consideration and ended up rejecting it.
“But a baby who’s circumcised—why, he’s never heard of Stalin, and neither knows nor cares about what he’d say. Instead, the parents and the mohel help express the baby’s timeless and deep-rooted connection with G‑d, his super-rational connection, with no extraneous considerations. That is the true victory of Judaism over Stalinism!”
Reb Shmuel’s yardstick: If Stalin could see babies being circumcised he’d roll over in his grave. Then surely, that’s what must be done!
Shul (Synagogue) Attendance
I remember vividly when he read a report from the shliach living in what was once called Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd). Despite being there for several years, his community was not yet able to hold a minyan on weekdays. Reb Shmuel was deeply pained by this. He phoned me and implored, “How can we improve this situation?” It bothered him deeply, very personally. Why? Well, public prayer was banned during Stalin’s tyrannical reign, so it was yet another thing that Reb Shmuel knew would certainly cause Stalin no end of pain. Especially in the very city so famously named for Stalin!
In many cities he initiated what he called “Kiddush enhancement” programs after Shabbos prayers, so that more Jews would be attracted to the synagogue. True, he said, some people might be attracted solely by the good cholent—but then they’ll also be coming to shul, and there will be a nice-sized minyan, and slowly they’ll partake of the prayers, too.
Why was attracting more people to attend prayers so important? Because Stalin would surely turn over in his grave from it…
If you think about it for a minute, it’s rather odd. A Jew who ran away from Europe, who escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth, who built up his fortune in Colombia and lives in the United States—what’s he got to do with Stalin? What is it about Stalin that bothers him so much that he’ll do anything to “see” him roll over in his grave?
I believe the answer is simple. The belief in G‑d and His Torah burned deeply inside Reb Shmuel Rohr. And in Stalin he saw the embodiment of evil chutzpah, the brazen attempt to eradicate Judaism, to put an end to Jewish holiness, G‑d forbid. By definition, then, whatever “pains” Stalin is good. To Reb Shmuel, the victory over Stalinism is G‑d’s triumph; it’s the victory of Judaism, the ultimate vindication of our holy Torah. And this spurred him to revitalize so many communities after seventy years of repression.
Time passed, and Reb Shmuel came for a visit. He traveled from place to place in the former Soviet Union, visiting the beautiful synagogues and seeing the communities pulsating with Jewish life: children and teenagers, men and women, young and old, all living a world of Judaism.
Reb Shmuel wasn’t happy; he didn’t smile. He glowed. His entire self, everything about him, bespoke joy.
Indeed, he did get to see that Jewish revenge—not just his grandchildren, but he himself merited already to see some of the fruits of his investments. He saw the triumph of Judaism.
The magnificent edifice of Judaism in the former Soviet Union, the spiritual revolution that took place here over the past two decades, the hundreds of thriving communities—are all in very large part due to the historic opportunity that Reb Shmuel recognized.
Though his passing last year was deeply mourned by the shluchim and their communities, thanks to him his spiritual descendants join his biological children as proud and committed Jews. These countries are in fact full of thousands of Reb Shmuel’s spiritual grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And through them, he lives on.
Judaism in the former Soviet Union, and the fact that Stalin is rolling over in his grave—is overwhelmingly due to Reb Shmuel, a man of enormous vision and even greater conviction.
May his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Berel Lazar is Chief Rabbi of Russia and Chairman of the Rabbincal Alliance of the Former Soviet Union.
Originally published at: Chabad.org. Photo Credit: Israel Bardugo