web analytics
November 23, 2014 / 1 Kislev, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
IDC Herzliya Campus A Day on Campus

To mark IDC Herzliya’s 20th anniversary, we spent a day following Prof. Uriel Reichman, IDC’s founder and president, and Jonathan Davis, VP for External Relations, around its delightful campus.



Reaching Behind The Iron Curtain: An Interview with Soviet Jewry Activist Rabbi David Hill

Rabbi David Hill

Rabbi David Hill

With almost all of world Jewry located in liberal democracies today, it is easy to forget that a mere 25 years ago, 1.5 million Jews lived under a totalitarian Soviet regime that suppressed Judaism. In the Soviet Union, even procuring a siddur or Jewish calendar could be a clandestine affair filled with fear.

This history is not unknown, but in a recently published memoir, Serving the Jewish People: My Message to the Generations, Rabbi David Hill offers his perspective as an American Soviet Jewry activist. A nonagenarian today, Rabbi Hill served as vice chair of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and ran Operation Lifeline, which sent American Jews behind the Iron Curtain to teach Torah and distribute religious articles.

Rabbi Hill also headed the National Council of Young Israel from 1961-1965 and was president for several decades of the Real Kosher Sausage Company, popularly known as “999.”

The Jewish Press: How did you get involved in helping Soviet Jewry?

Rabbi Hill: Around 1960, I met with Golda Meir, and she wondered why nothing was being done in America about Soviet Jewry. I told her I would make this my priority.

And that ultimately led to Operation Lifeline?

Operation Lifeline started after I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe a few times. I was the first person whom he allowed his followers to give names and addresses.

After all, you just couldn’t go to Russia and say, “Who’s a Jew? I want to help you.” But Lubavitcher chassidim were spread throughout the entire country. They were the only ones who kept any sort of Yiddishkeit alive from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Lubavitcher Rebbe instructed his chassidim to keep on working and building the underground until help would come from the outside.

Was it dangerous to send American Jews to the Soviet Union to teach Torah?

Absolutely. If the KGB caught them teaching Torah or anything that had to do with the history of our people, they could be arrested. Whatever we did in visiting the refuseniks was illegal, but we were extremely fortunate in that no harm was done to those we visited.

The KGB wasn’t stupid. It must have known what you were doing. Why then did it allow your people to come into the Soviet Union?

Because they were hungry for the dollar. They knew what we were doing, but somehow from all the years that I sent travelers to Russia, on only one occasion did they send someone out.

When you visited the Soviet Union in 1981, you met Rabbi Abraham Meller, whom you describe as the last student of the Chofetz Chaim. What were your impressions of him?

He could not teach Torah publicly, so he would walk with his students on the street and teach them as they walked. He was a person with a great amount of, not only knowledge, but also humility. The only thing he wanted from me was more paper and pens and kosher food so that he could have something kosher for his Shabbat meals….

When I went to the Soviet Union, we had 2,000 Jewish books which we brought for the Moscow Book Fair. We were not allowed to give them out, but as people came to visit our booth, they would point to the books they wanted and then my wife would meet them 100 or 200 yards away from the fair and make the deliveries.

In all your years of activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry, which American president would you say was most helpful?

Ford was helpful. Of course Reagan, with Secretary of State George Shultz, was the most helpful. At first when Reagan met with Gorbachev, human rights was on the lower part of the agenda. But it eventually became number one, and that was due to Secretary Shultz. Gorbachev said to Reagan, “Let us address arms,” but Reagan said, “No. Human rights first.”

You have an interesting story in your book – albeit unrelated to your Soviet Jewry activities – concerning President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

When Carter was signing the Panama Canal Treaty, he wanted the clergy in this country to give him support, so I was invited. When I met Brzezinski in the White House, I asked him, “Do you believe in the Old Testament?” He said, “Of course.” I said, “Well, in the Book of Genesis you have the boundaries of the state of Israel.” The minute I said that, he picked himself up and walked away.

Many years later when we invited Brzezinski to a national conference on Soviet Jewry in Washington, he came over to me and said, “Were you the one who asked me that question?” I said, “I didn’t think you remembered.” He said, “I never forgot it.”

You were president of the National Council of Young Israel from 1961-1965, yet you write in the book that you are displeased with the organization today. Why?

Because they turned to the right. When I was president, and even a short time thereafter, we had national conventions that attracted over a thousand people. Prior to Lubavitch, it was Young Israel in the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s that did work on kiruv, attracting young people. But in the middle or late ‘80s, Young Israel decided to take a different course which I objected to.

In what sense did Young Israel move to the right?

I’ll give you an example. There was a rally that was called for by the OU in the 1990s, and they asked Young Israel to participate. To bring in greater numbers, they also asked Agudah to participate, but Agudah insisted that no prayer for Israel or the soldiers be made. And as much as I objected, Young Israel gave in. That was unforgiveable.

As someone who is, thank God, over 90 years old, what would you say has been the most important value you have carried through your life?

The concept of hakaras hatov – to recognize that when something good is done to you, you should have the ability to say thank you. My thank you was to the Almighty God who rescued my family from Europe, and at a very young age I decided that I had a debt to pay back.

Any message you would like to impart to the younger generation?

Read Jewish history. If you do, you will find that more miracles have happened to the Jewish people in the last 70-odd years than in the previous 2,000. Our prophets proclaimed in the name of God, “I will gather you amongst the nations and bring you back home.” We are the generation [referred to in that prophecy] – mine, yours, and the ones to come. So young people must understand the beauty and the history of our people to see what they could contribute to the future.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Reaching Behind The Iron Curtain: An Interview with Soviet Jewry Activist Rabbi David Hill

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
What, me incite terror? Abba: "The Jews must be barred by any means possible."
Ex-Senior Justice Official Asks Homeland Security to Ban Abbas from US
Latest Indepth Stories
Jo-map

As Arabs murder and maim Jews, Jordan’s leaders bark the blood libel of “Israeli aggression.”

bulb

Perhaps attacking a terrorist’s legacy broadly and publicly would dissuade others from terrorism?

Medics evacuate the dead and injured after attack on Har Nof synagogue Tuesday morning.

R’ Aryeh yelled “Run, I’ll fight!” Using a chair against terrorists to buy time so others could flee

Kfar Kana Riots

Riot started when Muslim students wore the Pal. kaffiyeh and Druze students demanded them removed

The “Media” didn’t want us to know what a kind, giving, loving young woman Dalia was.

A “Palestine” could become another Lebanon, with many different factions battling for control.

Maimonides himself walked and prayed in the permissible areas when he visited Eretz Yisrael in 1165

Having a strong community presence at the polls shows our elected officials we care about the issues

Israel’s Temple Mount policy prefers to blames the Jews-not the attackers-for the crisis.

When Islam conquered the Holy Land, it made its capital in Ramle of all places, not in Jerusalem.

I joined the large crowd but this time it was more personal; my cousin Aryeh was one of the victims.

Terrorists aren’t driven by social, economic, or other grievances, rather by a fanatical worldview.

The phrase that the “Arabs are resorting to violence” is disgraceful and blames the victim.

Tuesday, Yom Shlishi, a doubly good day in the Torah, Esav’s hands tried to silence Yaakov’s voice.

Because of the disparate nature of the perpetrators, who are also relatively young, and given the lack of more traditional targets and the reverence Palestinians have for their homes, one now hears talk of Israel returning to a policy of destroying the houses of terrorists’ families.

More Articles from Elliot Resnick
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

You can’t say “Jewish French,” “Jewish British,” “Jewish Italian.” They are “French Jews,” “British Jews,” and “Italian Jews” – because they’re seen as Jews first and residents or citizens of their countries second.

Joshua Klein

Another thing they have been covering up is the nature of the building that was attacked. To this day people refer to it as a consulate or an embassy, but it wasn’t.

The reality is that civility is less important than clarity, and right now only very few people on the Left are interested in having a civil conversation about the merits of particular policy solutions.

Rabinovich is the author of several popular books on Israel’s wars, including The Battle for Jerusalem, The Yom Kippur War, and The Boats of Cherbourg.

I think Seth Lipsky is amazing, but it just drives home the point that newspapers have a lot of moving parts.

Can teenagers seriously be expected to behave properly when they are surrounded by so much suggestive material? Is it fair to expose them (and ourselves) to so much temptation and then tell them, “Just say no”?

If you remember, in 2006, a Jewish kid in Paris, Ilan Halimi, was abducted, beaten, and held hostage for three weeks… These are the kinds of people attending these Gaza solidarity rallies.

King Solomon said it long ago: “Cast your bread upon the waters” because you don’t know when you’ll hit something. Our job is to do.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/reaching-behind-the-iron-curtain-an-interview-with-soviet-jewry-activist-rabbi-david-hill/2013/07/03/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: