web analytics
September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
Apartment 758x530 Africa-Israel at the Israel Real Estate Exhibition in New York

Africa Israel Residences, part of the Africa Israel Investments Group led by international businessman Lev Leviev, will present 7 leading projects on the The Israel Real Estate Exhibition in New York on Sep 14-15, 2014.



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
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party.
Lapid Slammed by Secular and Press for Shabbat Press Conference
Latest Indepth Stories
IDF lone soldier and  David Menachem Gordon (z"l).

Why has his death been treated by some as an invitation for an emotional “autopsy”?

Starck-091914

SWOT analysis: Assessing resources, internal Strengths&Weaknesses; external Opportunities&Threats.

Kohn-091914

Strategy? For the longest time Obama couldn’t be bothered to have one against a sworn enemy.

Miller-091914

Seventeen visual skills are needed for success in school, sports, and everyday life.

We started The Jewish Press. Arnie was an integral part of the paper.

Fear alone is substantial; without fusing it to beauty, fear doesn’t reach its highest potential.

Fortunate are we to have Rosh Hashanah for repentance, a shofar to awaken heavenly mercy.

Arab leaders who want the US to stop Islamic State are afraid of being dubbed traitors and US agents

National Lawyers Guild:Sworn enemy of Israel & the legal arm of Palestinian terrorism since the ’70s

A little less than 10 percent of eligible Democratic voters came out on primary day, which translates into Mr. Cuomo having received the support of 6.2 percent of registered Democrats.

The reality, though, is that the Israeli “war crimes” scenario will likely be played out among highly partisan UN agencies, NGOs, and perhaps even the International Criminal Court.

Peace or the lack of it between Israel and the Palestinians matters not one whit when it comes to the long-term agenda of ISIS and other Islamists, nor does it affect any of the long-running inter-Arab conflicts and wars.

Rather than serving as a deterrent against terrorist attacks, Israel’s military strength and capabilities are instead looked at as an unfair advantage in the asymmetrical war in which it finds itself.

Sisi:”The religious nature of the Middle East creates challenges for the governing authorities.”

More Articles from Elliot Resnick
Ben Cohen

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.

Rabbi Berel Wein

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.

Formerly an attorney at the prestigious law firm Proskauer Rose for 40 years – six of those years as its chairman – Fagin holds degrees from both Columbia and Harvard Universities. He retired in 2013 to devote more time to the Jewish community.

The message is that Zionism, which used to be great, is today very institutionalized and [consists of a] bunch of people who are just squabbling over titles and budgets.

For Steinsaltz, the Rebbe was no less than “the greatest man I have ever met,” as he writes in the preface to his book.

If a child is seldom required to yield his desires and needs to those of others, surely doing so as an adult will not come naturally to him.

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: