“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!
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.