Rabbi Yisrael Taub of Jerusalem has been establishing and nurturing Sunday schools and student clubs in the small communities of Belarus for more than 20 years. His organization, Bamessilah, was founded by educators in Jerusalem in 1995.
Rabbi Taub related the following story:
“A Jewish child of around ten years old who learns in our Sunday school and lives with his devout Christian stepmother recently told me with glowing eyes that he’d kept two mitzvos that day. “My stepmother gave me soup that contained pieces of bacon,” he said. “I took out the pieces and made a Shehakol on the soup!”
Two and a half decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Belarus is still in many ways a communist country. Its citizens are polite and modest and take time to listen. The Jews of Belarus are interested in Yiddishkeit and are grateful that rabbis come to teach and reconnect them with their Jewish heritage.
Prior to the Holocaust, Belarus had large Jewish communities –Minsk alone had 300 Jewish mosdos. There were also great Torah centers in cities such as Volozhin, Grodno, Slutzk, and Brisk, among others.
Today there is a regeneration of Jewish life in Minsk, Pinsk, and Hommel. But few outsiders are interested in these small communities. Rabbi Taub took it upon himself to travel to these lonely communities and train local Jews as teachers of Jewish tradition.
The fruit of these labors grew slowly over the years but today many of the alumni of Rabbi Taub’s schools and clubs live a Jewish life in Belarus, other European countries, Israel, and the U.S.
“We are prepared for the fact that we will need to begin over again and again, as the alumni do not generally stay in these little communities due to the lack of religious infrastructure,” said Rabbi Taub.
How, Rabbi Taub was asked, does someone seemingly lost to Judaism in a place like Belarus “begin anew”?
“We arrange a bar mitzvah or pidyon haben party, bringing together boys with their parents from different communities,” he replied. “The children’s choir sings in Yiddish, the crowd is moved, and more new children start coming to the Sunday school or student club.
“A short story: I was leaving one of these parties and I heard a child tell his mother: ‘Mother, why didn’t you t tell me there are such beautiful Jewish customs?’ She thought for a moment and replied: ‘My sweet child, you know a lot more than I do about Judaism and our tradition.’ ”
Are there minyanim in these small communities?
“In some of the communities,” explained Rabbi Taub, “there are minyanim that gather on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos. We try to send them yeshiva bachurim to lead the davening and meals during the chagim. Previously concealed Jewish souls are constantly being revealed and the bachurim return with moving stories.
“In Orsha, between Vitebsk and Moghilov, some women asked to arrange a minyan for saying Kaddish by the graves of two Jews who had kept kosher and organized the shechting of chickens during the days of Stalin. In Kalinkovitch last Rosh Hashanah, the bachurim went to blow shofar for housebound people, some of whom have the fear of the communists so entrenched in their souls that they refused the entreaties of the bachurim and would not allow them to blow shofar.
How, Rabbi Taub, was asked, does he manage to gather people for a minyan who’ve had no connection to Judaism for years, if not their entire lives?
“The first time we get them together is not to complete a minyan,” he said. “I announce that there is a doctor or nurse who will be giving medical services in the community center. Or there is a performance of Jewish children. They gather, are excited to be together, and plan to do so more often – usually on Chanukah and Purim, holidays everybody knows about, and of course for Passover Seder. Also, the distribution of food packages before the chagim brings many people to us and opens their hearts.”
The financial situation in Belarus, Rabbi Taub noted, is not very good for the average person. There are shortages of food and medicine; prices for the latter, he said, have skyrocketed and many areas have relatively few doctors, causing four-month waits for doctor visits.
“We put together medical services in five communities,” said Rabi Taub. “We buy medicines for120 elderly people who are ill with chronic and life-threatening – without proper care – diseases. Follow-up is done by a doctor or nurse whose fees I take care of. I receive a monthly report detailing which medicines were bought, for whom they were purchased, and their costs.
“We are also providing the communities with devices to measure blood pressure and sugar levels, which are loaned out as per a nurse’s determination. We still lack the funds for 40 such devices, but it’s a start.”
Rabbi Taub and Bamessilah are seeing dividends from their decision to make Jewish books available in as many locations as possible.
“We’ve set up eleven libraries in colleges in Belarus,” he said. “One time a student greeted me in our club. ‘I’m not Jewish,’ he told me. ‘Only my mother is Jewish.’
“ ‘How did you find out about the club?’ I asked him. He had found a book in one of our libraries. He was amazed by what he’d read and became curious about Judaism. He set out to discover more and found his way to the club. Less than a year later he called invite me to his wedding to another member of our student club.”
Speaking of weddings, Rabbi Taub proudly noted that they are becoming something of a regular occurrence: “This past year we married off six couples who were members of our clubs. Two of the couples reside in Jerusalem.”
Who funds Bamessilah’s activities?
“While people generally are no longer passionately excited about helping and donating to Soviet Jews in communist countries, there are still Jews with a sense of responsibility for their brethren who lack the physical and spiritual fundamentals we take for granted. These Jews continue to support us. Mi ke’amcha Yisrael.