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The Rabbi that Dared to Deliver

On Saturday morning, World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman, delivered the D’var Torah, or people’s sermon on Yom Kippur, at the request of Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald, leader of the “beginner’s service,” an institution of New York’s venerable Lincoln Square Synagogue. This is what he told the congregation of more than 500 men and women, Rabbi Buchwald and Rabbi Dr. Moredchai Reich, a visiting rabbi from Jerusalem….

I would like to start by telling you a story about the High Holidays that I spent in Moscow 28 years ago to the day. I was on what I came to believe to be a divine mission as I arrived at Moscow Choral Synagogue. At the time I was a CBS News correspondent, based in Paris, but since I was somewhat familiar with Eastern and Central Europe, was often dispatched to what was then the Soviet Union on temporary assignments. 

The new, young Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, I had met four years earlier when I visited the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest as a young New York Times correspondent. He was the first rabbinical student since the arrival of communism to be allowed by the leaders of the Soviet Union to study for the rabbinate in a legitimate institution for rabbinical training outside of Russia. Now he had just returned to take up his position as the only practicing Rabbi in the Soviet capital.

These were desperate time in Moscow, the depths of the communist era—when Jews were being shipped to Siberia as dissidents, when worship was tolerated, but only just barely. 

Five days before Rosh Hashanah, I’d called on Adolph and he’d thrown his arms around me. “How can I help you?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “You can come and do a story about the High Holidays in our schul.”

It was a daring and desperate choice. But such a story, he believed, its visibility when it was broadcast on what was then the premier television network in the Western world, would guarantee the safety of his congregation and his mission as well. No communist leader would dare to attack such an institution.

So on Erev Rosh Hashanah, just before sundown on Friday, September 17, 1982, I arrived at the synagogue doors with my camera crew. I know, you will say, how could I work on the Shabbat, especially a Shabbat of Rosh Hashanah?  But this was a unique and unprecedented opportunity.

Our parshah, our Torah portion, today is, I believe, about choice—as indeed is Yom Kippur—between  good and evil, right and wrong. And I would be making several choices that evening. One, of course, was to work on the High Holidays. That choice was effectively made for me by Rabbi Shayevich.

The second was a more interesting and difficult one. There were it seems, in those days,  two services going on simultaneously on the High Holidays—one a traditional Orthodox service inside, led by Rabbi Shayevich and not dissimilar to services I’d seen in such disparate places as a Rumanian shtetl or Jerusalem, or Lincoln Square for that matter. Inside the synagogue, the women in the balcony and the men—mostly old, with gray beards and large-brimmed hats—were praying much as had their father and their fathers’ fathers for centuries.

The other service was substantially less traditional, and took place outdoors in the street. There, with no rabbi present, young Jewish dissidents gathered. And here was a celebration—a joyous celebration with dancing in the streets, music by the most talented musicians—all observed most carefully by grim-faced, black clad agents of the KGB who recorded faces with cameras and words in notebooks.

Please, Rabbi Shayevich told me, film our service inside. But do not film the young people in the streets. That will be terrible for us all.

That was my other choice, and I agreed. In the narration of my story, I alluded to the dissidents’ New Year, but on tape, their images never appeared. In my diary, I’ve recorded that segment, which ran 2 minutes and 20 seconds as—“Moscow: Young Rabbi and Old Flock.”

I’ve thought a lot about these choices in the years since then. Today, the synagogue, newly restored, thrives in the same Kitai Gorod neighborhood it has occupied for 104 years. And today, Rabbi Shayevich is still its rabbi, and is considered by many the chief Rabbi of Russia, though the government of Vladimir Putin does not recognize him.

My choices that evening are no doubt long forgotten by all of them—inscribed only on one page of the shelves of diaries that clutter our bedroom, to the dismay of my wife Pamela, who as of yesterday has put up with me for 10 wonderful years.

Each of us every day must make choices—what is right and what is wrong, for ourselves, for our family, for our nation, for our people. It’s interesting, though, how often I’ve wondered about our own free will to make these choices—and how often we are subject to some divine inspiration?

During December 1977, I was invited by Moses Rosen, the chief Rabbi of Romania, to accompany him on his annual Chanukah pilgrimage to the most remote shtetls in northeastern Romania, not far from the border of Soviet Moldavia. For me, this was another difficult choice—make this trip, a week taken out of my packed life as a foreign correspondent, at that moment, for The New York Times. But again, it was a mission of mercy. The rabbi needed to demonstrate to his communist overlords that these were communities worth keeping, a religion worth preserving. In the process, en route across the frozen plaines outside the town of Dorohoi, I came within 50 miles of the village, then in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, where my grandparents had begun their journey to the New World nearly a century before. But all that’s a story for another D’var Torah.

In thinking back across all of my life, my travels in 70-plus countries, I like to think that throughout, for the most part, I’ve made the right choices for my people, my readers or viewers, and for myself as well and that, if called upon, I’d make the same choices again  today—choices anchored in a profound sense of self and a mission as well.

And of course, my thanks to Rabbi Buchwald for choosing me to tell a few of my tales from the heart to his audience.

After delivering the D’var Torah, there were several questions from the congregation, the gist of them being “would you have done anything different today?”  Here’s what Andelman replied:

Had I known that communism itself would be destined to last barely a decade longer, perhaps we might well have shown the world that there were two Jewish communities in Moscow and that the West should care about both. But at the time, communism appeared as deeply entrenched as ever—a thousand year regime, as Hitler once proclaimed at the height of his own megalomaniac power. We could behave in no other fashion than to accept that reality and deal with it as best we could.

Since we are discussing choices, I should point out that the young dissidents who appeared outside the synagogue had made one choice—to demonstrate, in their own quite personal way—their belief in Judaism and solidarity with the Jewish community. They would not have been in a position actively to make that choice of appearing on an American television network had we just arrived and begun taping.

There were, at the time, Jewish dissidents—Anatoly Shcharansky, for one—who did actively make such a choice, and we honored and respected that. They believed that their appearance on CBS News would serve as protection of sorts for themselves. At times they guessed right, often not. But this was their personal and individual decision.

 In short, I do firmly believe that we must all make decisions for the moment when we are living. We cannot foresee events and should not try to live for a time or circumstance that may never come. The choices we make today must be right for ourselves and our time.    

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