The annual "Toldos Yeshurun" conference
The annual "Toldos Yeshurun" conference held in Jerusalem on Chanukah drew an impressive list of gedolei Torah, who came to show their support for the organization's prodigious enterprises.(c) Copyright 2004 Yated Neeman.Bnei Brak Used with permission.
The annual "Toldos Yeshurun" conference held in Jerusalem on Chanukah during the week of parshas Mikeitz drew an impressive list of gedolei Torah, roshei yeshivos, and rabbonim who came to show their support for the organization's prodigious enterprises. HaRav Ben Tzion Zilber, the son of HaRav Yitzchok Zilber, opened the gathering by reading a letter of encouragement signed by HaRav Eliashiv. Speakers included HaRav A. Y. L. Steinman, HaRav Moshe Shapira, HaRav Don Segal, HaRav Yitzchok Ezrachi, HaRav Yisroel Gans, HaRav Shlomo Neiman and HaRav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman. HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, HaRav Chaim Sarna, HaRav Avrohom Shmulevitz, HaRav Boruch Shapira, HaRav Boruch Soloveitchik, HaRav Chaim Zavdi, HaRav Ze'ev Weisbin and several public figures were also on hand.
"Toldos Yeshurun" was set up as part of urgent efforts to counter the onslaught of missionary and secular propaganda directed at new Russian immigrants and to set up chareidi kehillos of Russian immigrants– products of yeshivos kedoshos now engaged in building Jewish homes. "Toldos Yeshurun" aims at a vision of socially bonded kehillos of bnei Torah prepared to contribute to efforts to bring other Russian immigrants closer to Yiddishkeit.
We spoke with the heads of the organization, Director R' Avrohom Cohen and R' Yehuda Leib Avreich, as well as some of the organization's other activists, about the dire situation out in the field that made the setting up of "Toldos Yeshurun" imperative. Currently over 60 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not halachically Jewish and, as a rule, in very few immigrant families are both husband and wife Jewish. Among immigrants who do not consider themselves atheists, more lean towards Christianity than towards Judaism.
Many observers are utterly perplexed when Russian immigrants convert to Christianity after aliyah. But experienced "Toldos Yeshurun" activists explain that the aliyah process can be very traumatic and can lead to despair.
His previous life destroyed, the immigrant must slowly construct a new existence. He learns the language slowly, finds work slowly, makes friends slowly. As a result of this crisis situation – indignities, failure, having to work sometimes menial jobs outside of one's profession, difficulties understanding Hebrew and the Israeli mentality, a lack of financial security and daily stress due to terrorism – immigrants are searching. While some find solace in drinking or other types of destructive behavior, many are searching for ruchniyus. And who reaches out to them?
Jews whose appearance is the image of the traditional religious Jew, which they may perceive as yet another foreign element to deal with. On the other hand sometimes they are approached by young people in more familiar attire who speak Russian (Christian missionaries), hand out food and literature for free and are willing to provide help.
While the government provides immigrants with aid to facilitate their material absorption, they receive almost no spiritual assistance. Meanwhile some people take advantage of positions of authority to imbibe them with secularism.
Over the years various organizations have been set up to aid in the spiritual absorption of American, French and Argentinean immigrants in addition to other organizations that are active primarily among veteran Israelis, but no organization – except for a handful of American and Israeli organizations that tried but that did not speak the language, had little success and eventually folded due to lack of funding – endeavored to handle Russian immigrants.
"Toldos Yeshurun" is under the guidance of HaRav Yitzchok Zilber, recognized for years as the unequivocal leader of religious Russian-speaking immigrants. Even non- religious immigrants turn to him without hesitation to answer questions and help deal with problems.
"Toldos Yeshurun" includes many young, Russian-speaking avreichim who contribute their time and energy to give shiurei Torah in the evening. The organization's success has surpassed all expectations. Today, after only two years in operation, hundreds of avreichim work under its auspices, reaching out to thousands of immigrants across the country, from Haifa to Ofakim.
"Toldos Yeshurun"'s success is apparent not only in the number of returnees to Yiddishkeit, but also in bringing a glint of Jewish tradition to many people who were totally severed from their history and heritage. Some decide to undergo bris miloh, some celebrate a Jewish holiday for the first time in their lives, some want to get married according to Jewish tradition.
Missionaries at Work
In many cases, however, Christian missionaries – who often prey on greenhorns – reach them first. Moshe, a "Toldos Yeshurun" volunteer who immigrated from St. Petersburg a few years ago, recalls two cases in which new Russian immigrants were ensnared by Christian proselytizers in Jerusalem: "When I arrived in Israel I was already wearing a yarmulke. I went to a prestigious ulpan for young people in Jerusalem. After a while I began to feel people were distancing themselves from me. There was one young man there who had immigrated a few weeks earlier and didn't know what to do with himself – university, army, work. We became friends. He asked me for books on Judaism and I brought him some. I began to invite him over for Shabbos.
"One day as we walked to the bus stop after class he said to me, `You know, I'm not going home today.' I asked him where to, but he avoided the question. I began to press him and asked what happened. Eventually he told me he was going to a place where immigrants receive help. He then told me it was a Christian foundation that distributes food, bus tickets and Bibles to first- year immigrants, and on that day they were giving out gym shoes as well. He said he wanted a pair of Adidas shoes so he was going there. He concluded by telling me almost everyone in the ulpan went there. I was very surprised that I had known nothing about it. He said, `But you're religious, so nobody tells you. People find out by word of mouth and hundreds of immigrants go there.'
"I also encountered other missionary activity through this young man. His aunt came to Israel with a ten-year- old girl and no money. One of the girl's friends had intermarried parents, which is common among many immigrant families. But less common was that this family arrived in Israel as Christians. The friend invited the girl to a painting class on Shabbos night and the girl agreed. At the appointed time prearranged transportation took the girls from a neighborhood on the edge of Jerusalem with a large concentration of Russian immigrants to a church on Jaffa Street downtown. The class was fabulous. A rich assortment of paints and an excellent teacher. They served delicious cookies and Coca- Cola. They also taught them to sing, sang with them and told them how oso ish `saved the Jews and the entire world' 2000 years ago. All this was led by young Russian-speaking teachers. At the end of the evening the same transportation brought them back home.
"When my friend's aunt told him about the class he said this was becoming excessive; shoes, bus tickets and food were one thing, but now it was getting out of hand. `We're losing the girl,' the aunt said. `She's becoming a Christian.' His aunt tried to forbid her from going there, but the girl felt her mother was trying to deny her the warmest, most embracing good she had known during this difficult crisis period of transition from Russia to Israel."
Moshe believes the missionaries target newly arrived immigrants through Hebrew ulpan courses and organized trips for Russian-speakers, saying this is a very effective tactic since the initial impression made during a period of crisis has a decisive impact. "At first people get the impression life in Israel is hard, and then along come people who extend a helping hand. It's a shame they are Christians."
Other "Toldos Yeshurun" activists add other stories about missionary activity among Russian immigrants. One avreich recounts the following incident: "On the flight from Russia I sat in a seat beside a priest. During the course of a casual conversation I learned that a large portion of Christian liturgy is taken from Jewish sources. I asked him whether he knew Hebrew and if he could study Tanach in the original. He replied that at his seminary they were not encouraged to study Hebrew because there had been a case at the seminary in which a student learned Hebrew, read the Tanach in the original, took note of inaccuracies in the translation and left the Church.
"What I found most shocking of all was that entirely by chance I found out that he was not traveling to visit and tour Israel, but was sent as part of a special package deal by a Russian airline company to accompany a group of [Christian and Jewish] tourists in order to form `the correct impression' of the Holy Land."
Uri, another "Toldos Yeshurun" activist, relates the following story: "Five years ago I met a young Jewish man in Jerusalem who was a new immigrant from Russia. He wasn't religious, but had a basic understanding of Jewish topics. About a year ago, after "Toldos Yeshurun" was founded, I called him up and invited him to visit us and to join the various shiurim we offer if he wanted to. He replied that he was studying `other books.' I took an interest and asked which books. `The New Testament,' he said.
"I began to ask how they interpret Prophets, for example. He replied that the heart helps them to understand. He informed me that they were having tremendous success, that over 1,000 people come to their churches and activities in Jerusalem.
"I avoided arguing with him and suggested we meet. He said he would think about it. I called him a few days later and he said [the church] forbade him from meeting with me. I asked if it was because I am religious and he said yes. A while later he told me he would come with his `Father' [i.e. priest], but the meeting never took place."
Uri also had another alarming story to tell: "It was in Jerusalem in Ramot Alef about six months ago at the home of a family of new immigrants in Israel for just a few months. They arrived as traditional Jews. The daughter went to study at a religious institution while the son went to a yeshiva. At a certain stage young Yiddish-speaking women began to visit, presenting themselves as `Messianic Jews.' They spoke to them in Russian, asked what kind of problems the family faced and how they could help. Sometimes they would bring a check, sometimes food and household items for free, which no other organization does.
"Gradually they arrived at spiritual issues, progressing to other topics, and spoke of the Jews' malevolence. To illustrate this point they cited the family's situation in Israel: no work, native Israelis do not relate to them nicely, the landlord is no good. At a certain point they began to bring in literature written in Russian. They are good psychologists; they know where to strike. People look for a kind word. Eventually the son and daughter left religious institutions and today they have no ties to Jewish tradition."
Although many people are snared by the traps the missionaries lay, "Toldos Yeshurun" activist Alexander tells about a family who refused to surrender its Jewishness. "Not long ago a family of immigrants arrived in Israel, a grandmother, a mother and a two- year-old girl. People began to come to the daughter, offering to help with the little girl, but only on condition that she be baptized. The grandmother sent them away, telling a story about herself.
"About six months earlier, after she had been in Israel for a few months and did not yet know Hebrew, she went to a store on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem to order a pair of glasses. The store owner said it would cost NIS 200, but that there was a discount for new immigrants, who paid only a token amount. However, in order to receive the discount she had to go to a certain address.
"She arrived at the designated place, a luxurious single- family home in Rechavia, and saw a cross at the entrance and a sign indicating it was a Christian charity organization. She went inside and asked people there whether it really was a Christian organization. They said yes, it was a Christian organization that helps Jews from the former Soviet Union. The woman said she never imagined such a thing could happen in Israel and then they began to yell at her, saying if she didn't want help she should leave, that there were plenty of people without her."
Another "Toldos Yeshurun" activist, asking to remain anonymous, recounts how missionaries are liable to strike anywhere: "We were visited by a man who did not conceal the fact that he moved to Israel as a Christian. He was a young man, a Jew, and even spoke Yiddish. He came to study the Book of Daniel with us. He wanted to prove he was right. I must admit he was a very honest and reasonable young man.
"I asked him how he came to the Church in Israel. He told me when he applied for a national ID card at the Interior Ministry there was a long line of people. He didn't know Hebrew and couldn't understand how to fill out the application form.
"A nice man wearing a yarmulke came up to him and asked how he could help. He gave him a pen and helped him fill out the form. That's how they met. The man with the yarmulke introduced himself as Avraham and asked the young man what his interests were, and whether he had gone to a synagogue or church back in the Ukraine. The Jew replied that he had gone to church, but he didn't know where to find one in Israel. Avraham promised to show him. This Avraham is not an Interior Ministry employee. He just hangs out there to trap people. He might be roaming around there now."
What Does "Toldos Yeshurun" Do About This?
Says "Toldos Yeshurun" Director Rav Avrohom Cohen, "We do not aim or have the ability to fight against Christianity. We also don't see any hope of doing so. In the dark the only way to fight is with light."
To cast the light of Torah they set up shiurim, seminars, kollelim, minyanim, gemachim and other initiatives. The organization now numbers 250 avreichim and over 800 new immigrants, most of whom learn with the avreichim bechavrusa.
When avreichim encounter situations they are not sure how to handle they may seek the advice of their rosh yeshiva or rosh kollel, but often they bring their questions to HaRav Zilber. "There are many questions that only someone who understands the Russian mentality can answer," says Rav Cohen, "and the `father' of all of these avreichim is Rebbe Yitzchok shlita who, with his big heart, gives everyone the reply and advice he needs."
Rav Cohen says the organization was formally founded in 5760 (2000) as an association of young Russian-speaking avreichim, talmidim of Rav Zilber, who learned in the evenings with new immigrants just beginning their way in Yiddishkeit. After dozens more joined the original core group, the organization set out to build a chareidi kehilloh of Russian immigrants by launching independently-funded study programs in places with large concentrations of immigrants.
The first kollel, headed by HaRav Ben Tzion Zilber, was started in Jerusalem's Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood. The second one, headed by Rav Nochum Aufman, was set up in the city of Beitar Illit.
Later "Toldos Yeshurun" helped set up other evening kollelim in Beit Shemesh, Neveh Yaakov, Nesher, Tel Tzion, Modi'in, Brachfeld, Ofakim, Netanya, Gilo, Ashdod, Bayit Vegan, Ramot and Haifa. Some of these kollelim are not tied financially or organizationally to "Toldos Yeshurun".
The staff is working to establish new Torah communities that will eventually become independent of the parent organization. Eishes Chayil, a network of shiurim for ladies headed by Rebbetzin C. Cooperman and Rebbetzin C. Ratner, has also been set up and is expanding rapidly.