HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber, zt"l
(c) Copyright 2004 Yated Neeman.Bnei Brak Used with permission.
The Torah world lost a father figure just before Tisha B'Av with the petiroh of HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber zt"l, the head of Toldos Yeshurun institutions who was fully dedicated to the task of bringing wayward Jews back to Torah and mitzvas. A teacher and guide for thousands of Russian immigrants in Eretz Yisroel, he passed away at the age of 87 and was buried on the night of Tisha B'Av with thousands on hand including gedolei Yisroel, roshei yeshivos, rabbonim and thousands of his talmidim.
HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber was born a few months before the Communist Revolution in 5677 (1917) in the city of Kazan, Russia. His paternal great-grandfather was HaRav Ben Tzion Tzioni, who served as the rov of Lutzin (Ludzha), Latvia. After his petiroh his son, HaRav Naftoli took over the rabbinate and held it for over 50 years. HaRav Naftoli's second son, Yitzchok Tzioni was appointed head of Kehillas Razhitza at the age of 30 and many were drawn to his teachings and leadership. In his old age he gave birth to HaRav Ben Tzion, who studied at Yeshivas Slobodka and under his grandfather, HaRav Yossele Kresselbar.
In 5673 (1913) HaRav Ben Tzion married Leah Gittel, the daughter of HaRav Moshe Mishel Shmuel Shapira, one of the leading talmidei chachomim of his generation in the city of Rogov in the Ponovezh District. On the occasion of their wedding the couple received letters from the Ohr Somayach and the Chofetz Chaim, ztvk"l. As a young avreich he studied at one of the branches of Yeshivas Slobodka and after World War I broke out he was forced to change his last name from Tzioni to Zilber to avoid getting conscripted into the Czar's Army.
HaRav Ben Tzion Zilber and his wife had a son named Yitzchok. At the age of eight in 1925, determined to come to Eretz Yisroel on aliya, the young Yitzchok decided to go to the Foreign Ministry, innocently asking for a permit to travel to his relatives in Ponovezh and then on to Palestine, but when the clerk threatened to arrest his parents for teaching him to leave Russia he ran off before the officials could find out his name and address.
Rather than sending the boy to the local school, which was full of kefirah, his father decided to instruct the young Yitzchok himself, starting with the Alef-beis and progressing to Chumash, Mishnoh, Gemora and Shulchan Oruch. Yitzchok never set foot in school, which he described many years later as a genuine miracle considering the compulsory education law imposed by the Soviets. To ensure he did not fall behind his peers in secular subjects for a time his father hired professional teachers to teach him the material taught in schools. His father also brought him to shul regularly and by the age of six Yitzchok knew all of the tefillos by heart.
The father and son learned Torah under severe conditions. "Before and after work we would learn in a room rented from a goy for tefillos," HaRav Zilber recounted in his memoirs. "We would often stay until 11:00 at night. My parents and I lived in a 100-square-foot (10 sq. meter) room without heating and without a kitchen. During the war years the cold was so harsh the water and potatoes would freeze. My father and I would sit wrapped in coats up to our heads learning. People would come to consult with my father, who secretly served as rov. The neighbor ladies would come to my mother to spill out their hearts and receive comfort."
On the way home from tefillas Ma'ariv one Yom Kippur, HaRav Zilber heard his father and another Jew speculate whether there would be a minyan in the city ten or twenty years later considering the dire spiritual state of affairs. Later HaRav Zilber revealed, "During the Second World War I too begin to think in another 20 years there might not be a Jew left in Russia who could read a page of gemora . . . "
Soon after the Communist Revolution the Soviet authorities closed all of the Jewish schools and exiled melamdim to Siberia for the crime of teaching Torah. The roshei yeshivos, rabbonim and talmidei chachomim who survived Stalin's camps were killed by the Nazis and their accomplices. Many risked their lives to teach Torah in secret. Despite the ban against Torah by the age of 15 HaRav Zilber was already giving shiurim in his city.
When his son Ben-Tzion was born, HaRav Zilber had to surmount many obstacles to have a bris performed. To prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, a law was enacted forbidding women from leaving the hospital until nine days after giving birth. When HaRav Zilber went to take his wife and child from the hospital on the eighth day he was denied permission. He decided to go to the Health Ministry where he found a senior physician who was willing to help and not turn him in. He asked the physician to use her standing and authority to call the hospital and instruct them to discharge his wife that day.
Her non-Jewish husband was the health commissioner in the city of Kazan. Eventually HaRav Zilber managed to obtain permission. At 2:00 p.m. the hospital called, telling him to come pick up his wife. "I went in to thank the physician from the Health Ministry," he recalled. "She asked me why it was so important to me to have my wife released on the eighth day. I told her it was a mitzvah, that she had done a mitzvah. She burst into tears, saying she was a Jew and as a girl she had been taught to light candles and say brochos, but after the communists came she married a goy."
After World War II HaRav Zilber was tried and sent to a prison camp for two years. Despite the inhuman conditions and through extraordinary mesirus nefesh he managed to keep Shabbos and would constantly evade the watchful camp guards to snatch bits of time for Torah and tefilloh. "Every morning and evening I would carry six buckets of boiling water and I would help the hut commander wash the floor, so sometimes he would let me hide behind a partition in the hut. Miraculously I had managed to smuggle a miniature Tanach and Mishnoh into the camp. I would try to finish my work quickly so I would have time left to learn. I always ran in the camp, which allowed me to do an hour's work in 45 minutes, and then I would learn for 15 minutes. There in the camp I learned maseches Kinim, the hardest in the Mishnoh."
Following his release he returned to Kazan, where he would not allow his children to go to school on Shabbos. As a result the KGB wanted to deny him the right to teach. He fled to Tashkent. He came to Eretz Yisroel in 5732 (1972).
By this time he had completed all of Shas several times and his son, HaRav Ben-Tzion ylct"a, today head of the Toldos Yeshurun network of kollelim, had learned half of Shas by heart by constantly outmaneuvering the system in the former Soviet Union. Upon arrival in Eretz Yisroel, HaRav Zilber was shocked to see widespread Shabbos desecration. Years later he would recall that when he came, none of the Russian Jews kept Shabbos.
He decided to dedicate himself to outreach work. There were times when his wife, the Rebbetzin, could only lay Shabbos candles on the table minutes before candlelighting time because until then a bris for new immigrants had been held at the table. He would also help many Russian agunos, traveling to far-off lands to obtain a get from husbands who had vanished.
HaRav Zilber maintained close ties with maranan verabonon, including HaRav Moshe Feinstein and HaRav Binyomin Beinish Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir. He would also consult regularly with Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, ylct"a, particularly regarding gittin and agunos. Upon learning of HaRav Zilber's petiroh HaRav Eliashiv spoke highly of his tzidkus and mesirus nefesh.
HaRav Zilber also maintained ties with HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman and HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, ylct"a, who took time to participate in Toldos Yeshurun conferences.
When he arrived in Eretz Yisroel there were essentially no Russian-speaking bnei Torah. Over time a few did teshuvoh and when the large wave of aliya began there were already dozens of Russian-speaking bnei Torah and teachers, many of whom were already known among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. All of them, without exception, were talmidim of HaRav Zilber.
At the end of the 80s, with the big wave of aliya, hundreds of young Russian-speaking Jews began to study in yeshivas and at the end of 5750 (1990) several hundred Russian-speaking bnei Torah arrived in Eretz Yisroel after learning in some of the leading yeshivos in the US, Europe and Eretz Yisroel for nearly ten years, many of them HaRav Zilber's talmidim or talmidim of his talmidim.
During the surge in Russian immigration during the early 90s that eventually brought one million immigrants, HaRav Zilber used his talmidim who had been studying under him for the preceding decade as young avreichim and lecturers in outreach programs.
Meanwhile numerous organizations inspired by HaRav Zilber began to operate under his leadership, bringing Judaism to hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been totally severed from their roots throughout the 70 years of communist rule. Among the organizations that sprouted then and continue to operate today are Yeshivas Shevus Ami in Jerusalem, Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Moscow under HaRav Alexander Eisenshtadt and HaRav Moshe Lebel, the Russian-speakers' division of Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, groups of bochurim and avreichim at Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel, Yeshivas Haran, Yeshivas Shovei Hagoloh, organizations such as Machanayim, Ohr Avner, Shamir, Shaarei Tzion and Aish HaTorah and Torah programs for women at Beit Ulpana and Neve Yerushalayim. He himself served as a ram for Russians at Yeshivas Dvar Yerushalayim for many years.
For years HaRav Zilber was accepted by the Torah-true, Russian-speaking community as the supreme halachic authority and the leader of the Russian-speaking teshuvoh movement. When his health began to decline five years ago he spurred his young talmidim to organize classes, lectures and new evening kollelim for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The burgeoning movement soon became Toldos Yeshurun, a large network of study programs for middle- age immigrants.
Over 350 rabbonim, lecturers and melamdim work for the organization, which was started by R' Avrohom Cohen under HaRav Zilber's spiritual guidance, with HaRav Ben-Tzion Zilber, ylct"a, serving as the main rosh kollel.
It began as an evening kollel with five pairs of chavrusas learning at Beis Knesses Ezras Torah in Jerusalem's Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood. Shiurim were given by HaRav Zilber and his son. Within a few months there were 50 weekly chavrusas made up of avreichim learning with new immigrants.
The number of participants in the kollel grew quickly and numerous requests were made to start learning programs in other locations. Within a short time a similar program was started in Beitar Illit, where avreichim study with working immigrants in the evening. Kollelim were also opened in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem's Neve Yaakov neighborhood.
Today Toldos Yeshurun maintains kollelim in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ashdod, Netanya, Ofakim, Netivot, Modi'in and other locations. In addition to the men's programs HaRav Zilber's daughter, Rebbetzin Chavoh Cooperman tlct"a runs a network of shiurim for women.
The levayah set out at 11:15 p.m. on Tisha B'Av night from Beis Knesses Ezras Torah, where he had given shiurim for many years. Eulogies were given by HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, HaRav Aryeh Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir-Brachfeld, HaRav Chaim Sarna, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron-Geulah, HaRav Yitchok Ezrachi, one of the roshei yeshivas of Yeshivas Mir, HaRav Heisler, the rov of Sanhedria Murchevet, and the deceased's son HaRav Ben-Tzion Zilber.
Following the hespeidim a crowd of thousands accompanied the mittoh to Har Hamenuchos, for a late- night burial.
HaRav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber, zt"l, is survived by his son, HaRav Ben-Tzion, and daughters married to HaRav Chaim Ze'ev Zavdi, HaRav Avrohom Cooperman and Rav Yosef Shvinger, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren all following in his footsteps on the path of Torah and yir'oh, in addition to his thousands and thousands of talmidim, many of them avreichim, rabbonim and marbitzei Torah throughout Israel and other parts of the world.