Rebbi of the Russians, Son of the Russian Rebbi: Toldos Yeshurun’s Rav Yitzchok Zilber zt”l and his
Rav Yitzchok Zilber, Rav Ben Tzion Zilber
Rebbi of the Russians, Son of the Russian Rebbi: Toldos Yeshurun’s Rav Yitzchok Zilber zt”l and his son, Rav Ben Tzion Zilber shlit”a
The renowned Russian kiruv organization in Israel, Toldos Yeshurun, has witnessed phenomenal successes in a mere six years since their inception, reaching out to thousands of Russian Yidden—hundreds of Russian families from coast to coast in Israel—and bringing them back to Torah and Mitzvos. To whom can we ascribe the credit of helping so many lost Russian children of Hashem find their way home, if not to a quiet unsung hero, the one who so many called the Father of Russian Jewry?
Toldos Yeshurun’s founder, Rav Yitzchok Zilber zt”l was a Russian born Tzaddik, native of Kazan, Russia and descendant of a distinguished family of Rabbanim. Born only months before the Russian Revolution in 1917, Rav Zilber incredibly grew up with Torah and Mitzvos in his home, despite the prevalent fear of the KGB. At the age of five he already prayed with concentration and learned Torah. Rav Zilber recalls the first night of Sukkos when he was eight, trudging with his father through the city for four hours in a driving rainstorm, until, finally after midnight, finding a Sukkah in which to eat the first meal of Yomtov. (It was simply impossible to make a sukkah in their government issued lodgings and anyone in shul to admit to having a sukkah ran the grave danger of being reported by the ubiquitous spies of the KGB.)
At fifteen, Rav Zilber was giving clandestine shiurim throughout his city! After WWII, Rav Zilber was imprisoned in Stalin’s Siberian gulag, where even under inhuman conditions—where he was beaten and they attempted to destroy him—he never desecrated Shabbos and other Mitzvos.
Upon his release, Rav Zilber returned to Kazan, later, fleeing the KGB again for his religious activities, moving to Tashkent with his family. Life was difficult, yet Rav Yitzchok was not one to yield, preserving his family’s yiddishkeit and raising his children as devout Jews. His daughter, Rebbetzin Chava Kuperman, reminisces, “With all the hardship, we were growing up with a unique feeling that being a religious Jew is joyous and free.”
Rav Yitzchok’s only son, Rav Ben Tzion Zilber—today’s current leader of Toldos Yeshurun—studied in underground yeshivas, becoming a brilliant Talmud Chochom and mastering half of shas by heart as a teenager growing up under Soviet persecution!
Once Rav Ben Tzion, at the tender age of 14, got sick and his father, with great difficulty, obtained the ticket to a sanitarium for him. Torn away from home and familiar environment, the only Jew in that sanitarium, Ben Tzion retained his father’s lessons.
As Rav Yitzchok related about his son, “He kept all the Mitzvos throughout the four-five months stay. He managed to pray, hiding his tefillin in the forest, in the cavity of a tree. He kept Shabbos, making Kiddush quietly over two pieces of bread, havdalah over tea or coffee. He recited Birkas Hamazon covering his mouth with his hand so he wouldn’t be noticed.”
By the time Rav Yitzchok, his wife and children—son Rav Ben Zion, and three daughters—received exit visas to emigrate to Israel in 1972, Rav Yitzchok had completed Shas three times. Many years later, Rav Yitzchok related to Avraham Cohen, the founder and director of Toldos Yeshurun, that, hardly finding a single Russian Ben Torah in all of Yerushalayim when he had arrived, he had decided to sacrifice his own learning and instead commit himself to kiruv of his Russian brethren.
A story is related about the Zilber’s arrival in Eretz Yisroel. When Rav Yitzchok Zilber and his son arrived in Jerusalem, the father took his son to Meah Shearim to show him what a really frum neighborhood looked like. There they met Hagaon R’ Beinish Finkel zt”l, Rosh Yeshivas Mir, who asked the visitors if they had a place to stay, and upon receiving a negative answer, invited them to be his guests. The guest room was filled with sefarim. “Look,” cried the excited father, “there’s light and there are sefarim, but there’s no KGB here. Let’s learn!”
Rav Yitzchok had written a book of his memoirs in Russian titled “That You Will Stay a Jew”, recounting his life in Russia, and how the KGB and the soviet ideological system pursued religious Jews. Rav Yitzchak Hutner constantly asked Rav Zilber to relate these unusual stories as he felt that these stories encourage us—contemporary Jews who did not experience such difficulties in life when observing Mitzvos—in our own kiyum hamitzvos. The book is now being translated and prepared for publication in English.
Bringing a Spiritual Revolution to Eretz Yisroel
Rav Yitzchok was appalled, that upon his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, he didn’t find a single Russian Baal Teshuvah immigrant there. Thus, he threw himself fully into the task of revolutionizing the spiritual life of Russian Jews in Eretz Yisroel.
By his personality and occupation, Rav Yitzchok was both a teacher and spiritual guide for two decades. He spoke about Torah in every setting and with everybody, even sharing tidbits of the weekly Torah portion with a cabdriver during a taxi ride. His home was always open to people. There were times on Friday night when his wife could not set out her Shabbos candles on the table, because up to a few minutes before Shabbos, Rav Zilber was performing Bris Milos there! He assisted countless Russian women with obtaining gitten from their husbands, and to rebuild their lives. Rav Zilber himself took long arduous trips all over the world, looking for missing husbands.
Rav Elyashiv called Rav Zilber one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim of our generation. Rav Zilber’s tireless efforts and mesiras nefesh for his people fostered thousands of Russian baalei teshuvah families. Virtually all Russian speaking leaders of yeshivos, organizations, maggidei shiur and women's seminaries who work in kiruv, are disciples of Rav Yitzchok Zilber.
Clearly, however, the main fruit of his life’s labor’s is the now country wide Russian Kiruv organization Toldos Yeshurun that Rav Yitzchok founded in 2000 with the help and initiative of Gedolei Yisroel, Rav Eliyashiv, Rav Steinman, Rav Kanievsky, Rav Auerbach shlit"a.
Toldos Yeshurun unites the efforts of 350 mostly young Russian avreichim and Rabbonim who have fully dedicated themselves to learning Torah for many years and are the mainstay of Russian Jewry in Eretz Yisroel. The guiding principle is that these Russian speaking Bnei Torah could successfully reach out to their not yet religious brethren because of their common language and cultural background. Each one of these avreichim and Rabbanim continues the work of Rav Yitzchak Zilber, devoting all his free time to returning Russian Jews to their Torah heritage, and raising many, many new students.
Rav Ben Zion Zilber: heir to the spiritual leadership of Toldos Yeshurun
Rav Yitzchok was niftar in 2004, but he’d amply transmitted the spiritual legacy of feeling a responsibility and readiness to help his fellow Jews, to his children. His only son, Rav Ben Tzion, continues his father’s holy work, and is today’s Toldos Yeshurun’s spiritual leader of Toldos Yeshurun, while his daughter, Rebbetzin Chava Kuperman tichya, directs the women’s activities of Toldos Yeshurun.
Rav Ben Zion Zilber, an outstanding Talmid Chochom and Talmid of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz from whom he received smicha, is a prolific halachic authority in the Russian baalei teshuvah community. Rav Ben Tzion regularly receives many halachic questions from Rabbis who work with Russian people and from Russian baalei teshuvah throughout the world and is consulted in many books and other publications dealing with various Jewish topics. Despite his busy schedule, he gives classes and receives visitors on an everyday basis. This past spring, upon the invitation of the Russian Jewish communities of North America, Rav Ben Tzion toured the United States and Canada with speaking engagements in Toronto, Ottawa, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, New York and Monsey.
The amazing story of how Rav Yitzchok’s son, Rav Ben Zion Zilber was accepted into the Mir Yeshiva of Jerusalem has become legend to Mir students in the last 35 years. Rav Ben Zion was being tested by Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, who tested the knowledge of the young men wishing to enter the yeshiva. Young Bentzion Zilber knew half of Shas by heart. In Tashkent, where the Zilber family spent many years as “refuseniks” waiting for permission to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel, many books with commentaries on the Talmud just weren't available. Seeing this, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz was overcome with emotion and cried. He could not imagine anything more remote than raising a Jewish boy in Communist Russia who knew half of Shas by heart!
Half a year after his arrival in Israel, during the Yom Kippur War, Rav Ben Tzion married the daughter of R' Boruch Rosenberg zt"l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Slobodka in Bnei Brak where he studied for several years before returning to the Mirrer Yeshiva in 1977. As of 1977, he returned to his studies in the Mir, and also taught at various yeshivas.
In 2000, Rav Ben Tzion became the head of the first evening kollel of Toldos Yeshurun. In 2004, following the passing of his revered father, Rav Ben Tzion became the spiritual leader of Toldos Yeshurun, fulfilling the wishes of his father, Rav Yitzchok who exhorted him, “Do it! This is very good! I’ve had this dream for a long time! Every body who learns seriously should teach others! Hashem will help!”
Russian Jews attend the night kollelim of Toldos Yeshurun after work or school and receive a knowledgeable partner with whom they move along in their study of Torah and Talmud. The key to its success is this chavrusa system between two people sharing a common language and background.
Nochum Ofman left university 13 years ago to go on to yeshiva, eventually becoming a Rabbi and leader of the Jewish community in Beitar. Recently, Nochum teamed up with an old friend from his university days, Binyamin Barsky who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. Now, without leaving his teaching position in the University of Beer Sheva, Binyamin tries to learn Torah in all his free time. This is how Toldos Yeshurun operates, with one person pulling another. Indeed this is the means by which the Russian-Jewish Torah community is built.
Indeed, Rav Yitzchok is shepping nachas in Shamayim from the sweeping successes of his Russian Revolution that he brought to Eretz Yisroel, and passed on to his son, Rav Ben Zion. And he would surely joyously greet the thousands of Russian immigrants across the country, from Haifa to Ofakim who are now proud members of Toldos Yeshurun, and proud Jews.
The first Toldos Yeshurun Dinner dedicated to the memory of Rav Yitzchok Zilber will be held on November 19th in the Young Israel of Avenue K. More information about Toldos Yeshurun and the dinner is available on their website at www.toldosyeshurun.org.