TOLDOS YESHURUN – The NEW Russian Revolution
TOLDOS YESHURUN – The NEW Russian Revolution
Do you know when the Russian revolution took place? If you know your world history then you probably answered, ‘1917\\\\\\\'. And technically, you’d be right. But there’s a new kind of Russian revolution, a spiritual revolution, that’s taking place right now in Eretz Yisroel. And it’s spearheaded by an incredible organization called “Toldos Yeshurun”.
Not everyone is familiar with Toldos Yeshurun, but many of us have heard about the famed tzaddik, Rav Yitzchok Zilber, zt’l, a former Russian refusenik who became a legend in his own time. Rav Zilber, who was born in Kazan, Russian, in 1917, studied Torah and kept Shabbos under the watchful eyes of the KGB, even as a young child. He was imprisoned on trumped up charges and transferred to a forced labor camp where his mesiras nefesh for Yiddishkeit was truly amazing. After his release he applied for a visa to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel. Twelve years later, in 1972, he finally made aliyah.
Once in Israel, Rav Zilber’s activism continued full throttle. His dynamic personality and boundless energy endeared him to the Russian immigrant population. They flocked to his side and learned from his sterling example. He was their Rov, their advisor, their leader, their friend. It is said that Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt’l, called him, “The Chofetz Chaim of the Russian Jews.” Others have called him a one-man kiruv organization or the father of Russian Jewry’s teshuva movement in Eretz Yisroel.
One of Rav Zilber’s outstanding achievements is Toldos Yeshurun which he established in 2000. Considering its awesome success and miraculous accomplishments, it’s a wonder that this organization is not a household word in the Torah community. Yet it maintains its ‘best kept secret’ status largely because Rav Zilber was more interested in creating countless Russian ba’alei teshuva than in trumpeting his cause.
The premise of the organization is simple yet stunningly successful. Russian speaking avreichim are recruited from all four corners of Eretz Yisroel. They learn b’chavrusa with their not-yet- frum peers in Torah centers across the country. As these relationships blossom and the chavrusas meet on a regula r basis , the emes begins to emerge, the sincerity bursts forth, the bright light of the Torah shines brightly, and the chavrusas begin to make significant changes in their lives.
Rav Zilber strongly believed that Russian speaking bnei Torah are best equipped to reach out to their fellow immigrants. This is because they communicate with them well, understand their culture and lifestyle, share their common experiences, and recognize their needs. Today, there are 350 avreichim studying Torah with over a thousand immigrants in sixty eight centers across the country. The organization’s success has been recognized and lauded by Gedolei Yisroel such as Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashuv, Shlita, Rav Aaron Leib Shteinman, Shlita, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, Shlita, and many many others.
After Rav Zilber was niftar, his son Rav Ben Tzion followed in his father’s footsteps by assuming the leadership of Toldos Yeshurun. The organization continues to grow and flourish under his tutelage. Its programs have branched out into other areas which include a Yeshiva for Russian immigrant bochurim which is located in the Bais Yisroel neighborhood of Yerushalayim, a kollel and smicha program for Russian speaking avreichim, a network of Torah classes which are held around the country, an eishes chayil series of women’s programs, and various community support projects. All have achieved remarkable success and are continuing to flourish.
Yet the flagship program of Toldos Yeshurun remains its chavrusa partnership program. The leaders of the organization can relate dozens of miraculous tales and personal accounts of the program’s phenomenal success. Interestingly, they note that many of those who sign up for the program are educated, intelligent, upper class individuals. Apparently, despite their challenging careers and affluent lifestyles, they are still searching for some meaningful enrichment to satisfy their souls.
Take Vitaly, for instance. Certainly not your run of the mill guy, Vitaly has a Ph.D in the field of water purification and teaches at Be’er Sheva University. He had been a complete atheist and would never have dreamed that he would one day become religious. But all that is in the past. Like so many other of Toldos Yeshurun’s ‘recruits’, Vitaly got shlepped along to a Toldos Yeshurun chavrusa kollel with his friend Boaz, a doctor of Mathematics. That meeting marked the beginning of the rest of his life.
Vitaly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of Torah learning. He was a straight shooter who had no patience for a sales pitch of any kind. “I am not a friend of small talk,” he says frankly. “I don’t like to just talk. I asked what was the most important book in Judaism and to my surprise my chavrusa opened a volume of the Talmud. ‘Learn a few lines’, he told me. ‘And then you will understand.’”
‘A few lines’ turned into a weekly commitment, with Vitaly travelling the considerable distance from Be’er Sheva to Yerushalayim just to meet his chavrusa. “Learning Talmud,” he says, “has become the most interesting and most important activity of my life.” Torah study has its own special aura, of course, and its awesome power is far reaching. The strength of that weekly study had its desired effect. Little by little, Vitaly changed. He started to say Shema, he began praying, he put on a kipah, he tried to eat kosher. Little things grew into big things and now, several years later, Vitaly and his family are fully observant.
Vitaly’s story is inspiring, but it is not unique. There are hundreds of others like him who are drawn to the powerful aura of Torah study and, before they know it, are on their way to a life of observance. What makes Toldos Yeshurun special is its highly effective approach to kiruv. Offer the immigrant community one-on-one intensive Torah study and they will rise to the challenge. Pair them with bright and capable mentors from similar backgrounds who understand their way of thinking and their intellectual needs, and see how easily they learn to relate to each other. Then step back and watch the flowers blossom. See the participants become transformed right before your very eyes.
Rav Ben Zion, current leader of Toldos Yeshurun, wryly comments that the organization has achieved outstanding success in all areas – except one. He is talking about fundraising. His father, Rav Yitzchok, was never one to pursue flashy advertising campaigns and gimmicky media promotions. He was way too focused on his holy work of producing Russian ba’alei teshuva in Eretz Yisroel. Today, the organization runs largely in his tribute and, due to the keen and discerning leadership of Rav Ben Tzion, continues to grow and flourish beyond anyone’s imagination. But fundraising remains a constant struggle, and it is an issue that ultimately needs to be addressed .
That is why Toldos Yeshurun is inviting the community at large to its Second Annual Dinner which will be held at the Renaissance Hall on 14th Avenue and 59th Street in Boro Park on Sunday evening, November 4th. The Dinner will feature an outstanding program which will include the debut of the English translation of Rav Zilber’s fascinating autobiography. Divrei P’sicha will be given by Rabbi Ben Tzion Zilber and Rabbi Sholom Kamenetsky will serve as Guest Speaker. Among the honorees will be Rabbi Avraham Moshe Binsky and Mr. Gadi Pollack, both of whom are actively involved in the spiritual development of the Russian immigrant community.
Toldos Yeshurun asks us to join them in this holy endeavor. It is a mitzvah that offers tremendous zechusim for those who get involved. The New Russian Revolution is being waged today and our community has a golden opportunity to join the battle. Consider the words of Maran HaGaon, Rav Elyashuv. In urging our community to get involved with Toldos Yeshurun, he said, “Whoever assists them in their spreading the light of holiness will see blessings from his labors.”