By COLlive reporter
Rabbi Mendel Cohen clearly remembers the days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Boris Yeltsin was President and McDonald’s was just making its debut in Moscow.
He was a Chabad yeshiva bochur at the time and was sent to Russia to strengthen the ramshackle yet defiant Jewish community that survived after decades of persecution.
“When I went there in the 1990s, Marina Roscha was a small shul in a broken down building and a mikvah,” Cohen, today Director of Chabad of Sacramento in California, recalled this week upon his returning from a visit to Moscow 25 years later.
And instead of the 5 students he learned with after the fall of Communism, he found a rapidly growing community with an array of educational institutions and social services.
“You go back and you find this beautiful building 7 stories high,” he said about what is now the Marina Roscha Synagogue and Jewish Community Center, which contains a 1,200-seat synagogue, library, fitness room and the offices of the Chief Rabbinate of Russia.
Cohen spent this past Shabbos there as the guest speaker of the events celebrating Yud Shevat, the day the Rebbe accepted leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which sustained Judaism behind the Iron Curtain.
He was hosted by Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and delivered talks at the Talmud Torah Cheder Menachem, Bnos Chabad girls school, to the Nshei Chabad women’s group and the central farbrengen for local Lubavitchers.
Cohen, author of the book Margolis Menachem about the learning methods of the Rambam and Ravad, delivered in-depth shiurim to the Yeshiva Gedola on Motzoei Shabbos and another for the younger bochurim in Mesivta on Sunday.
“I was blown away,” Rabbi Cohen told COLlive.com upon his return. “I saw 100 dear bochurim who want to learn Torah. In Yeshiva they were studying blat after blat of Gemara, and they have their tuition covered.”
He says that although he has heard and read about the renewal of Jewish life in Russia, “When you see it in person and see how much time, energy and money is invested, you cannot not be amazed.”
“You see the Rebbe’s power,” he said about the growth he witnessed. “When I shared my deep impression with Rabbi Lazar, his reply was ‘there’s so much more to do still…'”