By Dovid Zaklikowski for COLlive and Hasidic Archives
Living in Moscow under the Communists’ eyes, Chabad chassid Refoel Kahan helped establish and run a clandestine network of religious schools. At the end of 1930, he met the same fate as many who defied the Soviet government–the father of four was dragged away from his family and sent to a labor camp in Siberia.
It was then that his wife, Rivkah Kahan, began to lose her eyesight, a physical manifestation of the stress and mental trauma she had endured. The family told her to consult an eye doctor, but she refused.
Any doctor she went to would surely judge her unfit to care for her family and report her to the Soviet authorities, who would place her children in orphanages where they would be indoctrinated with Communist propaganda.
Her dedication to her children’s education cost her dearly. In 1935, when her husband was freed and the family immigrated to the Land of Israel, then known as Palestine, she was practically blind.
“Although she was blind,” said her granddaughter Tziri Livnoni, “she was still in control of the entire family’s needs. She always knew the right time and the best word to tell another who was in distress or needed advice.”
She remembered how her grandmother would sit in the corner of the kitchen, listening carefully to the conversations around her before offering her own perspective. “Above all, she knew how to deliver a deep concept in Chassidus to us. She would explain every detail in such clarity.”
In Israel, the family endured much poverty. Reb Refoel found work paving streets, while his wife and children baked bread and pastries to sell. Eventually, they moved to Ramat Gan, where Reb Refoel got a job delivering milk.
One day, their daughter Gita arrived home from school and announced that her class was going on a field trip for which each student was required to pay a small fee. But even such a small expense was beyond the family’s reach.
To allay her disappointment, her parents offered her an exchange. “We cannot give you money,” they told her. “Instead, if it will make you happy, we will host a farbrengen for the chassidim this Shabbos.”
The young Gita, still recalled peeking through a crack in the door when her father held secret farbrengens in the Soviet Union, and she eagerly accepted.
She loved the singing, the stories, and the atmosphere at the gatherings. “This immediately calmed me down, and I was fine without going on the trip,” she would later recall.