By COLlive reporter
Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan Township, NJ, hosted a community Shabbaton two weeks ago in honor of Gimmel Tammuz, the Rebbe’s 20th yartzeit.
The guest speakers were Rabbi Leibel Schapiro, Rosh Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Miami and member of Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch, and his wife Rebbetzin Tirtza Schapiro, principal of the R.A.S.G. Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami and a known lecturer.
Speaking to a crowd of 100 people, the Schapiros told of the amazing story of a secret mission the Rebbe sent them on behind the Iron Curtain, providing a personal account of the risks and dangers they faced in traveling to Soviet Russia in 1984.
“The Rebbe believed that every Jew, no matter how far removed from religious observance, has a spark of the Divine,” Rabbi Schapiro said. “He believed that it was not only ‘his’ mission but also the mission of every Jew to “feed that flame” no matter how geographically distant.”
He said the Rebbe, who was born and raised in what is now Ukraine, knew there were many Jews secretly practicing and trying to observe Judaism against the government’s laws.
“The Rebbe also believed that it was through acts of kindness and love that mankind could fulfill its mission – to make this world a place worthy of the Divine Presence,” he said.
It therefore became the Schapiros’ mission to not only provide Tefillin and tzitzis but also to bring kindness, hope and connection to this remnant of our people still captive behind the Iron Curtain.
“While we were not the first emissaries to Soviet Russia, it was unusual for the Rebbe to send a ‘couple’ on such a mission,” said Mrs. Schapiro. “Especially since we already had a family, Baruch Hashem.”
They told of packing suitcases and knowing that they would be returning, hopefully, with only the clothes on their backs, and of the anxiety of Soviet customs, document presentation and searches.
“Whatever we bringing was outlawed. Forbidden,” she said. “So we wound the tzitzis into a ball resembling yarn with a crochet needle poked into the center.”
Carrying a half dozen shaitels (wigs) and 4 pairs of Tefillin would certainly prompt questioning, but answers were prepared and practiced.
Rabbi Schapiro said he knew their hotel room would be ‘bugged’ and that they would be followed wherever they went under the watchful eyes of the secret service.
Everything was arranged for them in advance with precise instructions, they said. They got orders like, “Wait on the corner until you see a woman with a red scarf. Follow her but do not follow too closely. Do not enter the building together. Make no noise going up the stairs. And do not speak Russian…”
“The instructions resembled a spy novel,” Mrs. Schapiro told. “But this was real and very risky. At one point my husband was arrested, but only for a day.”
“Their mission was a most challenging one,” said Rabbi Boruch Chazanow, Director of Chabad Lubavitch of Western Monmouth County.
“Leaving their children behind, they did not know with certainty when and if they would return. But the need was great and the reward was and can still be seen in the waves of Jews who emigrated from Russia to Israel and in the resurgence of Jewish education and practice across Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine.”
Rabbi and Mrs. Schapiro praised the Rebbe for his foresight in bringing hope and Judaica to the far reaches of Soviet Russia. They spoke with humility and appreciation for having been selected to do the Rebbe’s work and reminded our community that the Rebbe’s mission remains one which we can and must make possible.