More than 200 young families reunited this past Shabbos at a hotel in Fairfield, New Jersey, to host Rabbi Moshe Fhima, the director of the Yad Yisroel yeshivah in Pinsk, Belarus. For the past 27 years, under the leadership of the Karlin-Stolin chasidic community, Jewish life was revived in Ukraine and Belarus.
But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine last month, the community and school in Kyiv were evacuated, with most of their members making aliyah. “As long as we can continue, we have a mission to go on,” said Rabbi Yaakov Shteierman, the Executive Director of Yad Yisroel. “We are at the forefront of the rescue effort.”
Most of the Shabbaton participants are alumni of the Pinsk yeshivah, the only full-time Jewish school in Belarus. As it hosts Jewish families evacuated from Ukraine, it grapples with the increased cost of food and commodities, as Belarus faces sanctions for its support of the Russian war effort.
Life in Belarus comes with economic hardship and political repression, but at the same time, Rabbi Fhima has no plans to leave. Instead, he spoke of plans to build a Jewish educational center with a kosher restaurant in Minsk. “Costs have gone up in the past five weeks. The Belarusian ruble is tied to the Russian ruble. Diapers went up by 300 percent, fruits and vegetables have tripled in price,” he said. “I am not able to withdraw more than $300 each week from the bank.”
For Jews seeking opportunities to live an observant lifestyle, economic opportunities, and political freedom, emigration is the solution. “We have a full infrastructure in Israel under the leadership of the Karlin-Stolin Rebbe to make resettlement as easy as possible,” Rabbi Fhima said.
Zev Kamarau had been a guest at my Shabbos table and my student at Lander College for Men. Five months ago he married, but he had no close family members to dance with him. “My mother is now here in America. She arrived in December,” he announced. “She is living in Brooklyn and will be applying to stay here as a refugee. She gave up her home and car to live here.”
Immigration at an older age is not easy, but the alternative could be worse. “My uncle was shopping at a store and the police were arresting everyone in sight. My uncle wasn’t protesting. He is not into politics, and they locked him up. He saw inmates being beaten and he was fortunate to have been released after a day.” In a police state, such arrests are designed to inspire fear following popular protests against the government two years ago.
Participants at this special weekend arrived from Brooklyn, Monsey, Lakewood, and farther afield from Florida, Toronto, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. “It was a seven-hour drive for us, to see Rabbi Fhima and reconnect with our friends,” said Rafi Maglinitsky, who attended Lander College and now lives in Cleveland.
Rabbi Fhima, his wife Rikki, and their children arrived at the hotel 33 hours after leaving Pinsk. “We drove to the Lithuanian border and were stopped for questioning.” With the war and sanctions, travel between EU member states and Belarus was reduced to a trickle. Fortunately, the Fhima family are British citizens, carrying passports of a country that famously exited from the EU. They entered Lithuania and departed from its main airport in Vilnius.
From Vilnius, they flew to Istanbul and then Newark. “But the rental car that we had reserved was at LaGuardia, so we had to get there first. Being at this Shabbaton gives us chizuk.”
Where else could one see so many families from assimilated and mixed backgrounds living observant lives with multiple children running around and building their own friendships? Their source for religious observance is the Pinsk yeshivah, and they are sowing seeds of future Jewish generations through their children.
Among them are Yocheved and Moshe Nisenboym, our neighbors in West Hempstead, parents to five children, and the only shomer Shabbos members of their families. Yocheved and Keren are alumni of Yad Yisroel. Moshe and I grew up in Rego Park and attended Machane Chodosh in our teens. Our respective sons Daniel and Zacharia are close friends. Boys of the same grade, sons of landsmen with common stories of t’shuvah.
In his shiurim during Shabbos, Rabbi Fhima focused on parenting as his main topic, advising parents to pay attention to the needs of their children. Concerning the war, he offered musar against gaavah – the sense of grandeur that inspires leaders to launch attacks on neighboring nations.
Besides the Shabbaton, Rabbi Fhima met with supporters of Yad Yisroel in New York. He did not have to make any phone calls for donations, as American Jews rose to the occasion with amounts unseen since the Soviet Jewry movement of a generation ago. “Agudah, OU, Young Israel, they all stepped up. The Syrian community in Brooklyn offered a blank check to assist Ukrainian Jews. A new yishuv will be built for Ukrainian and Russian Jews in northern Israel. Olam chesed yibaneh.”
Such Shabbatons take place when Rabbi Fhima is in New York. They strengthen the connection between alumni and their rebbe, offer recent graduates examples of flourishing Jewish families who attended their yeshivah, and foster a sense of community long after their arrival and dispersal across America. “It really warms our hearts, despite challenges. They make it through, and it gives us a responsibility to those who have not been zocheh to be m’kareiv.”
To learn more about Yad Yisroel, visit www.yadyisroel.com.
By Sergey Kadinsky