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Rabbi Shmuel Lew

21 April 2024

It was a severe time for the Jewish people of Russia. Under Premier Brezhnev, the USSR was no longer sending people off to Siberia and shooting them, but it was still a totalitarian state, and Jews were still being imprisoned or losing their jobs for engaging in religious activities.

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For decades, a Chabad organization called Ezras Achim had been providing them with assistance, primarily in the form of parcels, but due to the tension between the two superpowers, it was difficult in the early ‘80s for Americans to travel there in person. Living in a more minor power, which is also closer geographically, Jews in England were uniquely positioned to cross the Iron Curtain. That is why I was enlisted, by an activist named Ernie Hirsch, to make the trip; he had learned that the Russian Jewish leadership was primarily associated with Chabad, so he wanted to send Chabad chasidim.

In 1981, Reb Nosson “Bobby” Vogel and I flew to Moscow from London. We went for exactly one week, over Rosh Hashanah. We barely brought any clothing because our suitcases were full with enough Kosher food to last two months, almost all of which we left behind. We also brought Jewish books; three beautiful etrogim, which we kept among apples and oranges so as not to arouse suspicion; and a few recordings of chasidic melodies being sung at farbrengens in 770, in which you could actually hear the Rebbe singing along. I also took tapes of the Rebbe’s public talks in Russian, disguised with some classical radio music I had recorded at the beginning and end of each tape.

When Reb Nosson and I entered Russia, a customs agent spent nearly an hour inspecting everything we had – including the tapes.

“Play this one,” he ordered, pointing to a specific tape. “Rewind it first, and don’t stop until I tell you to.”

I put the tape in my tape recorder and began rewinding.

“Stop.” he said. “Now press play.”

The tape had stopped in the middle of the song Tzomo, from Psalm 63: “My soul thirsts for You… in a dry and arid land without water.” It was the Rebbe’s custom to lead the singing of this song responsively; he would sing one stanza, and then the chasidim would repeat it. So when I pressed play, the Rebbe’s voice, singing solo, resounded through the Moscow Airport: “…b’eretz tziyoh vi’oyef bli moyim.

“Stop!” the agent barked. “That’s religion!”

“That’s just music,” I said.

“It’s Bible!”

“The words are from the bible,” I conceded, “but this is the music I relax to.”

Thank G-d, he let it go, but I kept thinking about it: The thirst that King David felt when he composed those words – “In a dry and arid land without water” – was the same thirst I noticed the next day when we met the Jews of Russia.

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we went to the home of an elderly Jew named Reb Getche, along with thirty or forty young people. We prayed and had a meal together, which went until two in the morning. Throughout our trip, we tried lifting the people’s spirits and teaching Torah, and I even officiated at a wedding.

Once back in London a few days later, I immediately phoned the Rebbe’s secretary to give a summary of the trip, including the part about the Rebbe “singing” at the airport. At a farbrengen that very night, the Rebbe sang Tzomo, for the first time in two and a half years. I understood that this was a nod to what had happened with me. I was very moved. After Yom Kippur, Reb Nosson Vogel traveled to New York and brought a bottle of vodka that the Russian Jews had sent for the Rebbe. That Shabbat, the Rebbe spoke publicly about the “relatively happy” regards he had just received from Russia, and gave Reb Nosson a bottle of vodka to send back to the Jews we had met.

After the trip, I maintained contact with groups who were working on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and I also made a few more trips myself. But vicariously, I went in almost every week by sending in different items, especially handmade matzah, along with people who were traveling to Russia. They were unable to produce it there, so every year after Passover I would collect everyone’s leftovers and send them to Russia to be used the next year.

In 1985, just twelve days before Passover, I got a call from the Rebbe’s secretary Rabbi Leibel Groner: The Rebbe wanted to know whether I could get some of his matzah into Russia in time for Passover. Importantly, it had to be confidential. “They shouldn’t be speaking about it on Kingston Avenue,” was how the Rebbe put it.

Without thinking twice, I agreed. The Rebbe sent two pounds of matzah to London each year, so I assumed this additional shipment would be a similar amount.

I started calling my contacts; the Bnei Akiva youth organization, Reform groups, Doctors for Soviet Jewry, and the Israeli embassy staff in London; who always knew exactly who was going to Russia. However, the only person we found was a lawyer from Leeds who was making a trip to Russia that Friday together with a colleague.

That Wednesday the matzah arrived. There was one two-pound packet for London, one for Manchester, and another eight for Russia! The Rebbe had also sent fifty-nine dollars, which were to be exchanged for rubles in Russia.

The Leeds lawyer had been excited when I called to ask him about the matzah. But his wife, afraid that he would be arrested, was vehemently opposed. Eventually, she relented, and let him and his friend take one packet each. I took a three-hour train to Leeds, gave them two packets, twenty-six dollars from the Rebbe, and a debt of gratitude.

But I was still left with six packets, twelve pounds. I called Chabad representatives all over Europe – France, Italy, Switzerland – asking them to make inquiries. But nobody knew of anyone going to Russia.

Finally, I heard about two students from Yeshiva University who were flying there with British Airways, two days before Passover. I met them during a two-hour stopover in a corner of Heathrow airport, at 6:00 AM, with a jet-sack filled with matzah and the remaining thirty-three dollars.

They thought it was going to be one packet – but six? “No way.”

I had no choice but to use every ounce of my persuasive powers to convince them. “The real reason you are going to Russia is to take the Rebbe’s matzot with you!” I implored them, and in the end they agreed.

Two weeks later, the two boys came over to my house on their way back home, and reported that everything had gone smoothly. They had left five packets with our friends in Moscow and took the sixth to Odessa, where they joined about thirty locals at a Seder.

The matzot were a tremendous hit, and over the next few days they met Jews throughout Odessa who, without knowing the role they had played, told them about the Rebbe’s matzot that had arrived “from heaven.”

When they got back to Moscow, they learned that those matzot had been distributed in cities across the country, including Leningrad. Hundreds of Soviet Jews, and possibly thousands, had tasted the Rebbe’s matzah that Passover.

When the lawyer from Leeds returned, I met with him as well. “You cannot imagine the tremendous mitzvah you’ve done.” I told him.

“You don’t need to tell me,” he replied. “When I told the people that the Rebbe had personally prepared and sent these matzot, I could see the joy in their eyes. That was my biggest reward!”

Rabbi Shmuel Lew has been serving as an educator and Chabad emissary in London since 1965. He was interviewed five times in the years 2007, 2009, 2020, and 2021.