Those of us lucky in our births — lucky, that is, in being able to choose to stay in the country where we were born, maybe in the same state or at least in the same metropolitan area — can revisit our childhood haunts easily.
We might not be able to walk through the houses where we grew up, but we can walk the streets where we played, go past our friends’ houses, drive through the neighborhood, pass by the school, go to the supermarket. It’s no big deal.
But if you grew up in the former Soviet Union — if you were the child of a chasidic family, growing up in the former Soviet Union, if your childhood resembled a Jewish version of a bleak Russian novel, all claustrophobic dark rooms and gray days with police whistles and wolf howls in the distance — it would be neither easy nor appealing to go back home again. Even for a short visit. It would be a major big deal.
So when Shterney and Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky — the Chabad rebbitzin and rabbi who live in Hillside and run Bris Avrohom, which has branches all over New Jersey, including in Fair Lawn and Jersey City, as well as in Brooklyn and Ukraine — went back to Moscow late last year, it was the result of a difficult decision, head fighting heart, and then heart catching up.
Their story does not begin with their trip to Moscow. Like any Russian novel, it begins before. Well before.
Rabbi Kanelsky has major yichus in the chasidic world. On his father’s side, he said, “I am the eleventh generation from the Baal Shem Tov,” the founder of chasidism, and “the eighth generation from Reb Nachman of Bratslav,” another seminal chasidic figure. “And on my mother’s side, I’m seventh generation Lubavitch.”
As prominent Lubavitchers in the Soviet Union — as publicly religious people in a state that not only scorned but actively forbade the practice of religion — the family faced frequent danger.
Rabbi Kanelsky’s mother’s grandfather came from a town in White Russia that was 90 percent Lubavitch, he said; “my mother’s grandfather was a businessman who used to buy and sell sugar and flour before the Revolution.” It was a wealthy family. “My mother’s grandfather had 11 children, four sons and seven daughters. My mother’s mother was the youngest child and the seventh daughter, so she was called Batsheva,” daughter of seven.
And then the Russian Revolution changed everything.
In 1927, the Lubavitcher rebbe sent Batsheva’s husband to Georgia “to spread yiddishkeit,” and the KGB arrested him. Influential Georgian Jews were able to free him, “but he had to run to Moscow.” In 1940, he was jailed in Moscow; the Russian army impressed him into service in 1940, he was wounded, then discharged at the war’s end. Meanwhile, his wife took their two daughters and fled to Uzbekistan; eventually her husband found her, and they had three more daughters. Soon they moved back to Moscow.
“My grandmother did not know any compromise,” Rabbi Kanelsky said. “She and her five daughters — none of them ever disgraced Shabbes. Everybody” — every Jewish body, that is — “knew that if you are coming to Moscow, if you need a place to sleep, a place to eat kosher, you go to the house of Batsheva Chein. My grandfather had a textile store — he sold shmattes — but he was a rov, a dayan, a mohel, a shochet, and a soyfer” — he was a rabbi, a rabbinic decisor, he did ritual circumcision and ritual slaughter, and he was a scribe. “He was a person also who did not know any compromise.”
Rabbi Kanelsky’s parents — Nossom Kanelsky and Rochel Laya Chein Kanelsky — had 10 children, five boys and five girls. Mordechai is the oldest, born in 1961; he and a brother were born in Russia.
In 1963, the Kanelskys became refuseniks; because Nossom’s father, who had escaped from a concentration camp and become a partisan during the war, had moved to Israel, the family even had some hope that they could get out. But it took years.
“My father changed jobs 18 times to not have to work on Shabbes,” Rabbi Kanelsky said; it was forbidden not to work on Shabbat, so when his father did not show up for work, he’d be fired. He was a tailor. Eventually, he found an employer who was kind, and did not care when the work was done as long as it was done.
“When I was 3 ½, my father taught me how to daven,” Rabbi Kanelsky said. But there was much more that Nossom wanted his son to learn. “My father’s work was a half hour walk from our home. There is an obligation that every single Jew, every single father, has to think about the children’s Jewish education, and on my father’s walk every single day he was thinking about how to get a teacher to teach me.” It was forbidden to teach Jewish texts. And even if he could find a teacher willing to risk his freedom, “how are we going to pay that person? And how would we find a teacher, a real Lubavitch chasid, who would be ready to sacrifice his life to teach a child Torah?”
But they found someone. Rabbi Beryl Rickman “learned with the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, and as a child we learned in the cheder with our rebbe. And he came to teach me every day.
“The secret was so great that even his wife did not know he was doing that. I know that because in 1971, he came to Israel and settled next to our home, and my father told me that my teacher was there, and I was so excited that I ran over there and hugged him and kissed him and I said ‘My dear teacher!’ And his wife said to him, ‘Beryl, what is this?’ And then he could tell her the truth. She hadn’t known that he was teaching me for four years.”
Rabbi Rickman started teaching little Mordechai when the child was 5. The first two years were relatively easy. “The only burden on my father was how to find the money to pay him,” Rabbi Kanelsky said. But school was mandatory for 7-year-olds, and home schooling was not an option. “If you didn’t send a child to school, that was child abuse, and you could be arrested.”
But Nossom Kanelsky found a doctor, “who for a lot of money said that I wasn’t healthy enough to go to school, and that I needed one more year home with my mother.” That bought another year.
“So in 1968, I was 8 years old, and there was no choice. I had to go to school.
“My father gave me a choice. I could go to school, and my father would find a doctor who would write that for medical reasons I had to cover my head, and he would buy me some earplugs so I will not hear anything except for subjects that are permitted, and every Monday he will have to find an excuse for why I was not in school on Shabbat.”
Not an appealing choice. So what was the alternative?
“My father’s second option was that he would say that I don’t live at home. That they sent me to live with family in Samarkand. And that means that I will not be able to walk outside until the day we leave Russia, because if I do, someone will see me and give my name to the authorities.
“This is the choice that an 8-year-old had to make. Does he want to hide in a cellar for an unknown number of years until he is able to leave Russia, but to study Torah with his teacher? Or to go to school.
“To clarify, we are not talking about not seeing friends. I had no friends. I had no childhood.
“So I said that I have to think about it, and then I decided that I will stay home and study Torah with my teacher, and I will not go outside. I was ready to give up the luxury of seeing the sunshine until the day we leave.”
How can a child possibly make a decision like that?
“I remember what it felt like,” Rabbi Kanelsky said. “I am telling you about it, and I am reliving the moment. It was an event that left a mark in my life forever.
“Every child can run around when he is 8. I could not. I had no friends. No games. No nothing. I was sitting in a cellar, hiding and studying Torah with a teacher. Picture yourself giving that choice to your children.
“From time to time I would say to my children — not now, they are adults now, but when they were children — they would say ‘We’re bored,’ and I would say ‘You are not spending two years in a cellar. Take a book.’ And they would answer ‘We don’t live in Russia anymore.’
“And one hundred percent they were right.”
During that time, his father would go to the Russian agency that handled visa requests and he would be denied. “One day they waved the papers in front of his eyes, and they said ‘You are going to die here.’”
In 1969, the Russian government did a census. “They came to our house to search for me,” Rabbi Kanelsky said. “They asked how many people live there, and my mother said three people, me, my husband, and my young child. They said that’s very nice, but we have papers that show that there is a boy who was born in Moscow. Where is this boy? And my mother said he’s in Samarkand, and they said okay, we will search for him.
“And they started searching the house, and my mother and my grandmother were speaking to each other in Yiddish, really loud, and my grandmother really was telling me, in Yiddish, they are hot, now they’re cold, and I was running from the attic to the garage back to the house to the cellar, and thank God, thank God, thank God they did not find me.
“It was terrifying.”
And then, in February of 1970, “we got a telegram from the Russian government. It said take 36 rubles and leave Russia within eight days.
“The joy was great. Nobody understood why or how but that’s what happened. We took the first plane, my father, my mother, my brother, and me.
“I remember sitting on the plane, my mother was pregnant, and I was watching my father’s eyes and his face. His face was as white as the Shabbes tablecloth. The plane took off, and when they announced that we were landing in Vienna his face still was white, and when we landed it became more pink and slowly turned normal.
As for 9-year-old Mordechai, “it was the first time in two years that I was outside in the sunlight. I had to say the Shehecheyanu.”
The family moved to Nachlat Kfar Chabad in southern Israel, where they flourished.
That is the story of Rochel Laya Kanelsky’s family. Meanwhile, her sister, Chaya Esther, and her husband, Berel Zaltzman, had moved to Samarkand. (When Mordechai Kanelsky’s family said that he had been sent off to Samarkand, they were not stretching the bounds of probability. Had he really been sent anywhere, it would have been there.)
Samarkand is an ancient city, a legendary Central Asian stop on the Silk Road, part of the former Soviet Union, home mainly to Muslims and some Christians but until recently also to both Bukharian Jews and the descendants of Ashkenzim who’d fled east before and during the war. Now most of them have fled, and the city is part of the nation of Uzbekistan.
Like her cousins in Moscow, Shterney Zaltzman, who was born in 1960, had been kept hidden “for as long as possible, to avoid the Soviet school for as long as possible, with hopes and prayers that maybe we will leave Russia.” Russian schools were considered particularly horrible because they not only endorsed but actively encouraged atheism, Ms. Kanelsky said. “You are not supposed to believe in God. I remember in second grade, a teacher said ‘Children, do you see a blackboard? A desk? A chair?’ ‘Yes, we have it. We see it. Whatever we see, we believe.’ ‘Children, do you see God?’ The children look around and said no. And then she shot out, with a loud voice, ‘Children, there is no God’
“It was awful.
“I would come home and share it with my parents — I always told them everything that was taught in class — and my parents started to talk to me, to take out those words of avodah zera, the opposite of our emunah” — faith — “and to put my thoughts in the proper place.”
Little Shterney was the fourth of seven children; she had two older sisters and an older brother. The three sisters went to school — their parents could not hide all those children — but each went to a different school. Each always was out on Shabbat — that’s why they went to different schools, so that the pattern of Saturday absences would be a little less glaring — and every Monday the girls and their parents would have to come up with another, increasingly elaborate or unlikely, reason for that absence. “It’s a good thing we have 248 limbs in our body,” she said. “It gave us enough excuses for four years.”
She was the only Jewish girl in her 500-student school, she said; she tells a story that happened when she was 9 1/2. “I remember like now, one day someone came from the board of education, a high authority, and she said ‘Okay, we are going to go from the first row to the last, and everyone will have to rise and say his last name and his ethnicity.’ And she was writing it in her notes. So I was starting to think, my goodness, what will I say? I am Jewish, and we are taught to say the emes, the truth, but I am putting myself and my family in danger. But what am I going to say?
“I was in the last row, so I had time to think, and here comes my name, and I decide that I am going to say that I am Russian. It’s not a lie, I was born in Russia, and my skin is light, so I can look Russian. So here comes my turn, and I am getting up, saying my name, Zaltzman, and that I am Russian. I couldn’t even face her. I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were down at my desk. So I said it quickly and dropped down on my chair.
“So that authority person stretches out her right hand across the class, with a pointy finger, and says ‘Zaltzman, you are Jewish.’ I almost stopped breathing. How did they know? What did I do wrong?
“They continued for another row, for the few other names that were left, and then that authority person left the classroom. A few minutes later, recess was about to begin, and a boy sitting behind me — I even remember his name, Yury — took a wooden ruler, made of pure wood, thick and heavy — and he took that ruler, and he hit me on my back, and he said ‘Zhidovka.’ Bastard Jew. ‘You have been hiding all these years.’
“I fall from the chair, my pain was so big, and then other boys tackled me. They were beating me. And then quite a few girls starting throwing them off me, screaming ‘What are you doing? So what if she’s Jewish? She has always been a good friend of ours. How can you do that?’”
The beating stopped, “then there was another class period, and then we were dismissed. There was no staff present, and the children did not call anybody for help.”
When she got home, “I walked in and I took the briefcase off my back and I threw it across the living room like a Frisbee, with so much anger and pain. And then I fell on the floor and I was crying for almost two hours. I could not talk, because of the physical pain, and the emotional pain. My mother understood that something really serious had happened at school, and she tried to calm me down, but I wasn’t ready to talk.
“After a while I did come back to myself, and I told my mother the whole story, and she calmed me down, hugged me, kissed me, gave me good food and sweets. I said ‘I am not going back to school tomorrow. I am done.’ But I knew very well that I had to keep that extra day for Shabbat, so I had to go back.
“I looked at my back with a mirror. It was bruised. I was bleeding. The skin came off. And that is how life continued.”
Meanwhile, her parents’ problem about what to do with her brother became even more acute. That’s because boys had to wear a kippah and tzitzit, so it was harder to hide their level of observance, and also because chasidic culture expects their boys to spend all day studying Jewish texts. You can’t do that if you have to spend hours at a secular school. So what to do? Shterney’s father considered taking his son on the road, traveling endlessly, catchable at no local level, but her mother pointed out that it would be nearly impossible for her and her daughters to survive if they had no source of income.
So instead they decided to hide him. The story is strikingly similar to Rabbi Kanelsky’s, but, Ms. Kanelsky said, on the whole it was a less harsh experience. Their house in Samarkand was huge, she said, and it was surrounded by land, woods, apples trees, and grape vines. “There were seven kinds of grapes,” she said. “Black grapes, small seedless grapes, large purple grapes, red grapes, just plain grapes. The children were going up there with baskets.” It sounds idyllic; you could wander off into the woods and sate yourself on fresh sweet fruit. “It was a blessing,” she said.
Also, “the KGB weren’t as active in Samarkand in those years,” she said. “And my house was always open for guests, and it was open three times a day for minyan, even though people were coming in at different times and through different doors so the neighbors didn’t realize anything.”
There was at least once when her brother, like her husband, was almost caught. Officials came to search for a boy who they knew existed but did not go to school.
“I was 5 ½,” Ms. Kanelsky said. “I’m four years younger than my brother. When they came in, I was home, my mother was home, and my brother was playing in the backyard. They said that they’d come to search for a boy named Yossi, who is not attending any school. Where is he?
“My mother became white. She said ‘He is not home.’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘In Moscow.’ And they said ‘We do not believe you.’ So they searched for him.
“And they came in, and they were going from room to room, going through every single closet, drawer, shelf, looking for him. The house was big. Much to their disappointment, they did not find him. He was in the backyard, and he stayed out.
“As the search began, my mother gave me a very serous look. I understood what she meant to say. I was 5 ½, I was not a genius, but we were taught to hide. I understood that my mother was giving me a message. Go save your brother. So I ran outside, and I found my brother in the back, in the bushes, and I told him ‘Unwanted guests have come to look for you.’ I remember those words.
“So he fell on his face on the grass, to lay down flat, to not be visible, and he said, ‘Shterney, go home, stay with Mom, and please tell me when they leave.’
“The search took about 2 ½ hours — it was a really big house — and then they talked. They interrogated her, and then they left, very disappointed. And the first thing I did was to run to tell my brother to come home.”
Her father, Berel Zaltzman, was, among many other things, a cantor. “Until today, he travels the world, he contributed a lot with his voice,” his daughter said. Then, he not only sang but also made instruments; he was able to pretend to work on Shabbat but actually work before and after. If he produced enough, no one would question when he did it.
Not only did the family have seven children, for about two years they also housed and educated 15 teenage boys in a sort of underground yeshiva. “We had to hide everybody, especially when they were learning, for between six and eight hours a day,” she said. “We hired a rebbe who would sit and learn with them. We had to keep it secret because if he were found he would be sent to Siberia.” The boys’ parents, all refuseniks waiting to be allowed out of Uzbekistan, paid for their sons’ education, but their payments could not cover all the costs, and Shterney’s mother took care of them, nursing them when they got sick because the family could not take them for medical care. It was noisy and risky and exciting, she said.
Eventually, her family was able to leave Russia. It was 1971, and she was 10. “I will never forget the excitement, the screaming from joy, the tears, the crying from laughter. We were all running around hugging, kissing, thanking Hashem, being thankful, thanking God for the kindness, for being able to leave Russia, for very soon having everything behind us.
“We went through Vienna. They had to do tests, bloodwork, I don’t know why; checking every item we had, shaking it out, checking our bodies, looking in our mouths, maybe looking for gold under our tongues? It was disgusting. It was humiliating.
“And then we landed in Israel. We got out of the plane and touched the ground of Israel, bent to the ground and kissed the asphalt.
“We did not believe that after so many years of being physically and emotionally abused, we were in Israel.”
Like her first cousin, Mordechai Kanelsky, and his family, Shterney Zaltzman and her family moved to Nachlat Kfar Chabad; their shared grandparents lived there already. “The simcha, the happiness, was endless,” Ms. Kanelsky said.
Her father opened a dry cleaning business, but he continued to sing, and to do outreach with Russian Jews, and “he was captivating the crowd, and bringing so many Jews closer to yiddishkeit.” Given his charisma, his effectiveness at outreach, and his strong generations-long relationship with Chabad, eventually he was “asked to move to Los Angeles to serve as spiritual leader for the Russian Jewish community there as a cantor,” Ms. Kanelsky said. She was 20; she went with her family, and worked as a nursery school teacher; her youngest brother, who was 3, was one of her students, adored her, insisted on calling her Morah Shterney even at home, and wanted no one else but her to take care of him.
A year and a half later, Shterney went to Crown Heights, Chabad headquarters, to spend the month of Tishrei and the High Holy Days, all of which fall that month, close to 770 Eastern Parkway. That’s where she re-met her Mordechai Kanelsky, her first cousin, who lived there then, and who had been asked — by his aunt, her mother — to help find her a husband. He tried, but nothing worked. Shterney and Mordechai’s mutual grandfather, watching all this, suggested to his daughters that perhaps their children could find happiness together.
Without knowing this, the two, who found themselves together at many holiday meals, because after all they were first cousins, found themselves drawn to each other. Once Shterney heard about Mordechai’s outreach work with Russian Jews, which he had just begun, she was so moved that she wrote him a check for $1,000. “That was a lot of money, 37 years ago,” she said, but she was earning money, she was obligated to tithe, so why not give it to him?
They got engaged, with the Lubavitcher rebbe’s blessing, and six weeks later they married. “The wedding was in front of 770, and the rebbe’s window was a little bit open,” she said. That wasn’t what usually happened. “So the rebbe heard the wedding.” The wedding happened to be on one of the nights that the rebbe saw the people who stood on line waiting for his advice and blessing. So after the ceremony, and after the couple spent time, as they were supposed to, alone together, “We had the zichut” — the honor — “that the rebbe stopped the line, and I walked in, in my white gown and veil, with my chosson, with my parents and my husband’s parents, to the rebbe’s holy room, and the rebbe spoke for about five to eight minutes, and then before it was over the rebbe called each of us and gave to each one of us, including me and my husband, a dollar from the rebbe’s holy hand, and a blessing. And then we stood aside, and the rebbe spoke again.
“Till now when I retell the story I feel like the blessing of the rebbe is existing and alive and blessing our outreach work.”
The Kanelskys started Bris Avrohom, doing outreach work with Russian Jews, in their tiny Brooklyn apartment. Later they moved to Hillside, had children — now they are grandparents many times over — and became increasingly successful with their outreach work. There are many stories about that work, but not for here.
What is relevant here is that the chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, had sent groups of young Russian Jews to the United States twice a year. “The highlight of the trip was to come to visit the headquarters of Bris Avrohom, and we would speak about the hardships of our childhood, and how we kept yiddishkeit strong, and how lucky they were to be in Moscow now,” Ms. Kanelsky said. “They can practice yiddishkeit publicly, there are 32 shuls in Moscow, children are walking on the street with peyes, with yarmulkes, with tzitzit. We’d say how lucky they are, that they don’t have to go through these hardships.”
Those groups haven’t come for the last year or so, she added; “Russia is giving them a hard time, not giving visas. Many people cannot leave Russia now for a visit. It is a change, and I think it’s not just Jews, but that the government is doing it in general.” But still, Rabbi Lazar urged the Kanelskys to come to Russia.
“So he said ‘I will arrange a visa for you. You are American citizens. I want you guys to come here.’ It’s been 220 years since the liberation from prison of the first Lubavitcher rebbe” — it’s a traditional day of celebration for Lubavitchers — “and he was planning a big event. He asked my husband to be the keynote speaker, and to talk about his childhood.
“But we were afraid to go,” she said. “Because of the stories I’ve told you. Because of what we had gone through. We didn’t know what would happen.
“We didn’t trust them.”
Rabbi Kanelsky has a brother who moved back to Russia to do outreach, and he assured his brother and sister-in-law that they’d be safe. “Nothing has happened to me,” Ms. Kanelsky recalls him saying. “But my husband was saying no, and I was saying that they might recall my last name, and my parents had an underground yeshiva. Who knows? Maybe they found this out later. We are parents of children, and we were really afraid.
“But our own children said ‘Why are you afraid?’
“They are American. They grew up on chocolate.”
So in the end, Shterney and Mordechai Kanelsky went back to Russia. “They arranged visas and tickets and hotels. Between me and my husband, we did 17 lectures in six days. We had not time to be afraid or to think that we were in Russia. We were taken from one place to the next. A car was already there to take us someplace, and a few hours later a car took us somewhere else.”
But even with all that hectic activity, Rabbi Kanelsky wanted to see the house where he’d grown up, and where he’d spent two years in hiding, venturing out only in moonlight. Ms. Kanelsky wanted to see it too; she and her family had escaped the summer heat in Samarkand during some of her childhood summers by spending it with their cousins in Moscow. In that house.
“It is in a suburb of Moscow, about a 45-minute drive,” Ms. Kanelsky said. “We were driving closer and closer, we see it’s the right address, but the house has an eight-foot fence around it, and we cannot see through it. We cannot see anything.
“And we were standing there and talking, and dogs started to bark. The driver said that if they are not opening the door, that means that they don’t want you. And it is very dangerous.
“This was Russia, after all. If you go and knock on the door and they don’t want you, they can set the dogs on you. My hand was about to ring the bell, but the people said ‘Please don’t,’ and my husband got so scared that he ran to the car and begged me to get in too. I was crying. And then we went on to the next destination.
“I couldn’t stop crying. I was so sad, to come all this way. The house meant so much to my husband, and also to me. It was the house of our bubbe and zayde.” They were so close, but they just couldn’t get in.
One evening, though, toward the end of the trip, Rabbi Kanelsky’s brother pointed out that the visitors had not gone out for a meal. They went to a kosher restaurant, “we were eating and talking and having a good time, and all of a sudden one lady turns to me and says ‘Are you Mrs. Kanelsky from New Jersey?’ And I said ‘My goodness, I come here to Russia, and they know who I am? Was I right to be scared to come here?’
“I am looking at her, thinking that she is a Jewish lady in a kosher restaurant, but who knows? This is Russia! But then she said ‘I heard you talking. I was with a bunch of ladies in your synagogue three years ago, and I heard how you were speaking with your husband, and told us the stories of all that you had gone through in Russia. Was that you?’
“So she recognized us!”
As it turned out, she lived in the suburbs where the Kanelskys’ house was; when Ms. Kanelsky described the house, and their unsuccessful attempt to go inside, “she said ‘That’s not a problem.’ And I jumped off the chair, and said ‘What do you mean?’ And she said ‘My husband is on the town housing commission. He knows every house in town and who lives there. It’s not a problem. Let me call my husband right now.’
“I am looking at my husband and crying and I said ‘This is my dream come true.’”
The next day, they put off all their planned activities, and went to the house.
“We walked there, and we were shaking,” Ms. Kanelsky said. “My husband burst into tears right away. He said ‘This is the place where I was walking at night with my grandfather. This is the path. And then he took us into the house, and asked if there is a cellar. There was a door in the floor, and then there were steps down. And he moved the table — it was under the table — and we picked up the door, and my husband’s face was rolling with tears.
“He couldn’t go down. It was too much for him.
“I walked in there, I was crying, talking on a video for my children, saying this is the real liberation of yud lev Kislev” — 19 Kislev, the day of the rebbe’s liberation in 1798. “We came here in freedom. There is no KGB. We are not afraid.
“It looked amazing. It looked almost the same. It was emotional. And then we went into the attic, where my bubbe hid chasidim when the KGB was after them.
“And we saw the well where my zayde took water for baking matzah. It was all there.
“We were crying, we were laughing, we were looking around. We didn’t know how to thank that gentleman who got us in, and he was so happy that he made us happy.”
Both Kanelskys are very glad that they decided to go back to Russia.
“The whole experience turned out to be positive,” Ms. Kanelsky said. “So many good outcomes for the people we lectured for. And the whole experience of Russia was transformed to something so positive. We are thankful to God that we went.
“People are asking when we are going again, and I think that now we could go again. We broke the ice.
“Before this, we lived constantly with fear. When we went to shul on Shabbat there, I was so scared. It was my experience. I kept looking back to see if anyone was following me.
“I had to go through a security booth, and I was afraid. I stopped right away. I was afraid that the lights were going to go on.” She worried, in other words, that her entrance would trigger automatic lights, and thus break Shabbat. “I see four guards sitting there, and to my surprise, they told me, ‘Don’t’ worry. Today is Shabbat, so no lights are activated. Everything is off today because it is Shabbat. You can go right through.’
“So I pinched myself. I am dreaming. I walked out and the guard tells me to go straight and then to turn. I continued, but I still didn’t believe that I wouldn’t get stopped. I kept looking behind me.’” But she was safe.
“This shul had seven floors, and to my surprise there was someone on every floor with a gun. They were protecting the shul. With guns. And children with peyes.” (Rabbi Lazar has “a close relationship with Mr. Putin,” she said; she thinks that explains the high level of protection.)
“And I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is a different Russia that we have come to visit.”
A very different Russia.