Thank You Mr Brezhnev

Thank You Mr Brezhnev

In the 1980s, during the last years of the Brezhnev regime, the Chassidic underground in Russia had yielded a crop of young returnees to Jewish practice. These were Russian youth from secular Jewish homes who had been exposed to the Chassidic lifestyle and had adopted it.

To spark their enthusiasm and increase their knowledge, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, obm, began sending pairs of rabbis to Russia, each one for a stint of several weeks. Through the work of these emissaries, the Chabad activities expanded even further. Moscow, the city which boasted Russia's largest Jewish population, was one of the centers of Lubavitch activity.

At that time there was only one mikvah in the Russian capital, in the main shul known as the Choral Synagogue on Archipova St.

For this and other reasons, in 5746 (1986) the Chassidim decided to build a mikvah in Moscow's Chassidic shul, Marina Roscha. One of the Chassidim, Sasha Lukatsky, took charge of the project, hiring black-market builders who secretly borrowed building supplies from the nearby regional headquarters of the KGB. This enabled them to complete the mikvah in an attractive fashion.

 However, a mikvah requires more than just builders and materials. Rabbinical supervision is necessary. Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum of S. Paul, Minnesota, had built many mikvaos in outlying cities, and was contacted with regard to the mikvah in Moscow. Upon the Rebbe's direction, Rabbi Meir Posen, a London-based Rabbinical expert who had built many mikvaos, was also contacted. A freak accident, prevemted Rabbi Posen from going to Moscow. He drew up the plans for the mikvah and gave directions for Rabbi Grossbaum, who went to Moscow to complete the project.

Rabbi Grossbaum arrived in Moscow in the summer of that year, just before the Hebrew month of Av. According to Jewish law, the first nine days of Av are days of mourning, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. There are certain restrictions against building during these days. For this reason, the Moscow Chassidim were surprised to receive a message from the Rebbe telling them to hurry and try to complete the mikvah during this period.

Later, they realized the reason. The KGB had learned of the plans to build the mikvah, and had established a lookout across from the shul to check if any suspicious activity was going on. All those agents were given a week-long summer holiday, precisely during these nine days!

When the mikvah was completed, pictures were smuggled out and brought to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the time, there were certain Chassidim who wanted to publicize the evidence of this observance by the Jews in Russia. The Rebbe, however, advised against doing so, maintaining that this would have negative consequences.

Directly after the mikvah was opened, the Russian government learned of its existence and threatened to demolish it. The Lubavitch women tried to prevent this by promising to lie down in front of the entrance and physically block the bulldozers with their bodies.

Their achievement, though heroic, was short-lived. The KGB was intent on destroying the mikvah. Ultimately, agents broke into the shul at night, smashed the pipes, filled the mikvah with rubble and paved its top with cement. As a finishing touch, they covered it with decorative parquet flooring.

When Rabbi Berl Levy and other Chassidim in New York heard what had happened, they asked the Rebbe whether they should now publicize the pictures of the mikvah and inform the world of its destruction. The Rebbe counseled against this course of action. "The mikvah was destroyed by underlings," he told the Chassidim. "When the higher ups learn what happened, they will volunteer to rebuild the mikvah themselves. If this is made a point of international controversy, however, the mikvah will not be rebuilt."

The Rebbe did, however, agree to have the story told to several Congressmen and Senators who were involved in the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Sasha and other members of the Lubavitch community in Moscow put pressure on the local authorities to permit the mikvah to re-open.

In the spring of the following year, the Russian Minister of Religion made an international tour, trying to demonstrate that there was freedom of religion in the Soviet Union. Wherever he held a press conference, Lubavitch arranged for someone in the audience to ask about the mikvah in the Marina Roscha shul.

After a year these efforts bore fruit, and the Russian authorities agreed to reopen the mikvah. To save face, they announced that they were closing the mikvah in the Choral Synagogue. So as not to leave an entire city without a mikvah, they announced, they would allow one to be opened in the Marina Roscha Shul.

The authorities called Sasha and told him he could rebuild the mikvah. Sasha told them adamantly that he would not; the KGB would have to rebuild it! They were the ones who destroyed it, and they would be the ones to rebuild it.

Two weeks later, a group of Russian builders arrived at the shul with the necessary equipment. They dug out the cement and rubble and repaired the pipes. Within a short while, the mikvah was open. The decorative parquet floor was also preserved, and now graces the platform where the Torah is read!

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