The Montreal Jewish community recently had the honor of welcoming Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, who came on a historic visit to Montreal.
Rabbi Lazar visited the new Hebrew Academy school, where he also davened. Approximately 30 Rabbanim from across the city gathered in the boardroom at the Vaad Ha’ir to meet with Rabbi Lazar and listen to his fascinating stories about Russian Jewry. Rabbi Lazar also visited the homes of several private individuals.
But the highlight of his visit was on Tuesday evening, August 27, when a huge crowd turned out at the Montreal Torah Centre in Hampstead for an unforgettable evening with Rabbi Lazar.
First, the audience was treated to a video presentation of a trip that the MTC’s TFS Young Leadership group made to Russia, for the Chabad Young Professionals (CYP) Global Leadership Summit in Moscow. Mr. Aubrey Stern, a member of the organization, briefly recounted the highlights of that trip which took place in May, including their meeting with Rabbi Lazar.
There was a standing ovation as Rabbi Lazar could be seen entering the MTC on giant screens set up across the huge hall. Mr. David Levin, the Consul General of Israel who was in attendance, spoke words of welcome, even saying a few words in Russian.
Mr. Levin paid tribute to Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel and have made important contributions to Israeli society. Mr. Levin also thanked Rabbi Lazar for everything he does for Israel in Moscow.
Then, Rabbi Moshe New, the Rav of the MTC, introduced Rabbi Lazar to the crowd.
Rabbi Lazar kept the huge crowd spellbound as he began speaking of his background in Milan, Italy, and how he traveled to Russia for the first time as a young student in 1987.
“Everything about the Soviet Union at the time was dark and depressing; everything but the fire that burned in the Lubavitch Chassidim, who were determined to preserve Yiddishkeit in Russia at any cost.”
Rabbi Lazar told the story of one incredible Jew who would stay up night after night, taking pictures of holy sefarim, so they could be distributed to the underground Torah classes across Russia.
He also recounted the story of a young Chassid who risked his life on a daily basis to perform brisos. That fire ignited the soul of Rabbi Lazar, who said that as he watched the mesirus nefesh of these Russian Jews, he made a promise to himself that he would do whatever he could to help them.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yiddishkeit in Russia has exploded says Rabbi Lazar. Still, the many years under Communist rule resulted in massive assimilation of Russian Jews. The sheer ignorance of a majority of Russian Jews is unbelievable. Rabbi Lazar says they are true tinokos shenishbu.
Although Rabbi Lazar didn’t speak of it much, it is well known that he has a very good relationship with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Rabbi Lazar did mention that the president once asked him to visit him in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, so he could wish the Jewish community a happy new year.
When Rabbi Lazar got to the palace, the place was teeming with ministers and politicians, as a Russian plane had gone down that day. But Mr. Putin took the time to speak with Rabbi Lazar, and during that meeting, Putin asked Rabbi Lazar what he thought the secret to Jewish survival was.
Rabbi Lazar answered the question with a question, asking President Putin if he had any thoughts on the subject. The president said he had thought about it for a long time, and he feels it’s because of the eternal values that are at the core of Judaism, i.e. the Torah.