January 6, 1957, is the day that Yeshiva Kol Ya’akov opened in Moscow. The last still-functioning yeshiva had closed during the 1930s, and even the Communist authorities recognized that a need existed to have some trained rabbis in the country. During a brief thaw in the official repression of religion, an easing of the atmosphere that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, it was thought that the opening of a rabbinical seminary could also improve the image of the Soviet Union in the West.
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The man who convinced authorities of the rightness of the idea was Rabbi Solomon Shlifer, who was born in Ukraine in 1889, and who had served as rabbi of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue starting in 1943. Shlifer survived the treacherous period of Stalinist rule by making gestures to Communism and to the regime – for example, in 1946, he removed the words “From Zion shall go forth Torah,” from above the Choral Synagogue ark. Although he had been a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, nearly all of whose members found their deaths at the hands of the authorities after the establishment of the State of Israel, he was saved by the personal appeal he wrote to Stalin.
The initial call for applicants to study at the new yeshiva met with a lukewarm reception. Potential candidates were nervous about declaring their desire to become rabbis. For his part, Rabbi Shlifer understood that a certain percentage of applicants were likely to be informants. Nonetheless, he selected some 12 students, and on January 6, 1957, a festive opening was held for the seminary.
The classroom was held in a shed-like structure in the courtyard of the Choral Synagogue, and permission was also granted for the opening of a kosher restaurant nearby for students. There was no dormitory, so students from outside Moscow were put in private apartments with other families.
More circumcisers than rabbis
Unfortunately, things started to go wrong even before the yeshiva had opened. Students from outside Moscow had trouble getting visas that would allow them to reside there (the first class included six students from Georgia, five from Moscow, two from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and one each from Minsk, Belarus, and Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine); the regime prohibited the receipt of donations from overseas to fund the yeshiva, but also clamped down on fund-raising through collection boxes in local synagogues.
The cruelest blow came less then three months after the opening of the yeshiva, when Rabbi Shlifer died, on March 31, 1957. His place as yeshiva head was taken by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin. The fact that students had diverse origins meant that classes were taught in three languages: Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. They also had wide-ranging educational backgrounds, and ranged in age from 20 to their 50s.
The yeshiva ended up placing a disproportionate emphasis on laws of kosher slaughtering and on circumcision technique, and turned out more shohetim and mohelim (slaughterer and ritual circumcisers) than it did ordained rabbis: Over the five years that it functioned, Kol Yaakov ordained only two rabbis.
By 1959, the short respite from the anti-religious attitude in Russia had been replaced with an atmosphere of intense hostility, with synagogues being closed down, circumcisions being prohibited, and cemeteries being confiscated. Likewise, there was widespread dissemination of anti-Jewish propaganda being disseminated, not only in Yiddish, as during previous waves of anti-clericalism, but also among the public at large.
When an American rabbi, David Hollander, visited Kol Ya’akov, in 1962, he found only five students enrolled. Although it never officially closed, by the mid-1960s, the yeshiva was indeed effectively shut down.