At age 8, Itzak Kogan was up to his arms in illegal flour, helping his mother bake matzo, which was banned in the Soviet Union.
Even after it became legal in the 1960s, supplies were short. As a rabbi in Leningrad in the 1970s, Kogan traveled to the Soviet republic of Georgia to bake 1,100 pounds of the flat, unleavened bread, because Russian flour was unsuitable for making kosher matzo.
To get the large cargo home without risking difficulties with police, family members split it up and flew it to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
Bread Abounds Today
But in Moscow today, the bread abounds. Billboards urge Russians to buy genuine Israeli matzo. The campaign is sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement, which is importing 1.2 million pounds of it into the former U.S.S.R. for the coming Passover holiday. The matzo airlift is just one part of the group’s efforts to revive Judaism in the former Soviet Union, where even practices such as kosher butchering were once seen as threats to the state.
After becoming a rabbi, Kogan had to learn the complicated rituals of kosher slaughtering--which was illegal--because there was no kosher meat available in Leningrad. He killed chickens secretly in his house or at his country cottage. He and his followers would slaughter cows in rural fields among high grass, where no one could see them.
But the KGB knew everything. Kogan’s KGB minder, Alexander Belayev, was warned by his superiors to watch Kogan closely because of his strong “anti-Soviet” activities.
Kogan worked at a military plant, and Belayev informed management there that Kogan was involved in underground kosher slaughtering. But the rabbi had softened up his bosses by bringing them cheap chicken whenever he failed to follow the correct ritual in killing a bird.
His superiors took no action against him. He set up an underground butcher school to teach men the rituals so that cities all over Russia could have kosher meat. Kogan, now a leading Chabad rabbi, also performed circumcisions, weddings and other rituals in secret. Risking prison, he ran an underground Jewish school.
Chabad Lubavitch is the fastest-growing movement promoting the revival of Judaism in the former U.S.S.R., marking its progress not only in pounds of matzo sold but also in the dozens of schools, community centers and orphanages it has opened. It has 3,200 workers in the former Soviet Union, plus 70 kindergartens, 64 schools, three orphanages and community centers or synagogues in 70 cities.
This year, the movement is holding public Seders for 250,000 Russians. The feast commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and it is celebrated on the first night or the first two nights of eight days of Passover. The unleavened matzo is eaten to commemorate the Israelites who fled quickly into the desert with no time for their breads to rise and were forced to bake the dough into hard crackers in the sun.
Because the matzo is often bought by non-practicing Jewish families, the box includes an explanation of Passover and instructions on which blessings to pronounce upon the matzo, what foods should be prepared for Passover and what each symbolizes.
Reviving an Identity
Russia is fertile ground for the Lubavitch movement. The nation is home to an estimated 600,000 Jews, most of whom had no spiritual connection with Judaism during the Soviet years, nor an appreciation of the nuances of Judaism and the differences among ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox or Reform strands of the religion.
In Soviet times, most Jews were either non-practicing, atheists or converts to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the majority remain so.
But being Jewish was an inescapable part of their identity, emblazoned on their passports under “nationality.” Jews faced barriers in higher education and the workplace.
Lubavitchers insist that their motive in the former Soviet Union is not to attract Jews to their own ultra-Orthodox movement but to revive people’s Jewish identity. However, they focus on young people and are eager to enroll children in Lubavitch schools.
The movement takes its name from Lyubavichy, near Smolensk, west of Moscow, the village where the movement was based from 1813 to 1915, spreading to other nations. On Sunday, the group will mark 100 years since the birth of the last Lubavitch rebbe, the charismatic Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994.
The Chabad push back into Russia since the collapse of communism has generated controversy and split the nation’s Jewish community. The Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia sparked bitterness and anger when it elected Berel Lazar as chief rabbi of the country in 2000 to compete with Russia’s existing chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, from a broader Jewish organization, the Russian Jewish Congress.
The Kremlin has embraced Lazar as though he represented all Russian Jews, further exacerbating the tensions.
Lubavitch Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz of Moscow contends that one reason the movement has been successful in Russia is that Lubavitchers are willing to give up the comforts of a Western lifestyle for a harsh life in the provinces of Russia, Ukraine and other former republics.
“A Lubavitcher looks at a privileged life as being not about how luxurious his car is but about his spiritual life and how much he can accomplish,” he said. “We’re not afraid to go into the trenches. It doesn’t bother us that in summer there’s no hot water in the shower.”
Kogan’s story typifies the values of the movement. He spent 14 years trying to escape from the Soviet Union, only to return three years after he succeeded in emigrating.
‘Terrifying’ to Return
He had been forbidden to emigrate because of his job as an engineer on systems for nuclear submarines, but his “anti-Soviet activities” were another factor.
When he was finally allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1986, he lived there only a year before Schneerson urged him to return. Coming back two years later was “terrifying,” Kogan recalled. Kogan came back to violence in Russia, where there have been numerous attacks and bombings targeting Jews.
The 56-year-old rabbi keeps several thick black pipes in his office--pieces of a homemade bomb found in his synagogue in 1999. At the time, the rabbi and an assistant moved the bomb out onto the street. Police were called and the device was detonated under controlled conditions. An explosion had occurred at the synagogue in 1993. No one was hurt in either incident.
Soon after Kogan settled in Moscow, he was invited for a meeting with his old KGB minder, Belayev, the man who had devoted his life to tracing Kogan’s every step.
Belayev was a broken man, living in poverty in a small apartment. He told Kogan that his superiors always exhorted him to be vigilant against Kogan. They vowed that Kogan would never be allowed to leave the country.
When Kogan got his exit visa, Belayev felt that his entire KGB career had been wasted. He resigned and went back to the job he was originally trained for, a lathe operator.
“He apologized to me and asked for my forgiveness,” Kogan said. “He told me he quit his work after I left because for him that symbolized the failure of everything he had worked for.”