Chief Rabbi of Russia Rabbi Berl Lazar, and his father, veteran shliach to Italy Rabbi Moshe Lazar, discuss the challenges and triumphs of shlichus in their respective countries.
By Shloime Zionce for Ami Magazine
I remember seeing Hitler as a child when he came to Vienna after the Anschluss,” says Rabbi Moshe Lazar, Chabad shliach in Milan, Italy, and the father of Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar. “I grew up in Vienna. My family had been living there for generations. They weren’t chasidim; they were Yekkes. I saw Hitler when his parade went down the main thoroughfare, which was around the corner from our house. We heard that he was going to be coming to town, and there were thousands of people in the streets. When his car passed by, I saw everyone saluting, so I did too. My sister was standing next to me and she gave me a klop, which I can still feel. The next time Hitler came to town I didn’t raise my hand. By then I already knew that he wasn’t a nice person.”
It’s a breezy Sunday afternoon in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot. After knocking on the door of the apartment to which I have come for a meeting, I find myself face to face with Rabbi Berel Lazar, and I feel intimidated. It isn’t often that I meet people who are friendly with Vladimir Putin. Rabbi Lazar welcomes me inside and immediately offers me a drink, putting me at ease. While Rabbi Lazar heads off to the kitchen, his father, Rabbi Moshe Lazar of Milan, enters the room. I stand up to greet him and we make some small talk. The Lazars are in Israel for a family simchah and have agreed to their first-ever joint interview.
“My mother had an uncle in America who was a director for Paramount Pictures,” Rabbi Moshe tells me. “At the last minute, right before the American Consulate in Vienna closed, my mother got in touch with him. He was a wealthy person, and he sent an affidavit sponsoring my father, mother and me. My sisters and brothers were already in England, having gone there on a Kindertransport.
“I’ll tell you how we ended up in Chabad. There was a wonderful Yid with real mesiras nefesh named Reb Shloime Unsdorfer, who was a Bobover chasid. He passed away not long ago. He was in London during the war, and he took care of many of the children who came there from Vienna. He was only a bachur at the time, and I have no idea how he did it, but he got a little house in the town of Staines, on the River Thames, and started a small yeshivah. In 1943, when my brother had an opportunity to go to America, Reb Shloime told him to go to a chasidishe yeshivah. How many chasidishe yeshivos were there at the time? Only one: Lubavitch, in Crown Heights. So my brother told my father that that’s where he wanted to go. My father thought he was crazy. Torah Vodaas was right around the corner. ‘You’re gonna schlepp to Crown Heights every day?’ he asked him. But my brother nudged my father until he gave in, and if my brother was already going, it only made sense for me to go too. So it’s all to the credit of Reb Shloime Unsdorfer.
“Children today are very fortunate to grow up with brothers and sisters and have friends. I had no one. When I came to America at the age of five in 1939, there were only two Jewish families on Clymer Street in Williamsburg. In those days only Italians lived there. As soon as they saw a yarmulke they’d beat us up.”
“What was it like in America in the 1940s?” I ask.
“One day, a man with a beard happened to pass me on the street. When he saw my yarmulke he gave me a pat on the head and walked on. I was shocked. Who had a beard in America in those days? That’s what it was like.
“When my brother and I started to travel to Crown Heights every day, we would often stay late to play ball in the yard of 770 Eastern Parkway. Today, there’s a big shul there, but back then it was a driveway. The Previous Rebbe would watch us from his window and smile. He was so happy to see Jewish children playing in his yard! One day, when I went to 770, I saw the same man with the beard who had patted me on the head. I ran inside to find out who he was. ‘Oh, that’s the Ramash, the Rebbe’s son-in-law,’ they said, which is what the Rebbe was called before he became Rebbe. He was a very private person. A lot of people didn’t know who he was. The Previous Rebbe’s other son-in-law, Rav Shmaryahu Gurary, known as the Rashag, was very well known because he ran the yeshivah.
“Back then, all the stores on Kingston Avenue were owned by Jews, but they were open on Shabbos. There was only one that was closed, and they’re still in business today—Mermelstein’s Caterers. For a long time there was only kosher chicken available but no meat. For bread, there was Chaim Gelb’s bakery on Division Street in Williamsburg. My father tried to be a mashgiach for milk, but it didn’t work out, so the only place he could find a job was in the Garment District. He worked as a pants presser. Nebach, in later years he had problems with his shoulders because of all the physical labor. My mother also had to go to work; every penny was something. Every day when I went to yeshivah my mother would hand me ten cents. I would give it to the driver of the trolley, and he would press a button on the floor to give me the change. The round trip fare was six cents, so I was left with four cents for myself. It’s hard to believe, but I was lucky. Some of my friends didn’t even have that, so I would sometimes buy them treats.”
“You were one of the first few shluchim, weren’t you?” I ask.
“Yes. We went out in 1960. I later found out that when Rav Gershon Mendel Garelik went to the Rebbe because they needed someone else to go to Milan, the Rebbe mentioned two names, one of which was mine. When the other person replied that he had to first ask his wife, the Rebbe said, ‘If he needs to ask his wife, find someone else!’ By then we had already written to the Rebbe asking to go on shlichus. I was running Camp Gan Yisrael as one of its founders. I was also the principal of Oholei Torah, but the Rebbe gave us his approval so we went.”
“How many other shluchim were there in those days?”
“Maybe a minyan,” he says with a shrug. “These days, when I go to the Kinus and see all the new faces, I don’t recognize anyone. That’s how much it’s grown.”
“And you?” I ask Rabbi Berel Lazar. “When did you move out on your own shlichus?”
“The first time I went to Russia was in 5748 . Then I moved there permanently after getting married in 5750 .”
“What was it like when you first got there?” I ask him.
“In those days, it was dangerous to meet during the day. Bachurim would come and spend two weeks in Moscow and two weeks in Leningrad (now S. Petersburg) teaching people. It was kind of like a yeshivah on wheels. These people had never learned in a yeshivah environment. We also met with refuseniks and some of the older chasidim. For those who were involved there was full-fledged Yiddishkeit. They had shechitah, they had brissim—they even used to ‘print’ sefarim, which meant taking pictures and then developing the negatives. There was a lot going on, but it was all underground. Everything was dangerous and people were very afraid.”
“What was your role in all this activity?”
“I was just a bachur who had come from America to teach the locals so they could eventually become rabbanim and run the community themselves. Nobody ever imagined that shluchim would be able to move to Russia. The way it worked was that you went as a tourist or an exchange student, and the Russians would give you a list of cities you were allowed to visit. We traveled around a lot and visited almost the entire former Soviet Union.”
“Did the Rebbe send you personally, or was it just something you volunteered to do?”
“There was an organization that used to pick certain bachurim and suggest that they go to Russia. Then you would have to write to the Rebbe, who would sometimes say yes and sometimes say no.”
“Did you speak any Russian at the time?” I ask.
“Not a word,” he says flatly.
“Were you worried about your son when he went to Russia?” I ask Rabbi Moshe.
“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t worried, but I wasn’t really worried. Because if the Rebbe had sent him, I was sure that nothing would happen,” he replies.
“Who paid for these trips?”
“An organization called Ezras Achim, which also made all the arrangements. It was very expensive, because we had to stay in hotels, since we were ‘tourists,’ and we paid a higher price for everything because we were foreigners.”
“Did Intourist send people to accompany you at all times?”
“They tried, but we used to sneak away. They offered us shows and tours, all different kinds of things, but we always managed to get around it. Sometimes we would inadvertently show up late or ‘sleep in’ or ‘get lost.’ There was always another reason why it didn’t work out, and they never managed to catch up with us. They knew exactly what was going on, and we knew that they knew, and they knew that we knew that they knew. It was just a game that was being played by all of us.”
“But this was already towards the end of communism,” I say.
“It was during glasnost, in Gorbachev’s times. He had just begun to talk about perestroika and opening things up a bit. I actually met him not too long ago, and he said, ‘Make sure that the Jews remember that I’m the one who opened the doors by giving permission for them to leave.’ I asked him why he had done that, considering that in the past he’s been quoted as saying that letting the Jews out was the biggest loss for Russia. He told me that he himself doesn’t understand why he decided to do it. He felt that the time had come for change, but looking back, it really didn’t make sense logically. My own personal belief is that it was a miracle. He did it because Hashem wanted it to happen.”
“When my wife and I told the Rebbe that we were ready to go to Russia, he said that I should first sit and learn in kollel for a year. While I was learning, we got many other offers. Some of them were very exciting b’gashmiyus, but we felt that we could really make a change in Russia. When the time came we went to Russia for a year. That was the shlichus the Rebbe gave us, just as he’d told my parents to go to Milan for a year—30 years earlier!”
“Yes, we also went for a year at first,” Rabbi Moshe says with a laugh.
“I’m assuming that there were other shluchim there as well,” I say to Rabbi Berel.
“No. We were the only ones.”
“And how old were you at the time?”
“That’s amazing. The Rebbe gave the whole of Russia to a 26-year-old!”
At that moment, an older woman walks into the room and says hello. “She’s a much better source of information than I am,” quips Rabbi Berel.
“Is this your mother?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“I’m sure she’s very proud of you,” I say.
“Baruch Hashem,” she replies. “We are.”
Rabbi Berel continues.
“When I originally went there, there were several things I was supposed to do. One was to be the rav of the Marina Roscha shul. This was very important. Years ago, there used to be a big shul in the center of Moscow on one of the city’s most prominent streets. Then the KGB announced that they were appropriating all the shuls and turning them into bakeries, factories and apartment buildings. When it came to closing down this central shul, the Yidden told the KGB that if they wanted it, they’d have to kill them first. They stood strong, and with great mesiras nefesh they managed to work out a deal in which the Jews of Moscow were given a piece of land on which they could build a new shul in the Marina Roscha neighborhood of Moscow. It was opened in 1927, and its inauguration was in newspapers all over the world. It was a relatively small wooden structure, but it was the only shul ever built under the Communists. The fact that the Jews had won this battle turned it into a real symbol of resistance. It was the only shul in the entire Soviet Union that wasn’t run by the KGB.
“The second thing I was supposed to do was work in the yeshivah. It was very small, and it was the only one that was sanctioned by the government. Many of the people who run the Jewish community in Russia today attended that yeshivah. The third was to take care of all the other cities in the Soviet Union, and the fourth was mivtza’im [mitzvah campaigns] and peulos [activities and events].
“When I first arrived, I thought I’d eventually be joined by a few more shluchim who would take up positions in other cities, but before long there were hundreds of them.”
“What do you think your biggest challenge was throughout the years?”
“There were many. One big one was when the original wooden Marina Roscha shul was burned down. In the 1990s there was a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda going around. There was a big politician who blamed all of Russia’s problems on the Jews, and conspiracy theories abounded about Jews trying to take over the world.
One night in 1993 I was awakened by a phone call informing me that the shul was burning. I ran right over and the flames were 60 feet high. I wanted to run inside and try to save the sifrei Torah, but the firemen told me that I was crazy. Miraculously, the aron kodesh and sifrei Torah survived, but the rest of the shul was destroyed.
People were terrified by what happened, but we realized that we needed to rebuild. If we didn’t, the anti-Semites would have had their way. We didn’t miss even one day of minyan. We either davened outside or in caravans. This was the symbol of our resistance. Eventually, we built a small building on that spot, which was later bombed twice. Thank G-d, nobody was hurt.
On one of these occasions we had had a gathering in the shul, and the last people left the building eight minutes before the bomb went off. Nobody was ever apprehended or prosecuted. The police and organized crime were working together, and nobody knew which was which. Jews were being attacked on the streets, and someone once came into the shul with a knife and tried to attack people. We tried to talk to the government, but there was no one to talk to. Those were hard times.”
“How many shluchim are there in Russia today?” I ask.
“In Russia there are over 200 families, and 400 in the former Soviet Union. Not every city has a shliach. If there’s a shliach in a big city, he’ll be in charge of all of the surrounding communities as well. So each shliach can really be responsible for between one and ten communities. But for Pesach and the Yomim Nora’im we send a rabbi to every community.”
“Here’s my question,” I say. “You started in Russia a little over 30 years ago when you were the only one. How do you account for such exponential growth? What caused the numbers to explode?”
“Nothing exploded. It’s not like we discovered America. Throughout all the years of communism there were chasidim in Russia who were keeping Yiddishkeit alive. Some of them were little kids in cheder, but when they grew up they retained their knowledge. These were the people who really kept Yiddishkeit alive with mesiras nefesh. Most Jews were afraid to come out and say that they were Jewish, or even to tell their kids. When we came, things started changing, and we realized that we had an opportunity to let the masses know.”
“When you were growing up, the Soviet Union was a real threat,” I say to Rabbi Moshe.
“Correct. The Rebbe always cried about ‘our brothers and sisters growing up behind that wall.’ He felt that something had to be done.”
“Could you have ever imagined that your son would be friends with the president of Russia?
“I grew up like a real American boy,” he says. “Something like this was beyond the imagination.”
Rebbetzin Lazar senior rejoins the conversation.
“Only the Rebbe could have imagined it. The Rebbe did imagine it,” she says.
“Many years ago,” says Rabbi Moshe, “the Rebbe was in the middle of a sichah when he suddenly began to speak in Russian, about how the Russian constitution affords it citizens freedom of religion. Thirty years later, a boy came over to my son Berel with a dilemma. He was finishing high school and needed to take a government-mandated test in order to go to university, but it was being given on Shavuos. What should he do? Remembering the sichah, Berel called the minister of education and told him about the problem. The minister said there was nothing he could do about it. So he called Putin and told him that he’d already spoken to the minister of education. Putin called him back a few minutes later and said he’d taken care of it. ‘Any student who attends synagogue on the holiday will be able to take the test the following Tuesday,’ he said.”
Rebbetzin Lazar adds that her son always looks to the Rebbe’s teachings for guidance.
“As parents, what makes you the proudest of your son Berel?”
“He always makes time for people, regardless of what he’s doing or what time of day it is,” says Rabbi Moshe.
“I think a lot of people find him likeable because he’s modest,” says Rebbetzin Lazar.
Rabbi Berel, who had left the room for a few minutes, walks back in at that moment.
“I just asked your parents what about you makes them most proud,” I tell him. “They said that you always make time for people and that you’re very modest. What makes you the most proud of them?” I ask.
“To go to Russia when I went was comparatively easy,” he says. “We knew that things were changing and there was lots of potential. But when my parents went on shlichus it was unheard of. No one believed it would succeed. Years ago, when someone left Yiddishkeit no one would talk to him, and the whole shitah was actually not to be mekarev him. When we came to Russia, the gates were already open.
“I’ll give you a small example. When I was a child, there were two boys who came to our house every single Shabbos for 15 years but never became any more observant. But years later, not only did they become frum but so did all their siblings! Everyone wants to be part of a success story, but there’s a lot of hard work and patience that goes into it. So when you ask me what makes me the most proud of my parents, it’s that they were just like Nachshon ben Aminadav. Once Nachshon jumped into the Yam Suf, it became easy for everyone else to follow. You cannot compare today’s shluchim to the shluchim of the early years, who had no idea what was going to happen,” he explains.
“How did you develop a close relationship with President Putin? Were you close to any of the earlier Russian leaders?” I ask.
“I’d met Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but I can’t say that I was close with them. They kept their distance. Whenever they helped us it was always done under the table, and they never wanted any pictures taken. There was a lot of anti-Semitism at the time, and it wasn’t going to earn them any support from the citizenry. They were afraid of being accused of being agents of the Mossad. I also can’t say that there were any major changes made either. Many promises were made, but when it came to taking action, things didn’t really materialize,” he says.
“At a certain point we had a conference of all the Jewish communities in Russia, and we decided that we wanted to meet with Yeltsin. So we sent in a request, but it was refused. Putin had just become the prime minister, so someone told us to try to get a meeting with him. When we called his office, they said, ‘Sure. When would you like to meet him?’ On short notice they said that we could come in a few hours. When we got there we expected things to be quiet, like all our official meetings in the past. But when we walked out of the meeting, the press was there. Cameras were flashing, and everyone wanted to know why the prime minister had met with us! It was the first time in many, many years that an official of the Russian government had met openly with a rabbi to discuss the future of the Jewish community. The very next day, Putin was already implementing some of the things we’d discussed. He made it clear to us that his goal was to change the whole attitude towards Jews and the Jewish community in Russia.”
“What year was this?” I ask.
“This was in 1999.”
“But what’s in it for Putin?” I press him. “The Russians have many interesting friends in the world, including Iran and Syria. Is he really a friend of the Jews?” I ask.
“I believe that you have to judge a person according to what he does, and he has done tremendous things for the Jewish community, fighting anti-Semitism, returning confiscated property, attending our events and helping to build institutions. He even donated a month of his salary towards the construction of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center because he couldn’t offer us government funds! This sent a strong message to many people—if the president was willing to contribute his money, they could also contribute theirs.”
“Is there a lot of anti-Semitism in Russia?”
“Today, bli ayin hara, it is almost non-existent.”
“After the war, Europe became more tolerant. A lot of Jews thought they could rebuild their lives there, but the trend is now in the opposite direction, as we see from Denmark, France and Sweden. Interestingly, Russia seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Do you think that Russia is the new place for Jews to feel safe?” I inquire.
“The only time I felt anti-Semitism in the past few years was when I visited Europe,” he replies.
“Many European Jews are leaving. Do you see the same phenomenon in Russia?” I ask.
“As a matter of fact I’m seeing the opposite trend. Many Jews who have left Russia are coming back, although a lot of people fly back and forth a lot. Have you ever visited Russia?” he asks me.
“I’ve been there, but only briefly,” I tell him.
“You should come again. You’ll see a beautiful, vibrant Yiddishkeit.”
“Do you see a future for Jews in Russia?”
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of potential for what the Jewish future of Russia can look like,” he says.
“From what I’ve gathered, you’ve built an edifice of Torah and chesed right in the middle of Moscow. How was that possible?”
“When a father and child are separated from each other for a long time, their reunion is spectacular. It’s the same with the Jews of Russia, who were forcibly separated from their roots. Now they’re making up for it,” he explains.
I now gear up for some tougher questions regarding Putin and the Russian government. Rabbi Lazar assures me with a smile that no question is off limits, and I should feel free to ask about anything and everything.
My first question is about meddling in the 2016 election and whether he thinks Russia played a hand in it.
“I believe that Trump and Putin would get along very well if they were the only ones in the room,” he replies, “but there are other forces trying to sow discord between them, and unfortunately they are succeeding. As for election meddling, I don’t know if anyone in Russia did or could do anything about the American elections, but all I can tell you is that I certainly didn’t do it!” he says with a smile.
My next question has to do with Chabad shluchim being kicked out of Russia. This has happened twice in the past few years, based on “charges of extremism.” I ask him why this is happening.
Rabbi Lazar doesn’t bat an eyelash. “These cases were very upsetting. I spoke to President Putin about them, and he was also shocked and said he would look into it. But we believe there are people in Russia’s intelligence community who are behind this, and they have said that it’s an issue of national security. Obviously, I believe that they’re mistaken. There is no threat from shluchim, especially foreigners,” he explains.
“Aren’t you a foreigner?” I ask.
“Yes, but I’m also a Russian citizen. You have to understand that this is something that could happen anywhere. If a government feels that someone residing in the country is a threat for whatever reason, be it security-related or political, they will throw the person out.”
“And Putin couldn’t help?” I ask.
“I believe he tried. But the people in the intelligence community probably made a compelling case, so he eventually chose not to continue fighting.”
“What about the sefarim in the Schneerson Library?” I ask, referring to the large number of volumes that have been stuck in Russia in a years-long custody battle.
“It has always been our position,” he responds, “that the sefarim belong to the chasidim of Chabad and should be returned to the library in New York, but the government feels that they are the property of the Russian people and doesn’t want them sent abroad. The sefarim are in our physical possession, as they are located in our library, but we are not the legal owners at this point. As long as the sefarim remain in Russia, we will care for them. The Americans don’t understand Putin or the Russian mentality. He will do whatever he feels he needs to do to protect Russian interests, regardless of what anyone says or thinks. Sanctions and confiscation of property won’t change his mind. Dialogue is the only thing that works,” he explains.
“Do you have Putin’s cell phone number?” I ask.
Rabbi Berel laughs. “I don’t think he owns a cell phone, but we know how to reach him if necessary.”
“Have you ever met Putin? I ask Rabbi Moshe.
“Many times,” he says.
“What do you think of him?”
“He’s a mentch. I remember when Europe imposed sanctions on Russia. Putin called my son and told him that he wanted to hold a ceremony commemorating a massacre that had taken place in Ukraine, but he wanted all of the chief rabbis of Europe to be there. We were led into the Kremlin and given the red carpet treatment. I remember a time when Yidden would tzitter when they heard the word. I was there with a friend who had escaped from Russia many years earlier, and he was literally trembling. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked him. ‘Moishe, do you know where we are?’ he asked rhetorically. Rabbi Lau was there along with many other rabbanim, and we all sat around a big table. President Putin asked each rabbi to say a few words. The speeches were really beautiful, and Putin listened to every word.
“When it was my turn I said, ‘Mr. President, I’d like to thank you for what you are doing for my family and my nation. Please teach the Russian people the Seven Noahide Commandments.’
“Putin is a chess master. Two regular people can finish a game in a half hour, but a champion can keep it going for weeks because he knows he’s going to win. Putin only plays if he knows he’s going to win. When he came to the inauguration of our center in Moscow, we could see that he’s an exceptional person. Whenever I told my mother, a”h, about something going on in the news she had only one question: ‘Iz es gut far di Yidden?’ Baruch Hashem, Putin is ‘gut far di Yidden.’”
“I don’t know if he’ll want you to publish this,” says Rebbetzin Lazar senior, “but our son always manages to find the right words to say to people. Whenever he gets on a plane, he walks up and down the aisles trying to find someone to put tefillin on, no matter how tired he is. We once went on a trip to Auschwitz with 1,000 children from Russia. Everyone else was busy with speeches and taking pictures, but he somehow found some people on the side who hadn’t yet put on tefillin. He’s great at fundraising too. We’re very proud of all our children. We have a daughter on shlichus in Hungary, another daughter in Minneapolis, a daughter in New Jersey, a son in Rome, a daughter in Milan and another daughter in Moscow. Our daughter in New Jersey is also active in the Russian community,” she says.
“It seems like there are a lot of Russian connections in your family. Do you speak Russian at all?” I ask.
“Nyet,” says Rabbi Moshe with a smile.
“It took us almost 60 years to learn Italian,” his wife quips.
“How did you cope with the Rebbe’s petirah?” I ask Rabbi Berel.
“Every chasid took it very hard. There isn’t a single chasid who can say he didn’t, for many different reasons. Nobody thought that such a thing could happen. We were all 100% sure that Moshiach would come way before that could happen. Also, the connection with the Rebbe was very strong. Any question we had, we could go to the Rebbe and get an answer. The Rebbe was with us every step of the way. So after Gimmel Tamuz the question became, how could we live with this idealism and way of life? Everything was centered around the Rebbe. It wasn’t just an idea; the Rebbe was pushing us to do everything we were doing. All of a sudden we didn’t know if the sun would rise the next day. Amazingly, not one shliach stopped doing his shlichus.
“Right after Gimmel Tamuz there was a documentary being filmed about chasidism in America. I was interviewed by the production team only two days after Gimmel Tamuz, and they asked me if I thought Chabad would stagnate and fall apart. I said I thought it would continue to thrive because of our shlichus, which gives a person a connection to the Rebbe. Now, 26 years later, I still believe it. The Rebbe left us with an incredible mission, and we feel the Rebbe’s presence every minute of the day. We are living with the Rebbe 24/7 by doing what he expects us to do.
“I actually managed to make it to New York in time for the Rebbe’s levayah. The following day there was a big meeting with all the shluchim from around the world, and we committed ourselves to continuing our work until we bring Moshiach. I don’t think that the thought ever crossed my mind to leave my shlichus. There was a fear that new shluchim wouldn’t go out because the Rebbe wouldn’t be sending them, but the exact opposite happened. We are now seeing young chasidim who never even saw the Rebbe going out on shlichus, and their desire to do so is stronger than ever.”
Coping with COVID:
The Lazars talk to Ami about their coronavirus experience
“How do you feel?” I ask Rabbi Berel Lazar, who has just recently returned home from the hospital after being infected with COVID-19.
“Baruch Hashem. Excellent! As soon as the virus hit the world, we here in Russia shut everything down. Shuls, schools, everything. That really saved us. Sadly, many people still got sick, but baruch Hashem, there wasn’t one person in our immediate community who passed away, although there were certainly some Yidden in Russia who did. We are still being very careful. I have no idea how it happened, but somehow the virus got to me. Baruch Hashem, it wasn’t such a serious case. For the first few days I was able to stay isolated at home, but eventually I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. I was hospitalized for a week. Even the doctors were shocked that I recovered so quickly. They had originally told me I’d have to stay for at least two weeks, but baruch Hashem, I’m fine.”
“Did you have any trouble breathing?”
“I wasn’t on a ventilator, but I was on an oxygen concentrator for a few days to help me breathe.”
“Do they allow family visits to COVID-19 patients in Russia?”
“No. They’re very strict. No one is allowed into the room. In fact, there isn’t even ventilation in the building because they’re afraid it might spread through the air. The hospital I went to has an amazing success record, and so far everyone who went in has come out alive. It’s one of the best hospitals in the country. Right now we have small minyanim in backyards, but official shuls aren’t open yet. Up to ten people are allowed to daven.”
“Milan was one of the epicenters of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak. Were you worried about your parents being there?”
“Of course. In the beginning it was very, very worrisome for all of us children and grandchildren, especially since no one knew what was really going on in Italy. The news was reporting crazy things, and we heard that the medical system was collapsing. We tried to send medicine just in case they needed it, but baruch Hashem, they remained healthy throughout this whole period. Chasdei Hashem.”
“What was your experience in Italy during the pandemic?” I ask Rabbi Moshe Lazar.
“Nothing happened,” he says. “We were stuck at home. That’s all. Once upon a time if you went away from home you’d get homesick. These days, homesick means that you’re sick of being at home.”
“How did the Jewish community fare in Italy?”
“We had to shut everything down for a long time, but baruch Hashem, the casualties were very low. Things are just starting to open up again, and we went to shul this past Shabbos for the first time in months. The shuls are open, but with social distancing. We’re slowly getting back to normal.”
Then Rebbetzin Lazar gets on the phone. “My husband takes everything in stride. I’ll give you more details than he will,” she says with a laugh. “In the beginning, Italy was very badly affected while most other places were okay. Our children all over the world begged us to come stay with them, anywhere just to get away from Italy. But my husband didn’t want to leave because the shuls were still running. Once the lockdown started, he sat in his library and started learning from his huge collection of sefarim. He was really enjoying himself. Then he embraced technology and started teaching the girls in our seminary via Zoom. On Fridays he gave a shiur to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren on the parshah. Even my daughters who are already in their 50s, ka”h, watched them and were spellbound. They had never spent so much time learning with their father, because he was always so busy with the community. We now have a very big audience. My husband is teaching on Facebook, which is something I could have never imagined. There have been many negative aspects to the coronavirus, but there have also been many positive ones. A lot of people became more frum. I’ll let my husband tell you about that.”
Rabbi Moshe Lazar gets back on the phone.
“Today, everyone is starting to believe that there’s a Creator, that Somebody is running the show. In the past, when I spoke to people about taking on more mitzvos, they would sometimes give me a hard time. These days, they don’t need any convincing. We are all seeing the yad Hashem.”
“Were you worried about your son when he contracted COVID-19?”
Rebbetzin Lazar responds. “Oh yes, and how! He went into the hospital on Thursday night, but he didn’t tell us, of course. They tried to keep it a secret, but somehow the word got out. On Motzaei Shabbos he called to tell me that I should know about it, because it would probably be in the news. He also told me not to worry and that it was a mild case, but then they put him on many different kinds of medication. Baruch Hashem, it didn’t last long, and he was soon released from the hospital, but believe me, every minute was very, very scary for me!”
For the Sake of Peace
Rabbi Berel Lazar talks about his new project to eliminate machlokes in klal Yisrael
On 2 Iyar there was an international farbrengen attended by shluchim from around the world. It was held on Zoom and lasted for approximately 12 hours. The trigger for that farbrengen was the fact that Yidden were dying in extremely high numbers, including the young shliach of Hanover, Germany, Rabbi Binyamin Wolff, z”l. Whenever you hear of a tragedy, you always think what can we do? The natural response is usually related to achdus. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s also the biggest source of brachah. It’s the alef-beis of the Torah. When we see such a great tragedy, it reminds us of the Churban and galus, and we understand that this is caused by sinas chinam.
I was asked to speak at this farbrengen, and although it had failed in the past, I knew that we had to make it happen. We needed to tear down all the walls and internalize the fact that achdus is much greater than anything else. We have to be moser nefesh to bring achdus. Who’s right or wrong doesn’t make a difference; we have to get past that. People were literally dying. If we weren’t going to stop the gezeirah there and then, who knew what would happen next?
The farbrengen had a very powerful effect. I know of many cases where there were conflicts within families and institutions that had been going on for many years, and baruch Hashem, many of these issues were resolved. It wasn’t just in Chabad; there were others who decided to take action as well. It was a shaas hakosher—a real eis ratzon. Hashem gave us special kochos to reach above ourselves and connect with others with whom in the past it would have been impossible.
That night, phone calls were made that changed the lives of many people. The most amazing thing was that within a few hours the coronavirus situation started to change, the death rates went down, and many people were released from the hospitals. After that, particularly in the Chabad community, the situation really started to reverse itself. We saw incredible brachos immediately.
I’m still very passionate about it, and I continue to push for peace in many different places. What people need to understand is that what is gained from achdus is a million times better than what could be won in a machlokes. At the end of the day, nothing good ever comes out of machlokes, but with achdus it’s exactly the opposite. Historically, all of the machlokes in klal Yisrael brought us nothing good.
There are differences of opinions, and there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s how the Eibershter created the world—but having a difference of opinion doesn’t mean that you have to hate someone who differs from you. Love each other and care for each other, and this will bring the solution.”
“What do you think the Rebbe would tell us about coronavirus?” I ask.
“I don’t know what the Rebbe would say, but I can tell you one thing. I just went through the experience of having coronavirus, and I’m sure many other people who have had it can tell you the same thing. It’s a crazy kind of sickness. It’s not just like a stomach ache or a headache; this virus affects the whole body. Everything feels shot; it’s like the whole system goes crazy. You feel like no part of you was untouched. It feels like the body and neshamah have been disconnected.
I thought that this tells us how important achdus is. Ahavas Yisrael is a klal gadol baTorah; it has an effect on every part of our lives. It’s not like tefillin or giving tzedakah. Ahavas Yisrael is your whole entity, but if that is missing, everything is missing. Ahavas Yisrael connects us with am Yisrael, and through that with Hashem. That’s achdus.
We also saw that this virus has separated many people from each other. Shuls were closed and communities stopped functioning. This is what the virus has done. The only way to fight it is if we come together once again. We felt it as a community, and we went out of our way to give humanitarian help to whoever needed it, making sure that everyone feels that they are part of the community. I think that the coronavirus pulled us apart, and now our job is to come together once again. I’m sure we’ll see lots of brachah as a result of that.”