Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar lit Chanuka candles for inmates at Russia’s oldest prison, where many Chasidim had been incarcerated there for the crime of teaching Torah.
Photos: Butirsky Prison Staff
On Thursday afternoon the Chief Prison Warden and the Prison Director were waiting at the main entrance to the “Butirsky Prison” for Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar who was invited to light the Chanuka candles and bring the holiday joy to the Jewish inmates. This prison was built about 250 years ago and is the worlds’ longest functioning prison without interruption.
There were many difficult years when great Chasidim were held there for spreading Torah and Yiddishkeit in Soviet Russia. Amongst the more notable ones are the holy brothers Reb Shmuel Abba and Reb Pinchas Shapiro O.B.M, who continued the holy work of their father Reb Moshe, son of the Tzadik Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz. They printed many Jewish books in Slavita, and after bitter libels, they were imprisoned and held for some time in the Butirsky Prison in Moscow.
About a half hour before sunset, all the Jewish inmates gathered in the prison’s shul which has been fully functioning for the last 10 years. After Krias HaTorah, davening mincha, and tefillin with each one, the official ceremony began. The Chief Rabbi spoke about the connection with this week’s parsha where we read about the incarceration of Yosef HaTzadik, where specifically from such a lowly place he rose so high until he was able to save his brothers and all of Egypt. This was a direct result of the personal attention that he gave to his fellow prisoners, helping them in whatever they needed. Rabbi Lazar called upon each and every one to add light and assist each other in whatever they can, being a shining example for others. He also thanked the prison administration for allowing the inmates to light their Chanuka candles in their cells each night of Chanuka, and for their support and assistance in fulfilling mitzvos and keeping Jewish holidays.
Along with Army Chaplain Rabbi Ahron Gurevitch, who arranged the event, Reb Shlomo Dishko and Reb Yitzchak Zilberg were called up to receive a certificate of appreciation from the prison administration for their weekly visits to the inmates to help them with Tefillin and Torah classes.
After lighting the candles and enthusiastic singing and dancing, the inmates emotionally thanked their esteemed guest for his uplifting words to each of them before parting. The Rabbi was then invited into the office of the Chief Warden who showed him the various wings of the prison which holds 3000 inmates, and warmly thanked him in the name of the entire prison staff for his encouragement of the Jewish prisoners throughout the year.