Jews of the Ba’al Shem Tov

Tuesday, 23 September, 2014 - 6:24 am


Before I wish you a good year, I would like to tell you about a Rosh Hashana that I spent with “Jews of the Ba’al Shem Tov.”

At the end of the year 5757 (September, 1997), I was helping my brother, Rabbi Pinchas Wishedski, in the city of Donetsk, together with my good friend Shlomi Bistritzky (Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky, rabbi of Hamburg).

Before Rosh Hashana, we decided to go searching for our roots in the town of Lubavitch in Russia. The Shabbat before Rosh Hashana we spent in Moscow, and after Shabbos was out we traveled to Lubavitch.

On our way back to Donetsk, going through Moscow, we chanced to go by the office of Rabbi David Mondshine, the director of the Ohr Avner Chabad Organization in Russia. Even before greeting us, he informed us that we are going to Vladimir for Rosh Hashana… “What is Vladimir?” we asked him. “Vladimir is a city of about 350,000 people, about 200 km east of Moscow. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they called and asked that we send them a Rabbi ‘who will make the holiday for us’,” answered Mondshine.

We didn’t resist much. Rabbi Mondshein gave us a box containing Talitot, Machzorim, a Shofar, readymade salads from the “Miki” company, a package of matzos and two cans of gefilte fish (don’t try this at home). We wanted to take a Sefer Torah with us as well, but the lady in charge of the community informed us that they have a Sefer Torah.

When we arrived there, we found a small group of Jews, most of them elderly; some of them still understood a bit of Yiddish. We announced the time for the morning services, invited them to come and hear the blowing of the Shofar, and even invited them to come for Tashlich.

They came. Not all of them, but some of them. The lady with the Sefer Torah arrived too. I remember our excitement when we saw her marching through the streets towards our hotel, a big suitcase in hand. But, more than that, I remember her opening the bag happily and taking out of it… ten Chumashim with Russian translation. Apparently, that’s what she meant when she said that they have a Sefer Torah…

We were disappointed, but not much, for we didn’t have a Minyan – the required ten men; only 9.

Rather quickly, we pulled ourselves together and began to daven with our Jews. We explained to them what Jewish prayer is, and what Rosh Hashana is, what is Shacharit, and what is Mussaf, and why the Teki’ah and why the Shvarim. And these Jews, who were the age of our grandparents, sat, the tears streaming down their cheeks. Sometimes they sat quietly, meditating; sometimes they extracted from their memories a long-lost sad Jewish tune; and every once in a while they would hug us lovingly, longing for something they never knew/

I call them “The Jews of the Ba’al Shem Tov.” Simple Jews, who didn’t know what davening was, but their overflowing hearts called out “Our Father, Our King, please accept our prayers with mercy and favor.” They had never seen a Shofar, but the Shvarim (fragments) of their pure hearts produced Teki’ahs  (the simple sounds) and Teru’ahs (the broken sounds) that rent the heavens.

More than anything else, I remember our leaving the place. They all showed up at the train station. “Please thank the Rabbi from America who sent you to us,” they said, as they cried. We, too, cried.

Since then, every year I wish myself that I will manage to pray on Rosh Hashana as we prayed there in Vladimir, without a Minyan and without a Sefer Torah. I wish this to you too.

From a happy and loving heart, I wish each and every one of you a Ktiva Vechatima Tova – to be inscribed in the Book of Life – a good and sweet year, a year of prosperity and good health, a year of Nachas from the children and the grandchildren; a year in which the Mashiach will come and take us out of the exile, bringing us the true and complete Redemption.


Sincerely yours,


Zalmen Wishedski

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