In my ongoing research on the ancestry of my family, certain cities and individuals inspire days of reading before I return to the main focus of my genealogy. Between the Russian Revolution and the outbreak of World War II, the Kadinsky family lived in Gomel, Belarus, known in Yiddish and Belarusian as Homel. During this period, religious observance in my family had gradually lapsed, but in this city there were two notable rabbis who stared down the communists, and I’ve wondered whether my ancestors had any interactions with them.
Rabbi Elchonon Shagalow was a Lubavitcher chasid who was the last practicing mohel in Gomel, performing the mitzvah of bris milah on hundreds of Jewish boys until his arrest and execution in 1937. His widow and children survived and later immigrated to America. Among his descendants are numerous Chabad shluchim. If my grandfather and his cousins were circumcised, was he their mohel?
Then there was Rabbi Raphael Mordechai Barishansky, who is buried in Queens, at Mount Carmel Cemetery. His life path intersected with many important moments and movements in Jewish history. A tour of kivrei tzadikim buried in New York should include his resting place.
Rabbi Barishansky was born in Lithuania and received his s’michah from Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the namesake of the YU rabbinical seminary. After his wedding, he lived in Bialystok, where he learned with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, president of the Hovevei Zion in which he was the leading voice of religious Zionism.
Influenced by his mentor, Rabbi Barishansky joined this movement and organized its followers in Gomel. At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, the proposal for a temporary Zion in Uganda was adopted in a deeply divided meeting. Rabbi Barishansky led the Russian Jewish delegation in a walkout, arguing that this plan betrayed the goals of Zionism. “These people have a rope around their necks, but they still refuse,” Theodor Herzl commented. The plan was subsequently abandoned.
In 1912, Rabbi Barishansky wrote a rebuttal to Rabbi Solomon Breuer of Frankfurt who spoke harshly against Zionism at the founding convention of Agudath Israel. Within that decade, a more serious threat to religious life emerged from the ruins of the Russian Empire.
The imposition of Soviet rule resulted in an exodus of prominent yeshivos and their distinguished roshei yeshivah to relatively more tolerant lands. They recognized the danger facing Jewish continuity and the impossibility of maintaining a Torah-observant lifestyle under this new regime. But there were also great rabbis who stayed behind the Iron Curtain, refusing to abandon their communities. The communists pursued atheism by gradual means. Their main target was not the synagogue, which they associated with elderly worshippers who would die out anyway, but yeshivos, cheders, and other forms of private education.
In 1922, the government forbade private religious instruction to children under age 18. To give this decree a democratic veneer, conferences of workers were organized where communities “voted” to shut down yeshivos and other religious institutions. In Gomel, Rabbi Barishansky was ordered to appear at a forum organized by the Yevsektzia, Jewish communists who were more hostile towards Judaism than the gentile anti-Semites of their time. After a vote of 265 to 3 in favor of closing all cheders, Rabbi Barishansky boldly walked out. “You are successful only within these four walls, but there are still other walls where we are successful!”
Two years earlier, he already earned his status as an “enemy of the people” when a Komsomol band played the Internationale outside his synagogue on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Barishansky and his congregants chased away these provocateurs. This time, he visited each of Gomel’s 22 remaining synagogues to organize a defense of Jewish education.
That earlier confrontation on Labor Square was eclipsed on Erev Shabbos, June 23, 1923, when the Yevsektzia sponsored a public forum under the question, “Should the cheders be closed?”
Its title being an ostensive open question rather than a foregone conclusion, Rabbi Barishansky encouraged religious Jews to attend and demonstrate people power. The organizers were jeered and then Rabbi Barishansky rose to speak. “The closure of the cheders is a violation of religious beliefs and contradicts the freedom of religious belief declared by the Soviet government. This is an act directed against the entire Jewish people! For a thousand years, Jews have not experienced such oppression as the last four years of Soviet power! If I am arrested, you will be arrested with me!”
The organizers were chased out of the theater as their papers were torn up by the crowd. Rabbi Barishansky was arrested two days later for counter-revolutionary activities, promoting beis din as an alternative to state courts, and having ties to foreign organizations. He was given 15 minutes to make his closing remarks. “It is not I and Jewishness that are finished. It is you,” he said when told to wrap up. “The Jew and his Jewishness will outlive even your government as it has outlived all governments down through the ages.”
At the time of his trial, the Soviet Union was a young country desperate for international support, maintaining a thin mask of due process and democracy. Its leaders found it more useful to have Rabbi Barishansky deported rather than killed. His absence in Belarus made it easier for authorities to continue their anti-religious campaign.
In America, he served as a pulpit rabbi in Washington, Philadelphia, and the Bronx. He continued to write articles in support of Zionism, paskened on matters of kashrus, and participated in the rabbinic march on Washington in 1943 to pressure President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ease immigration quotas during the Holocaust. He died in 1950.
I am not sure if I will determine conclusively whether my great-grandparents were among the supporters, opponents, or passive bystanders during that showdown in 1923, but nearly a century later, I consider myself a descendant of Rabbi Barishansky’s community, geographically and spiritually.
By Sergey Kadinsky