The Rabbinate of Yekatrinoslav

Not long after, my husband was offered the position of Rav of Yekatrinoslav, to succeed Reb Bere-Volf [Kozevnikov].1

The city, at the time, was an important center of Jewish life. This was my husband’s first candidacy for such a position and, since he was still a young man, the process was, in many respects, not at all straightforward.

The Zionists were very powerful and highly organized in Yekatrinoslav; M. Ussishkin2 had lived there until shortly before that time.

During that period, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, had issued a letter3 in opposition to Zionism, which was widely circulated and to which the Zionists reacted with great rage. On learning that one of his Chasidim was the candidate to become their city’s Rav, they immediately called a meeting at which it was decided to block his appointment.

It was then that my husband’s difficult path through life began.

Employment interview with Ussishkin’s father-in-law

Ussishkin’s father-in-law,4 Sergei Pavlov Fallei, was also one of the city’s most respected members of the Zionist movement. His father,5 however, had been a Chasidic Jew from Lithuania, a wealthy man, who had given his son a religious education. Sergei was highly intelligent and, although far from being G‑d-fearing, was very Torah learned and retained his love and respect for traditional Jewish scholarship.

מנחם אוסישקין
מנחם אוסישקין

Following the meeting at which the Zionists resolved to oppose Schneerson’s candidacy, Fallei told the Chasidic “side”—which had proposed his candidacy—that he wished to meet the young Rabbi. An evening meeting was arranged with several prominent lay members of the community attending as well.

After spending time together in conversation, the others left the two of them, Schneerson and Fallei, alone.

Fallei was a trained engineer, having studied engineering after his marriage. Due to his outstanding aptitude, he was the sole Jewish student accepted at the university where he studied, which normally barred Jews. Later he designed the bridge across the Dnieper River,6 one of the largest bridges in Russia.

Considering the Yekatrinoslav rabbinate to be an issue of great interest to many Orthodox and Chasidic communities, Fallei was eager to get to know the candidate. If he would find him to possess the qualities and virtues that, in his opinion, befitted the Rav of such a community, he would work with all his might to get him appointed.

Accordingly, the meeting had the nature of a gathering until 9:00 o’clock p.m. Then, however, it became more like an examination.

Falei addressed three questions to Schneerson; two of them I remember with very distinctly:

1) What did Chasidism accomplish, and why are Kabbalah and Chasidut necessary? 2) On the subject of assimilation. The third, if I recall correctly, concerned emunah, belief.

Schneerson’s responses lasted from 9:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m.

Following the meeting, Fallei called a group of acquaintances and urged them to form an “army,” which he would lead, to fight for this candidate’s appointment as Rav. Having come to know him, he said, nothing should stop Schneerson’s appointment, whatever the cost: “Such a towering personality shouldn’t be allowed to go elsewhere.”

Fallei leaves the party

At its own meeting, however, the Zionist party had decided to oppose my husband’s candidature. Accordingly, if Fallei remained a party member, he could not participate in advancing my husband’s appointment. He therefore formally handed in his withdrawal from the party in order to remain free to work on the issue of the rabbinate as he found fit.

The Zionists tried all means at their disposal not to accept his resignation. Fallei, in his own right, was a tremendous loss for them, besides the fact that he was Ussishkin’s father-in-law (although, as even Ussishkin agreed, Fallei was a far greater personality than he).

In any case, a dispute broke out in the city’s Jewish community, with parties and families who previously had lived amicably becoming mutual enemies, divided by their opinions on the issue, for or against the candidate for Rav.

Fallei—although non-religious in his outlook and far from the Orthodox Jewish way of life—zealously threw himself into this campaign.

This all happened in 1908, when many parties existed in the Jewish community—not as now when only a single Communist party exists. Each of these parties had delegates on the central Jewish community council, and they all advanced the opinions of those they represented.

The less religious delegates constituted a majority on the council, and the wealthier and poorer classes were also represented. All were intensely interested in this issue.