In the decade before Communism fell in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe, when Jewish education was forbidden, a group of like-minded members of the Orthodox communities in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel quietly began bringing Yiddishkeit to the Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Shlichim sent by the loose networks of Torah activists would clandestinely meet with Jews who took the risk to learn about their heritage.
One outgrowth of the activities of these visitors is what is now known as the Shema Yisrael Network, an umbrella organization that includes forty-five projects in the former Soviet Union (including Ukraine) and Eastern Europe. Shema Yisrael’s activities, usually administered outside of public view, are conducted throughout the region (largely in coordination with Chabad) and remain among the major contributors to the growth of Torah observance in the former Communist countries.
Since Russia’s war in Ukraine started a year ago, Shema Yisrael has assisted in the rescue and resettlement of members of the Jewish community. For those who remain in Ukraine, Shema Yisrael and the Vaad Hatzalah—with significant assistance from the OU and Chabad—continue to provide such lifesaving items as generators, food and clothing.
The organization’s low-key style was the path followed by the late Albert Reichmann, z”l, of the famed Reichmann family of real estate developers, a philanthropist who served as Shema Yisrael’s founding chairman and one of its major financial supporters and philosophical guides.
Reichmann, a Vienna-born Toronto resident and Holocaust refugee, who passed away at the age of ninety-three this past December, was a self-effacing man who agreed to media interviews almost exclusively when publicity promoted Jewish interests, says Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel, executive director of the Jewish Education Program outreach organization in Toronto and executive director of Shema Yisrael. Similarly, he says, the leaders of Shema Yisrael do not seek publicity. “The people who need to know about it know.”
Rabbi Mandel, who took part in a kiruv mission to three Soviet cities about forty years ago and found his time there to be a “transformative experience,” says Reichmann played an active role in assisting Ukrainian Jewry by visiting Ukraine and other former Communist countries several times.
Reichmann used his business and political connections to lobby on behalf of Jews throughout the Soviet Empire, leveraging his influence with world figures on behalf of unknown Jews.
As chairman of the Canada-Russia Trade Commission, Reichmann would bring the plight of refuseniks, those denied emigration permits, to the attention of Russian authorities; he was acting as the public face of the “Jews of Silence” (as coined by Elie Wiesel in his 1966 book). Reichmann posed for photos with refuseniks, ensured that an endangered Moscow yeshivah could remain open, obtained permission for synagogues to be refurbished and mikvaot to be constructed and arranged for flour for matzah to be sent and for matzah bakeries to be built.
According to a recent article in the Yated Ne’eman, “there are over 10,000 Jewish children enrolled in Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union” that were established because of the influence of Shema Yisrael and its partners in Chabad and ORT. Reichmann’s son Efraim and his siblings “continue to assist the vast network of Shema Yisrael schools that were founded over the years.”
How effective has the work of Shema Yisrael been?
Over the decades, Rabbi Mandel estimates, the organization’s stream of rabbis and other volunteer educators in Ukraine have touched the lives of “thousands” of Ukrainian Jews. “I don’t have an exact count. No one counted, but every individual indeed ‘counts.’”
A more important question, the rabbi says, is “How much work is left to do there?”
Many Jews of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, deprived of unfettered Jewish education opportunities during seven decades of Communist rule, still require Shema Yisrael’s remedial activities, he says. “We want every Yid [there] to have the opportunity to come back to Yiddishkeit. We have work to do.”
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.