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Committee of Rabbis in the USSR

Clandestine Jewish religious organization in the Soviet Union, 1922–1930. The Committee of Rabbis was founded by the Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson (1880–1950), who was its chairman until his departure from the USSR in October 1927. The Committee was subsequently led by Rabbi Ya‘akov Klemes of Moscow (1880–1953) and the organization’s secretary, Rabbi Shelomoh Yosef Zevin (1890–1978).

The Committee of Rabbis was a support agency for Jewish religious life and education in the Soviet Union. It maintained a headquarters whose staff corresponded with local religious communities, and it employed undercover traveling emissaries who sought to inspire Jews to observe Judaism and also reported to headquarters on Jewish religious life in the field.

During the first year of its existence, the Committee of Rabbis worked to secure and protect the legal status of private Jewish religious instruction. In 1923, it obtained an opinion from the Central Legal Consultation Office of the Soviet Bar Association that private instruction of religion to groups of five to six children, at home, was permitted by Soviet law. The Committee then distributed hundreds of notarized copies of this opinion to rabbis and melamdim in the Soviet Union, which served as a basis for their legal defense if they ran afoul of the authorities. In the same year, the Committee of Rabbis organized petitions with 5,000 signatures, which were submitted to Lev Kamenev, president of the Vsesoyuznii Tsentralnii Ispolnitelnii Komitet (All-Union Executive Committee; VTsIK), protesting the persecution of Jewish religious teachers.

In 1924, the Committee of Rabbis began to receive clandestine funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and, to a lesser extent, from the Alliance Israélite Universelle. At the peak of this relationship, in 1927, the Committee of Rabbis received $25,000 in JDC funding for “cultural work,” and Shneerson and other leaders of the Committee met with the JDC’s chairman, Felix Warburg, during his visit to the Soviet Union. The Committee of Rabbis allocated most of these funds to underground yeshivas and heders. In 1928, the Committee supported 12 yeshivas, with a total of 620 students, and heders in 22 different cities and towns, with a combined enrollment of 4,200 children. Between 1925 and 1929, it sponsored the Bet Yosef Seminary for Rabbis and Ritual Slaughterers in Nevel, which trained Jewish religious professionals and found positions for them.

Besides defending and financing Jewish religious education, the Committee of Rabbis allocated funds for other activities, including repairing and constructing synagogues and mikvehs, providing material aid to Jews unemployed because of their Sabbath observance, and distributing Passover relief for the purchase of Passover foods. It also distributed light machinery to religious Jews, so that they could work as home-based craftsmen (kustary) or organize in crafts’ workshops (artels)—forms of employment that enabled them to refrain from work on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Finally, the Committee of Rabbis supported special projects, such as a siddur published in 1926 (the only siddur published legally in the USSR until the 1950s), and a clandestine organization for Jewish religious youth called Tif’eret Baḥurim. In nearly all instances, the Committee’s funds were disbursed by Shneerson to local rabbis, who were responsible for the expenditures.

Shneerson’s dominant leadership of the Committee of Rabbis generated criticism, and aroused periodic complaints among member rabbis that the organization’s funds went overwhelmingly to support Lubavitch Hasidic institutions. The rabbis of certain major communities (Leningrad, Odessa, and for a time, Minsk) did not belong to the Committee of Rabbis, and received JDC funding independently.

Shneerson was arrested by the Soviet authorities in May 1927, and was allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Riga, Latvia, in October. He remained in close contact with the secretary of the Committee of Rabbis, Shelomoh Zevin, and represented the organization’s interests to the JDC in New York.

The Committee of Rabbis began to encounter serious difficulties in 1929, when a number of its clandestine yeshivas (including the Nevel Seminary), were discovered and closed, and their deans arrested. The Committee’s rabbinic network was broken in 1930, when a major government campaign was launched against religious functionaries, causing many of its members to be arrested, or to resign from their posts.

In February 1930, Rabbi Menaḥem Gluskin of Minsk, a leading member of the Committee of Rabbis, was arrested, along with 13 other local Jewish religious functionaries, and charged with counterrevolutionary activity for corresponding with foreign Jewish associations and transferring information overseas. While the Minsk group was subsequently released, the discovery and seizure by the Soviet security apparatus of documents on the relationship between the Committee of Rabbis and the JDC had a chilling effect on the leaders of both organizations. Shortly thereafter, the JDC discontinued disbursements for religious purposes, and the Committee of Rabbis ceased to function as an organization. Rabbis Klemes and Zevin left for Palestine in the early 1930s.

Suggested Reading

David E. Fishman, “Preserving Tradition in the Land of Revolution: The Religious Leadership of Soviet Jewry, 1917–1930,” in The Uses of Tradition, ed. Jack Wertheimer, pp. 85–118 (New York and Cambridge, Mass., 1992); David E. Fishman, “Judaism in the USSR, 1917–1930: The Fate of Religious Education,” in Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union, ed. Yaacov Ro’i, pp. 251–262 (Ilford, Eng., 1995); Shalom Dober Levin, Toldot Ḥabad be-Rusyah ha-Sovyetit, ba-shanim 678–710 (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1989).