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Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva

Rabbinical seminary, opened in Moscow in 1957. The last yeshivas in the Soviet Union had been closed in the 1920s. Subsequently, at the end of World War II Jews had not been allowed to open a seminary, whereas other religious groups were permitted to do so. Realizing the declining status of Jewish learning and its implications for the future of the rabbinate—and of Judaism as a whole—in the Soviet Union, which would remain without Jewish religious functionaries of any kind, Rabbi Solomon Shlifer (unofficially acknowledged as chief rabbi of Soviet Jewry) persistently requested the authorities to endorse the establishment of a Jewish theological seminary. Eventually, in May 1956 permission was granted, and in January 1957 the Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva began operating on the precincts of the Moscow Choral Synagogue with Shlifer as first rector.

Its opening had been preceded by careful preparation. Shlifer had received permission to request books from abroad (from the United States and Israel), as the Choral Synagogue lacked a suitable library. He was able to raise money through the sale of the Sidur ha-shalom (Peace Prayer Book), which appeared almost simultaneously with the opening of the yeshiva. More than 2,200 copies were sent to Jewish communities throughout the USSR, whom Shlifer expected to fund and maintain the institution. Shlifer was also allowed to construct an eating facility on the precincts of the Choral Synagogue, where students, teachers, and other staff could obtain kosher food.

The curriculum was not traditional for a yeshiva, but rather was drawn up in light of the special circumstances of the times and the general ignorance of Jewish studies among prospective students. It included the study of Hebrew, courses for training religious functionaries other than rabbis, and political studies mandated by the Soviet regime. The dearth of teachers posed a major obstacle. The original staff was made up of Rabbis Shlifer and Yehudah Leib Levin; Ḥayim Katz (1882–1966), who had served as rabbi in Melitopol’, Ukraine, until 1939; and Mordekhai Hanzin, secretary of the Moscow Jewish community, who taught Hebrew and Bible. Later Levin also brought in Shim‘on Trebnik (1891–1961), who served as administrator, and three other teachers.

Most problematic of all was the selection of the student body, for manifestly not many would wish to besmirch their names and jeopardize their careers by being associated with a Jewish religious seminary. Shlifer dispatched letters to the country’s remaining functioning communities, asking them to find suitable applicants. His criteria—that candidates be genuine in their willingness to study in the yeshiva, to maintain an Orthodox way of life, and to devote their lives to serving their communities—were diametrically opposed to those of the authorities, who had the final say. All teachers and students had to be vetted by the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults, presumably a cover for the KGB. As a result of this screening, most candidates from outside Moscow were disqualified, and the majority of those allowed to study in the yeshiva came from the more distant periphery. A disproportionately large number came from Georgia, the authorities consenting to their studies on condition that upon completing them they minister solely to communities in that region.

The Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva opened with 10 students and its numbers never exceeded 20, although officially permission had been given to teach a student body of 30. From time to time, there would be problems with obtaining the requisite right to reside in Moscow: in 1962 alone, nine students were prevented from returning there after the summer break. A year previously, most of the faculty had resigned as a result of heavy taxation imposed on them; the kosher facility, too, had been shut down.

Most of the students who actually completed the course of studies were not ordained as rabbis, but were authorized to function as shoḥetim (ritual slaughterers) and mohelim (ritual circumcisers)—that is, to fulfill the practical, rather than the spiritual, needs of their various communities. The reason for this trend was presumably that the level of the students’ knowledge of Jewish law when they entered the yeshiva was generally limited, and there was no way they could complement this lack sufficiently in the five years they were supposed to study.

The Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva was never officially closed down, but as its teaching staff and student body diminished, it gradually stopped functioning. By late 1962, there were only five students, and in 1966 Levin told a visitor that the facility was no longer operating. In the 1970s, a small number of candidates for the rabbinate in the Soviet Union were allowed to study at the Budapest rabbinical seminary.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Altshuler, “Ten Years of the Yeshiva in Soviet Moscow, 1955–1965,” Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe 1 [50] (Summer 2003): 33–60; Avraham Greenbaum, “The Moscow Yeshiva,” Jews and Jewish Topics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 9 (Summer 1989): 35–39; ‘Imanu’el Mikhlin, Ha-Gaḥelet (Jerusalem, 1986), pp. 165–180.