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Shlifer, Solomon Mikhailovich

(1890–1957), rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue. Born in Smila, Kiev province (now Smela, Cherkassy province), Solomon (Shelomoh) Shlifer worked as a rabbi in Aleksandria, later Aleksandrovka (Kherson province), from 1913 to 1922. He then moved to Moscow, where he became secretary to the city rabbinate and served as a dayan (rabbinic judge) until the Moscow rabbinic court was liquidated at the end of the 1920s. From then until 1943 Shlifer worked as a bookkeeper.

In 1943, Shlifer was appointed rabbi of Moscow’s main religious institution, the Choral Synagogue; his official title was rabbi of the Moscow Jewish religious community. In 1946, he also took on the presidency of the community, retaining both of these posts until his death. The city had not had an official rabbinic post since the arrest in 1937 of Shemaryahu Yosef Leib Medal’e.

Because Soviet Jewry had no central institutions, it also lacked a chief rabbi, yet to an extent Shlifer, given the prestige and visibility of his position, filled that role de facto. Jewish communities throughout the Soviet Union approached him to intercede on their behalf with the government’s Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults. Simultaneously, he was enlisted by the authorities as a propaganda mouthpiece. For example, he delivered a speech at the third and final wartime rally of Soviet Jews, sponsored by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, in April 1944.

With the creation of the World Peace Movement in 1949, when religious figures were mobilized to support Soviet foreign policy goals, Shlifer several times represented the Jewish religion. For instance, he participated in the May 1952 Conference in Zagorsk in Defense of the Peace of all Churches and Religious Associations in the USSR.

Shlifer also appended his signature to calls against arming Germany with atomic weapons as well as to antiwar statements. Among other events, he protested the October 1956 Sinai War and Suez campaign. In early 1953, he claimed in an interview accorded to a French Yiddish-language paper that the individuals arrested in connection with the Doctors’ Plot were being accused of committing criminal acts, not of being Jewish. In October 1956, he participated in a Soviet delegation to Paris that unveiled a memorial to the 6 million Jewish victims of fascism. His speech in Hebrew on this occasion, devoted to the need for world peace, evoked wide response within the Jewish world.

In addition to figuring in Soviet public propaganda, Shlifer was allowed to correspond with foreign Jewish public figures, rabbis, and Jewish organizations, though all his letters were vetted through the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults. This rather wide-scale activity, begun in 1944, was largely interrupted from 1948 to 1953 and then was resumed.

Shlifer met with foreign visitors, most notably a delegation of American rabbis who came to the Soviet Union in 1956, which he accompanied throughout the country. He also had a continuing relationship with Israeli diplomatic personnel serving in Moscow, ties he was instructed to keep minimal. In his last years, Shlifer invited Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitsḥak Herzog to visit the Soviet Union and in 1956 wrote to World Jewish Congress President Naḥum Goldmann about the need to establish relations between the Soviet Jewish community and world Jewry. He was quickly compelled to recant the contents of this letter.

Most important from Shlifer’s point of view were his activities to preserve religious belief and activity within the Soviet Union. He strove for many years to issue a Jewish calendar so that the country’s various communities might know when Jewish festivals fell, to publish a prayer book, and to open a theological seminary. In the last year of his life, a calendar and the Peace Prayer Book appeared, and the Kol Ya‘akov Yeshiva, of which he was the first rector, was opened.

The Peace Prayer Book, so-called because it included a special prayer for peace composed by Shlifer, was published in slightly more than 3,000 copies. The published edition incorporated none of the changes that the authorities had demanded be made to the prayer service, such as the omission of “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Yom Kippur service and in the Passover Haggadah.

Within his own community, Shlifer expended considerable effort to maintain the synagogue and its mikveh (ritual bath), gave charity where he felt it was justified, renewed the practice of studying Talmud and Torah in the synagogue before and after prayers, and sought to procure requisite religious accessories, especially tallits (prayer shawls). He was particularly persistent in his endeavors to legalize the baking of matzo for Passover and ensure that it be performed in strict accordance with religious precepts.

Forced to serve the regime and yet faithful to the flock he ministered, Shlifer was in many ways a tragic figure. In Paris at the time of the Suez campaign, which he later condemned, he whispered to the Israeli ambassador, “May God give you strength.” Shlifer’s every move reflected the almost untenable tension that was the inevitable concomitant of his office.

Suggested Reading

Avraham Greenbaum, “Rabbi Shlomo (Solomon) Shlifer and Jewish Religious Life in the Soviet Union, 1943–1957,” Shvut 8.24 (1999): 123–132; ‘Imanu’el Mikhlin, Ha-Gaḥelet (Jerusalem, 1986); Benjamin Pinkus, The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948–1967 (Cambridge and New York, 1984).