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6:46 PM in New Brunswick, NJ
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Friday, 7 August 2020
Parashat 
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A Timely Visit

Gershon Ber Schiff struggled with a difficult decision. He had just concluded a telephone conversation with his brother Aryeh Leib, who lived in Moscow. His brother informed him that an unusual guest was now visiting the Soviet Union – their cousin, Rabbi Gershon Ber Jacobson of New York. He wanted very much to visit them. Would it be a good idea to meet?

This was in 1971, at the height of Soviet persecution. Anyone who identified even in the slightest way with the Jewish religion was at risk of interrogation, imprisonment or exile. Gershon Ber Schiff, unbeknownst to the Soviet authorities, was one of the most active Jewish religious figures in Russia. He conducted a secret synagogue in his home and even maintained a mikvah on his property.

For this reason, he was afraid. His cousin Gershon Ber Jacobson was a journalist. Undoubtedly, a meeting with a journalist would attract much unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities, and might lead to some secrets being revealed. On the other hand, Schiff had a deep desire to meet with a relative, as well as to receive some news regarding the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Schiff had never met the Rebbe, had never even seen his picture. All he knew of the Rebbe was a few crumbs of information that had managed to filter through the Iron Curtain, and he strongly wished to learn more.

The struggle between his heart and his reason was a difficult one. Finally Schiff called back his brother and asked him to clarify with Rabbi Jacobson what his opinion was on the prudence of their visit.

Rabbi Jacobson's response was surprising. He explained that this was not the first time that he had traveled to the Soviet Union. All the previous times, the Rebbe did not allow him to visit family members. This was the first time that they were even made aware that he was in the country. He also revealed that this time, the Rebbe not only allowed him to visit family but instructed him to arrange all visits in a public place, so that the communists should not think that they had something to hide. The Rebbe had also predicted that very soon the Schiff brothers would be able to leave the oppressive country.

Gershon Ber Schiff did not need to hear more. Quickly he boarded a train to Moscow, to fulfill a long-standing dream. Indeed, his meeting with his cousin far surpassed his expectations, as Rabbi Jacobson filled him in on all the news from the Rebbe’s court.

After leaving Russia, Rabbi Jacobson traveled through Europe and then on to Israel. There he met with a colleague, fellow journalist Shaul Schiff. The fact that Schiff had the same family name as Rabbi Jacobson’s cousins in Russia gave him an idea. He asked Shaul Schiff to fill out an affidavit inviting the Schiffs to immigrate to Israel for family reunification. The Schiffs would then submit this affidavit together with their application for an exit visa.

When the Schiffs received the invitation they were not sure if they should use it. The first step of the Soviets towards anyone who applied for an exit visa was to dismiss them from their job. Schiff was worried that his application would be denied and then he would also be left without income. In the end they decided to take the risk and apply.

Together with the application, Schiff also had to include a recommendation from his employer, that the business would be able to operate without him. As it happened, Gershon Ber Schiff's boss was a Muslim who hated Jews. To Schiff's great fortune, his boss was on vacation for a few days and he was made responsible for all his boss's duties. He also had access to all his official stamps. Schiff made use of the opportunity to fill out the application and affix his boss's seal to the recommendation allowing him to leave. If his deception had been caught, he could have faced many years in Siberia.

However, his forgery was not discovered, and within a month -- an extremely short time by Soviet standards -- the Schiff family received official permission to leave the country.

While crossing the border, one of the border guards whispered that for 200 ruble, he would see to it that the suitcase of Schiff's choice would be “overlooked” during border inspection. Schiff did not hesitate a moment, and indicated one suitcase with his eyes.

This suitcase contained Schiff's tefillin, as well as a Sefer Torah. The border guard lifted the suitcase and realized that it did not contain ordinary belongings. “What's in here, diamonds?” he asked in an accusing tone.

“No, a Sefer Torah,” Schiff answered innocently.

Apparently the border guard was well aware of the value of that object. “If so, I will accept no less than 1,000 rubles cash,” he said.

Schiff did not hesitate for a moment. It was worth it to pay that large sum to prevent the Sefer Torah from falling into Soviet hands and being desecrated.

The Schiff family left Russia for Vienna and from there traveled to Israel. The hope that their cousin Rabbi Gershon Ber Jacobson had instilled in them based on the prediction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe became a reality.

 

 


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