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Out of the Russian Exile

Gershon Schickman swayed back and forth with great concentration. His eyes were closed and from his lips emerged a fluent stream of Torah thoughts.

That evening Gershon was celebrating his bar mitzvah. The Torah thoughts he was reciting were the words of a Chassidic discourse traditionally studied by every bar mitzvah boy in Chabad. All those present listened to the young speaker with tears in their eyes. Gershon looked and sounded like one who had grown up in a chassidic family and studied in yeshivah all his life.

At one point during the celebration, Gershon's father approached the microphone. Overwhelmed with emotion, he shared with the audience the journey that led him to this point, which began in Moscow 20 years earlier.

As a resident of the city, a Russian citizen for generations, he knew that he was born to Jewish parents and was a Jew in all respects. But he did not know much about what being Jewish meant.

The first challenge he set for himself was to learn Hebrew. He wandered through the book stores in Moscow, looking for books that might help him in his quest. In one store, which happened to be located in the same neighborhood as the Marina Roscha synagogue, the bookseller offered him the only Hebrew-Russian book he had in stock. It was a siddur, a Hebrew prayerbook, with a Russian translation. He bought the siddur and each day he would read a little and pray as much as he was able.

His next challenge was to make aliya to Israel--to live in a country where he could feel free to live as a Jew. He submitted an application to OVIR--the Russian emigration bureau--but his request was denied repeatedly, even though this was in the early '90s, after Perestroika. However, he did not give up and kept resubmitting his application. In the end he was given a visa for a short visit, only a few months.

In truth, Mr. Schickman had no desire to return to Russia. He wanted to remain in Israel. He decided to "save" a bit on his expenses and bought a one-way ticket. He sold all of his meager possessions and planned to make aliya.

During the time of his scheduled trip, the first Persian Gulf War broke out. Direct flights from Russia to Israel were suspended, and Mr. Schickman decided to fly to Cyprus. From there, he figured that he would easily be able to catch a flight to Israel.

 However, his path was not that smooth. When he landed in Cyprus, a border official inspected his papers and asked him what his end destination was.

"Israel," he replied.

 "But there are no flights to Israel now. There are no ships either. Israel is at war!" declared the official, fixing on him a cold, hard glare.

 Mr. Schickman became somewhat confused. "I will wait here until there is a flight," he answered innocently.

But the Cypriot border official was unmoved. "You cannot stay in Cyprus while awaiting your flight to Israel. There is no way I can release you without a continuing flight to Israel. You are now under arrest until the next flight back to Moscow."

Mr. Schickman tried to beg and plead, to no avail. He was placed under arrest and spent the night in a small cell in the airport jail.

That whole night he did not close his eyes. He opened the only Jewish book he owned--his siddur--and prayed to G-d with streaming eyes. "G-d," he cried from the depths of his heart, "I have done whatever I could to come close to You. I gave all my effort and all my money. Now there is nothing left for me to do. Please, save me, that I should not have to return to Moscow."

Early the next morning the border official entered and told him to get ready. "The flight to Moscow will be leaving shortly," he informed him.

Mr. Schickman, with no way out, dragged his feet towards the gate where the flight to Moscow was departing. Suddenly the official turned towards him and said, "The truth is that in a few hours a private flight will be leaving for Israel. If you can convince the owner of the plane to take you, you are free to go."

Mr. Schickman jumped at the opportunity. He located the owner of the plane and began to plead with him to let him go on the flight to Israel. However, his request was denied.

"I am sorry, but the plane is very small and all places are already taken."

Mr. Schickman's heart was shattered. "Maybe you can take me anyway?" he begged. "If you don't agree, I will have to return to Russia. Please!"

His tears, his pleas, finally broke through to the plane's owner. "Fine, if you agree to sit on the floor of the plane, we will take you."

The father of the bar mitzvah boy stopped his story and turned to all the guests. "My dear friends, with the help of G-d I arrived in Israel and slowly became more and more religiously observant." Turning to the Chabad rabbis who were present at the bar mitzvah, he said, "You might think that my connection with Chabad began when I first sent my son to study in your school. However, the connection was actually begun many years earlier, from the moment I bought my first Chabad siddur, on a Russian street 20 years ago."


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