The old and crumbling building housed a synagogue that was a “gift” from Joseph Stalin to the Jews of Odessa. Historically, Odessa was a metropolis with a large Jewish population and many dozens of synagogues of all types. With the advent of the communist regime, and especially under Stalin’s heavy fisted rule, almost all of those synagogues were closed down.
However, for some reason, Stalin permitted the Jewish community to preserve this one synagogue. For many decades, it was the only Jewish house of worship that was permitted in the entire city. It still functions today and is located in a sleazy section of the city, not far from the waterfront.
In 1991, at exactly the time of the outbreak of the Gulf War, I was sent as a delegate from the Jewish community of Baltimore to the Jewish community of Odessa. The Iron Curtain had recently fallen, and many Jewish organizations were eager to do what they could to help formerly isolated Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. My assignment was to visit the city of Odessa and determine how the Baltimore community could be helpful materially and spiritually.
I vividly remember my first morning in Odessa, when I first visited that old shul. I was surprised that there were quite a few people who were present but was disappointed when I realized that they had no clue about the prayer services. They had come to light yahrzeit candles in the small chapel attached to the main sanctuary. Memorializing their dear departed loved ones was part of their religious consciousness, but prayer was not something that survived seventy years of communist domination.
However, with about fifteen or twenty men, and five or six women, you can figure out enough about prayer to join in the services. Some were foreign visitors like me, but others were Jews who had somehow held on to the rudiments of our tradition in spite of their many trials and ordeals.
It was a Thursday morning, and they removed a Sefer Torah from the Ark and read from it. In many ways, the scene resembled most other synagogues on an early weekday morning. But my companion and I were haunted by a strong sense that something was missing. For a while, we could not quite put our finger on what that was. Suddenly, and simultaneously, it dawned on both of us that there was no tzedakah box, or collection plate, within which to collect even a few coins for charity.
Communism had successfully expunged the practice of charity from the value system of these noble Jews. The time-honored Jewish practice of tzedakah was gone. After all, from the Communist perspective, it made no sense to give some of one’s own property or possessions to another person. For his own survival, he had learned to carefully hoard everything that he had managed to accumulate. The notion of voluntarily giving it away to another was unimaginable.
Every year, as this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) approaches, I envision the picture of that old shul with the missing charity box. For it is in this week’s parsha that we read in exquisite detail about the mitzvah par excellence, tzedakah:
“If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for what ever he needs…Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you to open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)
I remember reflecting that frigidly cold morning upon my good fortune in having grown up in a very different old synagogue in Brooklyn. I recall my grandmother giving me a small allowance every Friday and carefully instructing me to put aside some of the coins she gave me to insert in the pushka, or charity box, in shul every weekday morning. I especially remember how we young boys would fight over the privilege of taking the charity box around to all those in attendance and collecting their contributions. I cherish the memory of the old man who would chant in singsong fashion as we paraded around the shul the keywords of the above quotation: “Pato’ach tiftach et yadcha lo, open, yes open, your hand to him,” dramatically enacting the verse by clenching and unclenching his fist. How sad that the tyranny of Communism had deprived these old Jews of Odessa of such childhood memories.
So fundamental is the mitzvah of charity that Maimonides writes that we must be more careful about this good deed than about any other. He bases his opinion upon the statement in the Talmud that declares that this one mitzvah is equivalent to all others.
With typical eloquence, Maimonides writes, “For the throne of Israel will not be firmly established, nor will true belief prevail, without the power of charity…Nor will Israel attain redemption by any means other than by acts of charity.”
Maimonides continues his discussion of the preeminent status of the mitzvah of tzedakah by asserting that compassion for others is the very hallmark of a member of the Jewish people. If one encounters a person who is not charitable, he must suspect that perhaps such a person is not of Jewish descent. Charity, in our contemporary jargon, is hardwired into the genetic structure of every Jew.
With this background, I can continue to narrate the rest of the story of that wintry morning in old Odessa town. I asked permission from the oldest Jew present, who seemed to be the unofficial leader of the small group of elderly participants in that memorable Thursday morning service, to teach a few words of Torah. I took out a Chumash and read to them, in Hebrew, words from this week’s Torah portion that I quoted above. I then translated them into Yiddish, which many there were familiar with, and asked that someone further translate the words into Russian. I promised them that if they would designate a small cardboard box which was lying in a corner as a temporary tzedakah box, I would hasten to see to it that a proper silver ornamental pushka would be delivered to them from my community back in Baltimore.
I continue to treasure the letter I received soon after my return to the United States. It thanked me and the members of my community for the silver pushka. The letter was signed by a committee of three, and concluded with the assurance that by the time that Friday morning rolled around each week, the tzedakah box was full, and its proceeds were distributed to the needy so that they could celebrate Shabbat befittingly.
I must confess that that letter made me feel both proud and powerful. Proud to have been privileged to teach a bit of Torah to such a special group of people, and powerful because it took Heshy Weinreb but five minutes to undo decades of Joseph Stalin’s repression and tyranny.