Judaism thrives again in Belarus... thanks to dynamic Rabbi Moshe, 35

LAST week marked the 10th anniversary of the rebirth of the Jewish community in Pinsk, Belarus.

Before the Second World War, Pinsk was the centre of Karliner chassidism, with nearly threequarters of the town's inhabitants Jewish.

Those Pinsk Jews who were not exterminated by the Nazis became lost to their heritage by Communism. By the 1980s Pinsk Jewry was virtually non-existent.

Then on August 15, 2005, Manchester-born Rabbi Moshe Fhima came to town and founded Belarus' only Jewish boarding school for boys.

Today Yad Yisroel institutions in Pinsk include not only separate boys' and girls' schools but also a yeshiva, synagogue, mikva, soup kitchen and other charitable institutions serving the whole of Belarus.

Yet the 35-year-old businessman who runs this massive educational and welfare complex on a purely voluntary basis was initially an extremely reluctant Jewish outreach worker in eastern Europe.

The first intimation of Rabbi Fhima's east European journey came in 1995 when he was studying in Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva.

He was hitchhiking back from a Shabbat in Rehovot when he gained a lift from a Russian driver. As the two experienced difficulty in communicating, the Russian offered the yeshiva student a Hebrew-Russian dictionary.

The puzzled rabbinic student asked why he needed it, to which the Russian replied: "You might need it one day."

Rabbi Fhima said: "This was my first connection with Russia and the Russian language. I would never have believed how prophetic that meeting with that driver turned out to be."

Two days later Rabbi Fhima was studying in the yeshiva at 3am when the phone rang. Hurrying to answer it before it woke the other students, he found himself talking to Rabbi Yaakov Shteierman, of Yad Yisroel, who wanted students to go to Kiev to help with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.

Rabbi Fhima agreed and spent the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur helping out at the local Yad Yisroel Jewish school - an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.

However, when he was about to leave to fly home to Manchester for Succot the powers-that-be at Yad Yisroel told him that they were not letting him leave and that they had cancelled his flight ticket.

After Succot, Rabbi Fhima turned up at the local airport for his flight to Jerusalem, only to be told at check-in that his ticket had again been cancelled. This time Yad Yisroel denied any involvement in the cancellation.

Wanting to return to yeshiva, Rabbi Fhima booked a new ticket on a different date without informing anyone and slipped away to the airport without saying goodbye. But again he discovered his ticket had been cancelled!

Eventually frustrated Rabbi Fhima persevered and returned to Jerusalem, only to be called to see one of the country's greatest sages, Rabbi Shmuel Aurbach, who ordered him to return to Kiev.

Not wanting to listen because he wished to continue his Talmudic studies, Rabbi Fhima turned to his yeshiva dean Rabbi Noson Finkel, who said he would write to Rabbi Aurbach - but to no effect.

Rabbi Fhima then turned to another great sage Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who also told him to return to Kiev.

But this time Rabbi Fhima's mother, Mancunian Lisa Fhima, said she would not let him go. But Rabbi Eliyashiv told Rabbi Fhima that because he had the ability to save the lives of Jewish children in Kiev he could on this occasion ignore his mother's advice.

So Rabbi Fhima had no choice but to return to Kiev where he stayed for five years, opening a Jewish boarding school which had a tremendous educational impact on local Jewish children.

After five years, during which Rabbi Fhima had married his Israeli-born wife Rivka (nee Cordova), he said: "I felt I had maximised the potential in Kiev and was looking for a new challenge."

So on August 15, 2000, moving from the Ukraine to Pinsk in Belarus, Rabbi Fhima opened the country's first Jewish boys' boarding school.

This was quickly followed by a parallel girls' boarding school, the renovation of the local Beis Aharon shul, summer camps and the establishment of a yeshiva for students from abroad.

Rabbi Fhima also has a programme to send his schools' graduates abroad to further their education at Jewish schools, colleges and universities in Israel and the USA.

He said: "I believe in teaching each child according to his or her ability. I decided that, rather than build up a nucleus of committed graduates in Belarus, it was more important to allow each student to broaden their educational horizons by leaving the country."

Initially, some of the Pinsk graduates did move on to Manchester Jewish Grammar School, but when difficulty arose in obtaining British visas Rabbi Fhima decided to redirect his students to the USA and Israel where they would meet more Jews of Russian origin.

So how does Rabbi Fhima, who takes not a penny for his services but runs a business in Belarus, fund this massive project whose policy is not to refuse an excellent secular and Jewish education to any child in Belarus?

Miraculously, he says, through the help of mainly anonymous donors, as well as by the committee Belarus United, run by Rabbi Barry Marcus of London's Central Synagogue, which recently funded a new boys' school campus.

He tells of an amazing story of how a trip to Snowdonia with Manchester family members led to a surprise donation.

Rabbi Fhima was so overwhelmed by financial pressures that he decided to go back home to Manchester for a break.

On the Sunday morning, he went with his father and brothers for a hike on Mount Snowdon. Returning in the afternoon, they noticed a car containing Orthodox Jews that had hit a lamppost.

Stopping to see if they could help, they discovered that no one had been hurt in the crash. However, the car driver and passengers were on their way to make up a minyan for a rich Jew in his Welsh holiday home, but they were short of a 10th man.

The four Fhimas obliged and in the break between afternoon and evening prayers Rabbi Fhima regaled the assembly with tales from his Pinsk institutions.

His host was so impressed that he asked the rabbi to come to his Manchester office the following day. When he arrived, the wealthy businessman asked the rabbi how much he needed to clear his institutional debts.

He replied: "Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, at which the businessman took out his cheque book and wrote a cheque for that amount.

Rabbi Fhima says: "I then realised that God had guided every move I had made."

He describes his life as a "rollercoaster" journey - on one occasion he was arrested by the Belarussian powers-that-be on espionage charges.

Nevertheless he claims it is extremely fulfilling, especially when he succeeds in saving the lives of cancer patients for whom he organises appropriate treatment when necessary.

He adds: "Many British people are descended from Holocaust survivors. All my pupils are the grandchildren of survivors."

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© 2010 Jewish Telegraph