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Third Chapter:

The Internal Life of the Bobruisk
Jewish Community in the 19th Century

 

1. “Torah, Worship, and Acts of Lovingkindness"

Upon three foundations stood the world of the old Bobruisk, which began to gradually disappear with the oncoming of the 20th century: on Torah, serving God, and acts of loving-kindness [lit.: interest-free loans]. The Bobruisk of the 19th century lived a fully Jewish life; religious traditions, Torah learning, observing mitsvos--this formed the shape of the Jewish world, which cherished its spiritual independence and particularity in a sea of gentiles, alien and hostile. This Jewry embodied in itself great wholeness and fortified internal strength, admired even by those who were estranged from it. Israel Kopilov, a Bobruisk Jew who emigrated to America in the 80's and was an active anarchist and militant atheist in New York, wrote in his memoirs out of longing and yearning about “that deep, pure soulful piety of our hometown Jews, who were always ready to be sacrificed before their God and their love of the people of Israel, and by whom this consciousness alone, they felt a certain arrogance and grandeur." With reverence he tells about those Bobruisk Jews, who used to “comfortably stroke their beautiful beards, caressing a single hair, and feeling during a story happy and frying themselves with enjoyment of it alone, in which one is privileged to be a Jew."

This Bobruisk of Torah and mitsvos was under the influence of two spiritual centers in Lithuania: on one side the influence of the movement of Torah learning for its own sake, whose centers were Slutsk and Volozshin, and, on the other side, the Hasidic movement, above all the Khabad stream, in which the leaders were seated in the villages of eastern Belarus--Liadi, Liubavitsh, and Kapust.

The carrier of this influence were the rabbis and scholars, the admorim [rabbis] and their khsidim, over all the sons of Bobruisk participated, in this or another measurement, in Torah-learning, in fulfilling the commandments, thus all were in the category of “all holy Jews.” The forty bes-midrashim and shuln were chock-full of worshippers; from the talmid-toyres and khedorim carried all day the voice of Jewish children; groups of Torah students and tsedoke involved themselves with the greater part of the Bobruisk Jews.

The bes-midrashim [synagogues] were at that time the center of societal life in the city. There one prayed, there one heard the sermons of wandering preachers, there one studied Torah and joined “after prayers and between minkha and ma'arev, business owners free from their businesses or ordinary batlonim [those without regular jobs] in discussing politics."

Sabbaths were given over to prayer and Torah study. In the 19th century the shamesim [sextons] of the synagogues would habitually on Sabbath eves go into the streets and markets and knock on the doors of the houses and shops that “it's time to interrupt business to honor the Sabbath.” In a later era a signal of the Sabbath's arrival was given through a whistle of one of the Jewish factories in the city, by which the owner took the opportunity to observe this mitzvah.

In those times, when in Vilna and Minsk the foundation of of this old world was already entirely shaken up, the foundation was not yet destroyed in the smaller city of Bobruisk.

As a folk-symbol of that Bobruisk can serve the figure of the “Bobruisk poresh” [religious recluse] Reb Mordkhay Tsvi Manbi. For nearly fifty years he sat in his secluded room, which the wealthy of the Rabinovitch family had built near their synagogue, absorbed in Torah and prayer, speaking only Scripture and in the Holy Tongue, and nourished himself--on the days when he was not fasting--on some potatoes. From time to time he used to interrupt his study, in order to go into town to gather alms for its poor, mostly impoverished and fallen business owners who used to benefit from his anonymous charity. Over the streets he went blindfolded, in order not to glance at a female stranger--and therefore in the city they used to call him the “blind preacher.” He had a great spiritual influence, even greater than the rabbis, who also payed homage to the “blind preacher" and used to come to him “to enjoy being in the tsadik's radiant presence and be blessed by him.” His death in the Revolution year 1905 was a sort of sign, an indication of an era which was gone, an era in which the Torah way of “....[Scriptural reference].." was a dream and desire of quite many and the best."

 

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2. The Rabbis in Bobruisk

? Rabbis? This proverb is especially essential in the old Bobruisk. In the very beginning of the Jewish community of Bobruisk in the eighteenth century, during which it was yet one of the smallest communities in the “Galilee Halion" of Lithuania, subject to the chief rabbi, who was seated in Smilovichi near Minsk, they hardly reckoned themselves among local rabbis, at any rate they didn't remain in the memory of any Bobruisk rabbis of that century.

The first of the city rabbis whose name comes to us, is R. Barukh Mordekhay Etingah, who was seated on the rabbinic throne of Bobruisk until he made aliyeh in 1851 to the Land of Israel; this rabbi, who was from Galicia and married the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel of Vilna, was a student of R. Shniur Zalman of Liadi--the founder of Khabad--and followed in his path. However, he was very much taken with the misnagdim in the city, also he was subject to their authority. Of the rabbi's sons, which carried forth the Etingah family name, some lived in Bobruisk and were ranked with the aristocratic and rich families in the city.

After the aliyeh of R. Barukh Mordekhay to the Land of Israel, there were established in Bobruisk two rabbis, one for the misnagdim and the second for the khsidim, but the good relations between the misnagdim and the khsidim were not disturbed, and if a feud broke out among the tsadikim in matters of religion and halakha [Jewish law], invariably there were found people among the distinguished business owners of the city, which made peace between the combatants. Thus it happened that when in the seventies, there broke out a feud about the fitness of the city mikveh [ritual bath] and also about the demand of the misnagdish rabbi to establish for themselves a separate ritual slaughterer and open a separate butcher shop, one of the leaders of the misnagdim, the wealthy man Mikhal Margolin negotiated with the ritual slaughterer of the khsdim, Reb Tevye, and he took it upon himself to slaughter for the misnagdim and pledged to turn to their rabbi with all ritual purity questions. In this manner the ritual slaughter partnership went on in the city, and also the rabbis' religious claims were satisfied.

Of the khsidic rabbis were known R. Hillel of Paritsh, who was seated on the rabbinic throne in Bobruisk from 1851 until his demise in the year 1864. (we will speak presently in the paragraph about Hasidism in Bobruisk). From 1870 until his demise in 1923, all of 53 years, there stood at the head of the Hasidic community in Bobruisk the rabbi (later the admur) R. Shemariyahu Nokh Shnieurson (about him we will speak presently). The last rabbi of the Hasidim in the city was the husband of R. Shemariyahu Noakhs granddaughter, who was forced to pledge himself of his office under the pressure of the Soviet government in 1929. He was truly to be an influence to his community until he died a holy martyr, when the Germans conquered the city.

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Of the misnagdic rabbis was known R. Eliahu Goldberg of Kapuleh, a great genius, Talmud scholar and God-fearing man, who was Rabbi in Bobruisk from 1852-1875. He gave smikha [ordination] to rabbis, many of the yeshiva students of Bobruisk and surroundings. Some years after (1876-1883), there sat in the Bobruisk rabbinate one of the Lithuanian geniuses, R. Yakov Dovid Vilovski, known under the name of “Haridba'z.” He was a difficult man, a strict constructionist, and through his eyes he saw Bobruisk as a too “free" city. He also got into clashes in matters of ritual slaughterers and mikvah with the Hasidic rabbi R. Shemariyahu Nokh. Bobruisk was only one of the stations upon the long wandering road of “Haridba'z" from community to community, including America and ending in Tsfat.

Beginning in 1886 there were seated on the rabbinic throne of the misnagdim in Bobruisk rabbis of the Shapiro family, which originated in Lithuania and its Torah roots were inherent in the Volozshin Yeshiva. The first was the genius R. Rafal Shapiro, the son-in-law of the “nitseyv" of Volozshin, who was seated in the rabbinate from 1886-1899. R. Rafal Shapiro was a peculiar character, a meek person, “one who sat in a corner" and moreover a great reticent one. He was the rabbi and moyreh derekh [teacher of the way] of the elite, and it is indubitable, that in those days, when the Haskole and the surrounding movement first began to penetrate into Bobruisk, he was not the appropriate man to sit on the rabbinic throne in this turbulent city. “As a rabbi and mureh drkh he wasn't felt ," wrote about him his brother-in-law R. Meir Berlin, “his naivete and impracticality were of a repute in the city," and when he was invited in 1899 to return to Volozshin and stand at the head of the Yeshiva--he left Bobruisk, in spite of appeals from his admirers and assurances to increase his salary.

In his place was appointed for a misnagdic rabbi his younger brother Shmuel Moshe Shapiro. He also, like his brother, was attracted with sympathy toward Zionism and even stood at the head of the “Mizrakh" in the city. After his demise in 1917 the Rabbinate was taken over by his son R. Khayim Tsvi Shapiro, who came from the small town of Lapitshi, where he was the Rabbi in the years of the Soviet regime.

Besides the Soviet Chief Rabbi, R. Khayim Gorodenski was a special rabbi for the city quarter of the “Minsk Plan" and after him, his son-in-law R. Mordekhay Zalman Rashevski was seated upon the rabbinic throne. In the year 1878 the rich man Yitzkhok Rabinovitsh---after he battled with Haridb'z--brought from afar the rabbi Nisan Rubin from Khaloy and had him seated in his private synagogue, and after the decline of the Rabinovitshes, Rabbi Rubin literally was his Rabbinate; after his death R. Tsvi Drapkin inherited his place, who in the year 1929 left for the Land of Israel.

In the 60's, as is known, there was forced upon the Jewish community the Rabbinate office, which carried the name “Kazioner Rabbi.” The first “Sweet Rabbi" of Bobruisk, Rov Ber Vilenski, was admired for his manner and learning, also for his great scholarship and acquaintance with the Holy Tongue and Russian, especially with the German language. He represented the Jewish community in relation to the government during the course of 28 years, until his demise in October 1888. In his place they appointed his nephew, on condition that half of his salary be given to the widow and her orphans and that he take as a wife the daughter of his uncle, before taking over the rabbinic throne. This Vilenksi passed down the office of “Kazioner Rabbi" until the last “shtufe.” He was devoid of Torah and good deeds and his opponents among people and in his home surpassed all accepted boundaries, and he turned into a social scandal. Vilenksi had good connections with the Russian government and because of them held his office, until he failed during the election at the end of 1911, thanks to the strengthening of the Zionist influence in the community.

 

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3. Torah Study and Yeshivos

The founders of the yeshiva in Lithuania, who at first established the Eyts Khayim [Tree of Life] in Volozshin in the year 1803, were inclined to found their Yeshivas only in the smaller towns, in order that the students would be given over to their studies, and the boisterous business and trade life should not interfere, and that they should pay attention to their education and their conduct. The yeshivas in the medium and larger cities stood at an inferior level, faster this was a preparatory institution for the great yeshiva in Volozhin, Mir, Telzh Ukhu'. They were supported by the learning and guidance forces, which gave money and invited the yeshiva people, mostly impoverished students from other cities and towns, to eat “days" with them.

The spirit of Volozhin at first broke into Bobruisk some students of R. Khayim Volozhiner, including R. Yosef Greyever of Slutsk and R. Dovid Tabele of Turets (the later Rabbi of Minsk). R. Dovid Tabele was invited in the year 1817 to study Gemora with the sons of the wealthy man R Shimon Ziml Epshteyn--and the student R. Yehuda Epshteyn mentioned him creditably: “He was one of the first and best students in the yeshiva of our “mor" and teacher the genius R. Khayim Zts'l in Volozhin--and his study was clear and with great profundity."

The first yeshiva in Bobruisk was founded by R. Akiva Altshul, a son of Slutsk, in the year 1823. “R. Akiva,” R. Itskhok Nisenboim wrote in his memoirs, “did not enjoy his yeshiva, not one hair. On the contrary, he was afterward gratified by his property holdings. His wife had a big store, from which he made a living. What's more, he traveled around to the nearby cities and villages and found contributors for the yeshiva, and every year he used to visit these places and collect the donations from the contributors."

The yeshiva of R. Akiva Altshul also existed after its founder returned to the city of his birth. Among its heads was known R. Yekhiel Mikhl Epshteyn, the author of Arokh Hashlukhan, a Bobruisker, who was yeshiva head until he took over the rabbinic throne in Novo'oybkov in 1865. There was also the yeshiva head R. Avraham Barukh, a son of R. Yosef Ber Soloveytshik, who was af kest [boarded with parents-in-law in order to continue with religious study] with his father-in-law R. Shaul Katsenelson.

R. Yitskhok Nisenboim, who taught in Altshul's yeshiva in the years 1881-1883 relates, that in his time the yeshiva had two sects, in the first the students learned, which knew only learning a sheet of Gemora with Rashi, and in the second, those who already knew learning with tosfos. In the yeshiva then were studying about a hundred students, many from other cities, which ate “days" in the houses of the wealthy and lived in a building, specially built near the synagogue. The yeshiva head then was R. Zalman, “a tall, broad-backed man with a long beard and forelocks and rabbinical garb. Every day he used to sit with us at the table studying the Talmud lessons. The lessons lasted all of four hours. He elucidated the Talmudic topic with great profundity--after noon the Rabbi would say the lesson on the “little table" and we, the students of the “big table," repeated over what we had studied in the morning and learned later--every Thursday we had a “week night," we studied a whole night until dawn. The Rabbi often used to come in the yeshiva to see what we were doing."

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In a later era was appointed as the head of the Altshul yeshiva R. Volf Brudner of Ilieh, it was in this yeshiva that some of the great rabbis of Russia studied, among them the young genius of Sosnitse R. Khayim Yehuda Leyb Litvin, who was later the yeshiva head and Mo"ts in Brodi and Ab"d in Smorgon, also Harov Yitskhok Yakov Aronovski, Ab"d and Mush-Khodesh near Baranovitsh. Another student of the yeshiva, R. Yirokhum Halevi Leybovitsh, was later mazhgiekh [supervisor of Jewish dietary law in an institution] in the Slobodke yeshivas in Kelem, spiritual mentor in the Mir yeshiva and one of the supporters of the Edification Movement in Russia.

With the growth of the Bobruisk community there were founded more yeshivas. Dr. Y.L. Katsenelson (Buki son of Ygali), who studied in the Bobruisk yeshivas in the 1870's, relates in his memoirs about “three high yeshivas, two of them were in separate buildings, specially built near to the large synagogues of the misnagdim and the khsidim on the end of Shoseynaya Street. In the misnagdic yeshiva the aforementioned R. Mikhl Epshtayn said the Talmudic lessons. “The sequence order of the Talmudic scholars in the yeshiva was thus," relates Buki son of Ygali: “Every student had to for a Talmudic lesson study alone the page of Gemora, which was in the daily order with all the commentators: Rashi, Tosfos, Meharish"a and Mehar"m. In the higher classes the yeshiva head alone said the lessons and explained to the students their “prushim" and “pilpulim.” In the junior class he let the students say the lessons. One of them read, for example, the Mishna and explained it as well as he knew, a second read and explained a tract of the Gemora, a third a piece of the Tosfos, a fourth another thing, etc. In this manner the yeshiva head knew the abilities of that student and the level of his perception. If any of the students had some question or found a contradiction in a Gemora text, if it were in the commentators, he brought it out and the yeshiva head made an effort to answer the question or contradiction. Or any student was given permission to answer the questions which arose during the order of the day. “Al fi-rov" the yeshiva head alone used to ask and answer, bringing out a question and finding a justification, and all innovations, which would come out during studying the lessons, the students had to comprehend well and memorize."

About studying in the Bobruisk yeshivas in the nineties relate two students of these yeshivas, who came from the province cities: Yehoshua Margolin and R. Menshe Benyamin Levin. In those days the number of students in the yeshivas began to decline, and obviously after there were in Bobruisk 300 yeshiva-bukherim [students], mostly from the nearby villages. They were scattered over 20 small yeshivas in the city.

In 1901 R. Shemerihu Nokh Shniuerson opened in his royal court a yeshiva Khab"ad, young boys studied there under the supervision of a special supervisior of dietary law, and students which the Rebbe alone burdened himself with. Besides Gemora, which they studied, they absorbed themselves in the words of the sages, and not evasive of the pilpul, the students every day studied a chapter in the "Tane" [early Mishna rabbis] or in other Khsidic texts.

At the end of the 19th century the yeshivas began to empty themselves of the students. The pursuit of general education, which expressed itself in the rising desire of a government “gymnasium" [high school], already lost the market in the pious circles. The honor of the Torah and its teachers descended. A short time later there came the revolutionary movement and also pried loose from the synagogue the “sons of Torah.” In the yeshivas were remaining especially the bukherim of the villages, who came to study in the big city. To a great part of them the yeshiva served as a passage to Haskole [reform] and general subjects. The years of the First Russian Revolution (1904-1906) brought with them an utter destruction of the yeshivas. The young synagogue bukherim--they also--did not stand up to the temptation and abandoned their world, looking for other worlds.

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They all had the wind carry them away, they all dragged away the light.
A new lesson the morning of their lives delighted.

---Kh. N. Bialik
Only the yeshiva of Harov Sh. Y. Shnieurson then maintained itself. The number of students, in truth, declined in 1901 to 50, but the classes were conducted normally, certainly with the spirit of the times, the growing students were given permission to study Russian and other worldly subjects, because “without knowing modern times even rabbis won't come out."

Typical of this ongoing era was R. Shmuel Alexandrov, born in Borisov, who settled in Bobruisk in 1889, afterwards he was married to the daughter of Mote Katsenelson, a prominent citizen of the city. Alexandrov, knowledgeable of the Talmudic literature, and of the research literature of the Middle Ages, also devoted himself to the worldly literature, stood in connection not only with rabbis, only also with “free" thinkers (Ekhod Hem, M. L. Lilienblum, M. Y. Berditshevski). He belonged to the Eastern movement, which actually was for certain reforms in the ways of traditional jewry. Although Alexandrov alone stood with both feet in the bath house of religious tradition, he permitted himself to bring out unpopular ideas, for example, the emphasis on the Talmudic tract "mitsvos batlos l'etid l'bo." Alexandrov led small circles of yeshiva bokherim and read for their lessons. Among his students and followers was Rov Dr. Minshe Benyamin Levin, author of "Otser Hagonim," who mentions Alexandrov fondly in his memoirs.

In 1910, there came among the pious circles a movement to “renew the crown of the Torah" and they began a broad agitation to study Torah. According to the initiative of HaRov Khayim Gorodenski of the “Minsk Plan" and the admo'r's son Menakhem Mendl Shnieurson, they opened a school, "Sfart Bokherim," where hundreds of children studied until the revolution. A new yeshiva was established in the time between the revolution and the war, on the initiative of HaRov Rubin “to study Torah among the poor,” although it was already clear that the era when Torah study was the life-contents of old and young was past--and with it the spiritual face of the Bobruisk Jewish community was entirely changed.

 

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4. Khasidism in Bobruisk

There were in Lithuania and Poland cities thoroughly misnagdic (the most typical of them--Slutsk, near Bobruisk). There were also cities which stood under the influence of Hasidism. In Bobruisk it was always a sort of balance between these two great movements in Jewry and this balance symbolized the two great schools in the city on Shtoseynaya Street--one on top of the second; the large synagogue of the misnagdim, and on top of the the large synagogue of the Hasids.

The Bobruisker Hasids mostly belonged to the stream in Hasidism, which reigned in Belarus, namely, the Khab"ad stream. In the time period of three generations there stood at the head of the Bobruisker Hasids three “ferzenlekhkaytn," each of them was of the Khab"ad leaders in Russia. In the beginning of the 19th century this was HaRov Borukh Mordkhay Etingoh, a student of an old amdo"r; after him--R. Hilel of Paritsh, a close friend of fellow amdo"r Dov Shnieurson and his heir--R. Menakhem Mendl Shnierson (the “tsamekh tsadik"), and to the end, in the last years of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, R. Shemariahu Nokh Shnieurson, son of the amdo"r Yehuda Leyb of Kapust and the fourth generation of the old amdo"r.

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Although the Bobruisk Hasids were followers of the khab'ad doctrine, they however held their own stream: as is known, the chief stream in khab'ad was Liubavitsher, which its founder and foundation-layer was: the son of the old amdo"r Dov Ber Shnieurson, who sat after his father's demise (1813) in the village of Liubavitsh; after his death (in 1828) his nephew Menakhem Mendl Shnieurson continued his activity. The amdo"rim of Liubavitsh excelled with their organizational performance, and they have upheld the “neshios" of the Shnieurson house up to the present day.

But in the first time of Khaba'd Hasidism there were also those who had reservations in relation to the power of Liubavitsh. One of the first religious recluses, R. Ahron Halevi Horvits, was called “R. Staroselier" (born 1765, was deceased 1828), was of the close friends of the old amdo"r and after his demise was not recognized the authority of his son and attempted to sacrifice the power of Khaba'd for the power of the original Hasidism--the Ukrainian. After his death he did not leave behind any eligible heir, but his power, which remained in his books, is known in Khaba'd circles. And some of his Khsidim did not return after the death of their Rebbe to the house of Liubavitsh, they left for the amdo"r of Kaidonov.

Thus in Bobruisk we find a “Staraselier synagogue" in the name of the rebel in the Shnieursons. There was also in the city a small circle of Kaidonov Khsidim.

It's worthwhile also to be aware that R. Hillel of Paritsh behaved in the last years according to the custom of the amdo"r, and quite many used to come “to seek advice of him whether in heavenly matters or worldly questions.” As is shown, this was not to the hearts the Khsidim of the Lubavitsher court, as this comes to the expression in the words of R. Yitskhok Ayzik Halevi, the Homel rabbi, which he said on R. Hillel of Paritsh, in line with the Khsidim: “he was a peasant and became a royfe [untrained physician, bonesetter].

After the demise of the "Tsamekh Tsadik" his younger son R. Shmuel Shnieurson inherited the Rabbinic throne, but it turns out that in Bobruisk the greater part of the Hasidism had a leaning to R. Yehuda Leyb Shnieurson, who sat in Kapust, and after R. Yehuda Leyb died (1867), they went with his son, Shloyme Zalman of Kapust; several years later they seated on the Rabbinic throne his brother R. Shemariahu Nokh Shnieurson--a man twenty-three years younger. After the death of R. Shloyme Zalman in 1900, Shemariahu Nokh began to conduct himself as an amdo'r, founded a yeshiva in Bobruisk, and surely intended to create there a center for Khab'ad Hasidism, which would not have to be ashamed as a Lubavitsher center.

At any rate, the Khsidic world in Bobruisk was not oriented to the all-wealthy and discrepancies among their leaders and “muri" path. Khab'ad Hasidism did not stand for the emphasis on the personality of the tsadik, only on his Torah and power. In relation to the Khsidic world, R. Shemariahu embodied in himself the truly kosher with the “house of the Rebbe,” namely, the house of the old amdo'r, which with him Khab'ad Hasidism was historically connected.

Among the Hasidism it was understood, various levels and paths in worship choices. In the memoirs of Yisroel Kopilov, who we have already mentioned, is mentioned the visit of the amdo'r R. Leybele (Yehuda Leyb of Kapust) in Bobruisk. The Hasidism, mostly dressed in obsolescent kaftans, broad belts and fur-edged hats, were around him, welcoming him. He said Torah, prayed with the Hasidism and brought new tunes. The police, which had come “in hand,” pretended not to see the Jewish celebration. The rabbi received that which was pressed upon him, taking pidyenos [ransom payed to Hasidic Rabbi for advice] and partaking in blessings. When he left the city, he left behind more memories and longing after the exalted days, which they felt in the city while he stayed there. Among the Khsidim there were individuals, famous and accustomed with their way of life also outside of Bobruisk. HaRov Y. Nisenboim, a son of a misnagdic family, writes in his youth memoirs R. Zalman Khatsisn (in the opinion of R. Zalman Margolin) of the wealthy men of the city, trustee of the Jewish hospital, who used to pray privately in the synagogue with such an ecstasy and rapture, which this child had never seen. The amdo'r Yosef Yitskhok Shnieurson of Liubavitsh used to relate concerning R. Avraham of Bobruisk, who “had a stately appearance and was a great sensible person in 'ngleh' and Hasidism, and moreover a master of manners. His stately appearance was such, that a boorish man was simply ashamed to look him in the face, especially when he was engrossed in some matter."

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Kaidanov Khsidim were, it turns out, scattered among the poor strata, and in the business life of the city were almost not visible. The Kaidanovers were concentrated around the Kaidanover synagogue. They felt connected with the admo'rim R. Aharon Kaidanover (died in 1897) and his son R. Yosef (died in 1915). There was also in Bobruisk a synagogue of the Liakhovitser Khsidim, followers of the admo'r R. Nokh of Liakhovits (died in 1920).

After the first Russian revolution in 1905, when the Torah and religious institutions and ideas were strongly shaken in Bobruisk, Khab'ad Hasidism was the first which was delayed the danger. At its head, who was engaged in holding back religious Judaism in the city, stood the only son of amdo'r R. Shemariahu Nokh--R. Menakhem Mendl Shnieurson.

In his Rabinnical court and under his influence the Khaba'd yeshiva continued its survival, which--as we have already mentioned, remained the only one in the city. The Khsidim cherished the traditional Hebrew schools and the Talmid-toyreh, as alien winds--Haskole and Zionism--would not penetrate here. They didn't even stop applying modern management: when Lubavitsh put out the call to organize the Khsidic children and youths into a union, which would focus around the Khab'ad children's newspaper, Ha'ekh--the biggest division of this organization was created in Bobruisk. This organization, which counted around 350 children and youths, was called "Ekhi Hatomimim."

Thus the Hasidism in Bobruisk struggled with the new spirit of the time, which destroyed the temple of the old Judaism, and attempted to rescue what was lost in that bitter time.

 

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5. The Charitable Societies and Benefit Institutions

The social life in Bobruisk in the 19th century revolved around certain charitable societies. At the peak of these societies stood "Biker Kholim," which, according to the congregations spokesman of one of the Bobruisk writers, “even the oldest citizen of Bobruisk didn't remember the days when they founded the society.” But only in the year 1863 was there drafted a society of business owners, at the head of which was the wealthy man Mikhal Margolin, and built a hospital, which cost 4,000 rubles. In this hospital there were in 1890 28 beds and 2 divisions, one for men and one for women. A feldsher [old time barer/surgeon] was established as manager of the house and a doctor used to come twice a day. The hospital had thirteen rooms “besides the school and bath.” The budget of the hospital--6,000 rubles a year, approximately--covered the largest portion of the “korobke" tax. The hospital was connected with a pharmacy, the largest in the city, where poor people used to come for cheap drugs, according to a signature of the trustee of "Bikor Hoylem." Incidentally, this pharmacy was burned in the great fire of 1874 and was rebuilt according to the initiative of the wealthy man Margolin.

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The Khevre-kedishe, which was as old as the kehila [community] itself, led according to the old tradition, its trustees, friends, and sextons established among themselves an inclusive circle and the roster “was secret and concealed, and not each that wants can come and look around in it.” As was related, a lot of heretics registered themselves in it under frightful names K. Kh. “Y. ("Kvods Khmor Ykaver"). The Khevre-kedishe had its synagogue and as was usual in all Jewish communities, the khevre used to arrange a large banquet t"15 Kislev, a banquet which became renowned in the city. With the Khevre-kedishe was a khevre funeral" of which most of its members were “people of the lower classes, such as artisans and laborers.” The khevre was founded in the middle of the 19th century. Afterwards they discovered certain flaws in the work of the Khevre-kedishe, whose sextons often neglected in “winter time, when they had a lot of work, they used to bury two in one grave, and many children were found in the cemetery in heaps of snow.” Members of the khevre l'vieh used to, each in turn, took on the responsibility of the dead bodies. “to The members of the Khevre we owe honor and praise for their hard work (dedication) and readiness--writes one Bobruisker in 1890--because when death comes, the tailor throws away his needle, the shoemaker lays down his last, and they run to their sacred work to do the dead body properly. If the Khevre kedishe had had to hire people and pay them, the expenses cost would have been very great."

Among the long standing and respected Khevros in the city was "Leynes Hatsedek," whose members volunteered themselves then to spend the night in the homes of poor, sick, lonely or abandoned.

In 1882 there was founded in Bobruisk a "Khevre G'milos Khsidim." The initiator was Borukh Galant, who contributed 1,000 rubles as a memorial to his daughter who died young, to establish a khevre of interest-free loans. With him joined other rich men, with Khayim Boyez Rabinovitsh at the head. According to the rules of the khevre, one gave loans of 10 to 100 rubles of pledges of siver and gold or on the guarantee of trustworthy people. The borrower paid back the loan in weekly installments of 25 weeks. The khevre helped the poor people of the city a lot, and limited a little the activity of the lenders, which hit particularly hard the shopkeepers and small artisans.

In 1883 Khayim Boyez Rabinovitsh founded an old age home as a memorial to his mother Rivke. In the home were places for 18 elderly men and 8 women. Also the institution was especially consisted of the “korobke" taxes, with an additional contribution of the founder.

One of the established charitable deeds of the city was to provide kosher food for the Jewish soldiers, who were in a great number in the fortress, especially during maneuvers in the summer months. The founding of the Khevre was at a certain time stopped because of the opposition of the local military regime, but after a high-level intervention the appropriate permission came, and in 1882 the Khevre came, according to initiative of the rich men Dov Ber Etinger, Yosef Katsenelson, and Simkhe Margolin. Some 150 soldiers ate in a kosher restaurant in the wintertime and some 300 summertime. The Khevre supported itself by membership taxes and lotteries, which brought in around 600 rubles a year. One of the chief officials in the Khevre was Yikhizikel Levin, a simple business owner, who gave himself over to the work and gave up all of his free time to it.

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There were two talmid-toyre khevros in the city--one for khsidim, the second for misnagdim. In the khsidic talmid-toyre, which was also called "T"s Sefardim," there were in 1890 six melamdim [teachers] and 130 students. divided in three sects. Besides the holy subjects, they also studied the worldly subjects for two hours a day--an hour of Hebrew and Russian calligraphy, in the morning, and an hour of Russian and accounting in the evening. These subjects were included in the program at the insistence of the regime, as a condition of opening the talmid-toyre. The trustees attempted to be an influence on the teacher, that he should take the money and not come to teach but this did not turn out to be successful. The teacher, a man given over to his work, filled his assignment and used to come daily, teaching his own torah.

The talmid-toyre of the misnagdim was a smaller one (4 teachers and 65 students). Both talmid-toyres consisted of donations which individuals gave, in charity-boxes of the “mi'shebeyrakh" --monies is the synagogues, of vows of circumcisions and weddings, also of the supplementary contributions of the members.

In 1875 the wealthy man Tsvieh Lozinski “with the help of two-three women" founded a khevre “Clothing of the Naked." The khevre gathered garments in the city for the poor. A small khevre “Bread of the Poor" established the ritual slaughterers of the community. Both khevres conducted quite limited activity and further did not satisfy the requirements of the city's poor.

There were also in Bobruisk Khevres Tilim [Book of Psalms], Khevres Sh"s [Talmud readers] (nearly in every synagogue), and various khevres of workers and artisans (tailor-khevre, shoemaker-khevre, cabinetmaker-khevre, hauler-khevre, etc.). Each had its own synagogue or, at least, its "minyan"[quorum of 10].

In 1888 some resident business owners took up creating a “charity fund at large," in order to distribute among the poor, who went house-to-house, the alms of business owners every month. The intent of the founders was: to put an end to going house-to-house and giving support only to those who truly needed it. But the Rov Shemariahu Noyekh Shnieurson was against them, because “if the poor stop tramping around the courtyards of the donors, will they in time they be forgotten as if dead, and the significance of compassion and mercy will become obscured in the hearts of the givers."

In the summer of 1893, during an economic crisis which reigned in the city, several rich young people in the city, at their head Avraham Dov Shnieurson, Yosef Kleynerman and lawyer Eliahu Ginzberg, established a low-price kitchen, where they gave out quite inexpensive lunches--for three kopeks a luch without meat and for 5 kopeks with meat. The work of cooking and serving was taken up by pious Bobruisk wives. The kitchen existed for many years and around it concentrated the Zionist groups in the city.

Besides all, the rich young people of the city gave private charity, distributed money, food, clothes, wood for heating, etc. Especially admirable among them was Khayim Boyez Rabinovitsh. The poor of the city and the surroundings used to come to him at home every Sabbath Eve to be provided with khales [braided egg bread] and other food to honor the Sabbath.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the maskilim of the city sought new ways of helping the poor of the city. The first step was the custom, which they took over from the Christians, of organizing philanthropic evenings. Such evenings used to be organized from time to time after the eighties by the officers of the fortress, and the well-to-do citizens had to buy tickets, because the ticket-selling supervisor was none other than the police chief himself. The receipts of the evenings used to go toward the poor of the gentile population, and this used to cause resentment and bitterness among the Jewish population, until Jewish young people alone began to organize such evenings to benefit the Jewish charitable societies. “Several times a year," writes Dr. A. Paperna, “in every khevre a crisis would break out. The treasury became empty and they made loans, for however much it lacked--then they used to organize an evening or a performance. And because such circles were not a few, the number of charity evenings was also not a few, at any rate not as few as 12-15 a year."

But also the old charity doctrines, which were a tradition for generations, were inhibited in the modern era. After 1900 “wives of the city established a charitable khevre to supply the poor with wood for heating and thus not permit moreover, the peasants to raise the price of wood with the oncoming of winter."

 

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6. The Haskala Movement in Bobruisk

The Haskala [Enlightenment], whose first budding blossomed forth in the beginning of the 19th century - mostly in the larger cities of the Pale of Settlement - came late to Bobruisk. Rabbinism and Hasidism were firmly established in the city and struggled with every manifestation of heresy and deviation of the rietcheous path."

But life took its own course. For people of commerce and also other bonesetters it was already impossible not to know the language of the land, a little accounting and the like, and naturally the opinion became accepted, that businessmen, entrepreneurs, their sons and employees, were permitted to study the worldly subjects, which were needed for their undertakings. “They, the children of the rich,” wrote Y. L. Katsenelson in his memoirs, “one could after all pardon. Knowing Russian was an advantage to making a living and because of making a living it was always permitted.” Already in the year 1846 we find, that the writer, Enlightener and educator Ahron Mordkhe Ginzberg of Vilna was requested to send to “the wealthy Enlightener" Tsvi Landoy of Bobruisk, “an honorable and good teacher of the Holy Tongue, and student also of Russian and German.” Ginzberg recommended the educated writer Volf (Zev) Kaplan.

On the education of the daughters one by and large did not insist and supported oneself on the words of Khz"l [Talmudic authorities] “Kol hamelamed es beto toyreh k'aylo melamdeh tefilos.” [Every teacher that teaches his daughter Torah...] They were authorized to study languages and worldly subjects. They did not understand, that through this they destroyed the Jewish tradition, because precisely daughters were the first dragged away amid the stream of the Enlightenment and assimilation in its most extreme forms. “The daughters of the rich," advised Y. L. Katsenelson, “were already in the 80's taking a “permission to study foreign languages."

In Bobruisk one also didn't insist upon Enlighteners of the wealthy circles and higher office, as long as they didn't openly step over the boundaries of the accepted ways. Thus, for example, there lived in Bobruisk Yakov Katsenelson (died in 1878), one of the first Enlighteners in Russia, a friend and associate of Ahron Mordkhe Ginzberg (1795-1846), who transcribed the writings of his great teacher and cooperated in their publication. About Yakov Katsenelson relates Y. L. Katsenelson--his relative--that he was then the only one in the city who raised the banner of the Enlightenment, not afraid of being vilified: “he was a good-hearted and refined man, an agile writer in Hebrew and truly God-fearing. During the course of these two years, in which I was a member of his household, there wasn't a day he would not daven collectively and study Mishna after davenen--and obviously they held him as a heretic, only because he had love for the Hebrew language and because his wife and children spoke German and played piano."

Yakov Katsenelson secretly provided Enlightenment books to those who wanted to read them , and thus Y.L. Katsenelson read Ahavas Tsion by A. Mapu and Harisos Betar by K. Shulman.

Another such secret Enlightener was also the wealthy R. Yehuda Ben R. Yikhiel (Yudke Yikhiels), who with his money built a synagogue where prayed the prominent burghers among the Liubivatsher Hasidim. In his house were “three great rooms, which all the walls were covered with beautiful wooden cabinets, which were filled from floor to ceiling with holy books.” Among the books the yeshiva bokher Y. L. Katsenelson found in 1861 not merely the Kokba D'Shavim of Kh. Z. Slonimski (even the greatest zealots indulged studying astronomy, because this is obviously connected, as it were, with calculating the times and order of the Jewish calendar), only even the Hatudeh B'yisroel of the “greatest heretic of the generation," Yitskhok Ber Levinson. Under the influence of these terrible books, Y. L. Katsenelson organized a circle of youths, for which the “Hatudeh B'yisroel" was their Koran. They diligently studied Tanakh [Pentatuech], grammar of the Hebrew language and its flowery expression. They also took as a teacher “Zalman the Writer"--a young man, who married a Bobruisk maiden and supported her with those who he taught the children of the wealthy “to write Russian with a beautiful contrived handwriting" and gave them Russian lessons an hour or two every day.

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On the other hand, the Jews of Bobruisk battled against any attempt to broaden the limits of the Enlightenment and spread it among the people. In the spring of 1853 the Russian government opened in Bobruisk, as in the other larger cities of the Minsk Gubernia, a Jewish “government school" with a Russian inspector and one or two teachers, who graduated from the Vilna Teacher Seminary. The budget was covered by the korobke money. The official figures--which were invariably exaggerated, show us that in the school year 1856/57 there were 35 students studying in the school, and at the end of 1863/64 their number increased to 42. A. Y. Paperna writes the in 1862, no more than 20 students were studying in the school, and “also those of the poor strata, orphans and street children, which had fallen to the doors of that house, as if to a protection and refuge house of their poverty and hardship.” In that year the teacher strove to uplift the level of the subjects and open an afternoon session. Thanks to this the number of students doubled and went to 40, but never reaching to the number 70, as was given in the official statistics of that year. Also the appointing as the new manager Shaul Vinshol did not save the situation.

Concerning the attitude of the Bobruisk community to the government school, the congregations said that in reality, which was contrary to other communities, in Bobruisk there was not found one eminent city business owner or wealthy man who would agree to take on the function of an “honorable overseer" (potshotni bliustitel) over the school. The local government demanded that the wealthy Jews and businessmen take over the honorable office, but they did not succeed.

In 1869 the famous Enlightener of Minsk Yakov Germeyze visited Bobruisk. In a letter to the Tribune Germeyze complained about the Bobruisk Jews, who hated the Enlightenment and their followers, “they have not yet opened their eyes, to see what the times demand of them, for their good and happiness.” He related concerning severe supervision on those that were humiliated in prayer collectively, who read Enlightenment books and whom the rabble called “modern," he held, that “on the whole the city of Bobruisk stands ten grades lower than Minsk." understanding that, in connection with the success of the Enlightenment in these two cities.

In 1865 there was opened through the government a special school, where one studied Russian and a little accounting. Such schools were opened in Lithuania after the suppression of the Polish uprising; the intent was, to teach Jews as quickly as possible the Russian language, in order to make them into a Russified factor in the region, where the Polish culture yet had a great influence. The subjects of study came after noon, three or four hours a day. For example, there was a supplement to the subjects in “Hebrew School," corresponding to “hacarmel" gives over, that the Rov of the 30 students, which studied in the new school, were “children of prominent and rich Jews in the city."

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But as in all of Russia, the big crisis came to Bobruisk, in connection with the attitude of the Jewish population to the Russian school in the 70's. This crisis was, as is known, connected with the executing of the law of general military service in Russia (1874), which gave great privileges to people with Russian education and origin--shorter military service. It was a stray parsley! Even in extremely religious circles the “fence-breakers" multiplied. In 1878 a private school owner, Tsirelson, announced at the Khevre Mepetse Haheshekhaleh in St. Petersburg, that he moved his private school from Borisov to Bobruisk and he asked, that the khevre should support him, as in earlier years. The letter was accompanied with a recommendation of the Inspector of Schools in the Minsk Gubernia--and the Khevre Mepetse Haheshekhaleh--included then giving the school its yearly support of 100 rubles. Four years after we also hear about a private school of Lazareva, which also was supported by the Khevre Mepetse Haheshekhaleh. On the contrary to the government school the private learning institutions were established for the children of the rich and middle class.

In that year Jewish children were already studying in the “State Progimnazies [High Schools]. In 1880 was written in the Jewish-Russian journal Razsviet, “that the conservatives, which looked upon European education as a trouble which one had to avoid, now give up their children to the general schools. The well-to-do send their children to the local four-classics high school, which have already been existing here for many years.” Those who graduated from the HIgh School, were forced--if they wanted to continue their studies--to travel to the nearby Gubernia cities Minsk or Mogilev. In 1881, we hear, the High Schools created an aid-box, in order to help poor children, sons of their religion, following the path of the the Enlightenment.” They opened a small library of various study books and distributed, it turned out, among poor children, who aspired to an education.

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Year by year the number of students in the Russian schools--state and private--increased. In 1886 there were already among the 176 students in the local High School 36 Jews. The percentage norm, which limited the percent of Jews in the male school, decreased their number, but the demand became a bidding factor; in the city a private High School opened, and Bobruisk sons and daughters traveled to study also in other cities, where it did not, because of various reasons, fill the percent norm. The High School became the Kingly Path for the Jewish youth, the children of the middle and well-to-do station.

This youth up to ten years old studied in “Elementary School" and later across in the Russian High School, which represented the yeshiva; this was a tendency which was ongoing in broad circles, and even the quite pious sent their sons to the High School and looked through their fingers at those over there who wanted them to write on shabes. The strength of the High School increased, in the time of that prohibition and religious but national bridling.

In the 90's of the 19th century there already crystallized a group of Jewish-Russian intelligentsia, with the dentist Benedict Getsov at the head, which came to Bobruisk from another city. This new intelligentsia used to gather at Getsov's house in the evenings, discussing above all the means of spreading the Enlightenment and the Russian language among the youth, helping the able poor children and youth, founding a folk-library, etc. This intelligentsia circle was in the majority moderate and liberal, its influence continually grew in the beginning of the 20th century.

 

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7. Beginning of Theater in Bobruisk

As a clear revelation of the modern time one must see in the interest which the Bobruisk Jews showed, beginning at the end of the 19th century, in the theater. In as much as Bobruisk was a concentration point for thousands of soldiers and hundreds of higher military people, amateur soldiers would from time to time organize evenings for charity purposes; the well-to-do Jews were obliged to buy tickets, in order not to quarrel with the government “oats," and some of them or their family members even attended the evenings. Russian theater troupes quite often visited the city, among them the best provincial troupes, and in the summer months--during fair time in the main city--famous troupes also of St. Petersburg and Moscow played theaters in Bobruisk. Thus relates M. Elkin in his memoirs, that at the end of the 90's every summer there played in Bobruisk the famous troupe of the well-known dramatic director and actor Motkovski with their best actors of the Russian stage. A Jew with initiative, Itshe Epshteyn, built an auditorium for shows and used to lease it for local and travelling troupes.

"Itshe Epshteyn," as Mendel Elkin portayed him in his memoirs, “was known in the provincial theater world in Russia. A Jew, a sexagenerian with a stately appearance and long beard, invariably in a long surtuk, with a yarmulke on his head, also when he kissed the hands of the Russian actresses, he did a lot to help out actors in times of need, although he did not have a high opinion of them."

Besides the general theater there also used to come visiting the Jewish theaters, which were strongly ongoing in the Jewish world. We have news of a visit of Avraham Goldfaden's troupe in Bobruisk (April 1881). The troupe appeared six times and performed the famous plays from the beginning of the Yiddish theater: Koldunie (The Sorceress), Breyndele Kozak, Dvoshe the Spletnitse, etc. In 1887 there came to the city Tantsman's troupe and they played for a full house Doctor Almosada.

It is clear that all this news was fortuitous, because the Yiddish theater was, as is known, illegal in those years and forbidden to advertise.

In 1892 we hear already about a local amateur troupe in which participated educated young people of the city and High School seniors. The troupe organized an evening for charity purposes. In that year is was already so far away, that they brought from afar two dance teachers, and “Jewish daughters learned to lift their legs and hop as one must.” They taught song and dance for a small price, an hour a day, with them stood together “some two or three bokherim.” The subjects of study were not interrupted even in the nine days; and Yosef Dobkin, the reporter from the Tribune, discovered the secret, that “also on Tishe-vov they danced. And not only Jewish daughters, but really bokherim and maidens together."

At the end of the 90's a drama circle educated itself in the city. Among its members was the young Mendel Elkin, who learned a lot from the famous Russian troupes which played in Bobruisk. In 1898-1902 Elkin directed the performances of the drama circle in Bobruisk--an amateur troupe of the local intelligentsia youth, which played in Russian two times a month for Jewish and Russian audiences.

The time did hers, and what one couldn't present in Bobruisk 15-20 years earlier, is now done openly.

 

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8. Zionism in Bobruisk

The Zionist movement also broke a way through the old-fashioned way of life in Bobruisk. The Lovers of Zion Union was founded in Bobruisk at the end of 1885. “Nearly all the khaverim [members] were youngsters and bokherim"--complained a khaver of the Lovers of Zion--"people honorable and distinguished did not stand together with them.” The only one of the elite in the city who supported the union, and was even selected as chairman, was the “old wealthy man," Yisroel Paperna (father of the writer Y. A. Paperna). He even opened his synagogue for the Lovers of Zion people , where they held their meetings, but that they would hold forth for the worshippers in the large school, the trustees moreover would not permit, “poured-out disgust and contempt upon community ideas and on those who were engaged with him especially.” A memorial service, which the Lovers of Zion organized for Perets Smolenski, the author of Hashokher and Dovid Gordon, the editor of Hamagid, aroused wrath in the city and led to moreover, that “the people in each synagogue divided into groups, and each one spoke its opinions, that now is the time of the Messiah--one permitted onself to take a Torah scroll and perform the commemoration of the dead upon the great heretics, about whom was said: "Modinin ole malin." Among the leaders of the Lovers of Zion were the secretary Shloyme Frid, one of the city Enlighteners and a writer in the Hebrew newspapers, the famous book author Yakov Hakohen Ginzberg, Leon Lozinski--"of the prominent Lozinski family"--and Eliezer Leyzerovitsh--a Hebrew teacher, who demanded a “Jewish State with all titles and ordinances.” In the first year of its existence, the Lovers of Zion Union collected more than 800 rubles and sent it away to the head of the Zionist Dr. Leo Pinsker in Odessa.

From time to time there broke out “the troops of the outdoors," awakening hearts. In the beginning of 1888 there came to Bobruisk, “according to an advice of those who intervened to the advantage of the colony in the Land of Israel," the poet and folk singer Elikum Tsunzer, who sang his songs throughout the world. A half of the income was given “for the colonists in the Holy Land."

In Kislev 1896 we hear about the visit of the “m'tif" R. Yehuda Tsvi Yeverov. Also the “m'tif" Tsvi Hirsh Maslianski relates about his visit in Bobruisk in that time.

In the general assembly of Lovers of Zion in Russia, which occurred in Druskenik in the month of Tamuz 1887, Yisroel Paperna participated representing the Bobruisk Lovers of Zion, and proposed in the name of his organization “giving the idea a religious face.” He also participated in general assembly, which took place in Vilna in the month of Av 1889.

In the 90's Yitskhok Ayzik Estrin began his activity, which “geshnitn" was to take a central place in the Zionist movement in the coming years. In the record year of the first aliyah [emigration to Israel] (1891) there arose also in Bobruisk two societies for colonization in the Land of Israel--of the rich people in the city, who intended to match six thousand rubles and prepared to send a delegation to the Land of Israel, to find there an appropriate plot of land. Hundreds of people signed up with the two groups, and they were ready to make aliyah. Due to the crisis which broke out in the colony in relation to the colonization, these organizations fell apart and the Lovers of Zion movement returned to its earlier ways.

In the 90's the Lovers of Zion in Bobruisk took part in the “Society to Support Farmworkers and Artisans in the Land of Israel and Syria," --this was the “Odessa Committee," which was the center of legal activity of the Lovers of Zion in all of Russia. In the first year of the Society's founding, which was also a year of spiritual awakening in the colony, there were a lot of Bobruisk Zionists standing with the Society and the number of fund-contributors went to 65. But because of the crisis, which broke out in the Land of Israel, the prestige of the Society fell and the number of contributors barely reached three ten-score. A number of loyal and experienced Lovers of Zion, with the authorizing of Yitskhok Ayzik Estrin as the head of the “Odessa Committe," of course continued their work, until there came the great hour of the movement--the publishing of Dr. Herzel.

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