by Chaim Chesler
Had it not all been perfectly true, I would have thought it was a dream.
In the 1990s, Eitan Haber, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Chief of Staff, called me (at that time I served as head of the Jewish Agency in the F.S.U.). He told me that the prime minister was going on an official visit to Russia. I had an intimate knowledge of the Former Soviet Union, but no personal experience of those that the prime minister intended meeting – the high command of the Russian military forces.
The prime minister’s arrival in Moscow’s airport was a very moving moment. As the El Al plane landed, I stood together with Chaim Bar Lev, then ambassador to the USSR and previously himself Chief of Staff of the IDF, as the Red Army band played the Russian national anthem and then Hatikva. Later on, I organized a visit by the prime-minister to the Moscow Choral Synagogue which was packed with over 2000 Jews. This was the first visit by an Israeli leader since Golda Meir had made an unauthorized visit in September 1948, when she was Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Eitan Haber had arranged a meeting between Rabin, the victorious commander of the IDF in the Six Day War and high officers in the then Soviet Red Army who had aided the Syrian and Egyptian armies who were so soundly defeated in that war in 1967.
I would have been prepared to pay any price if I could have been a fly on the wall of the room where the meeting took place. But that pleasure was denied me because, as Eitan Haber told a Limmud FSU conference in Moscow in 2010, the meeting was held behind closed doors. One of the things the Russian generals did not know was the family background of the general who had defeated them.
Rabin’s antecedents were Ukrainian and Russian. His mother, Rosa Cohen, was born in 1890 in Mogilev, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, then in the Russian Empire and today in Belarus. Rosa’s father, Yitzhak Cohen, (after whom the grandson was named) was an adherent of Habad, a timber merchant and government contractor and brother of a noted writer, Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen, one of the founding fathers of the new city of Tel Aviv. Rosa’s mother was a granddaughter of Rabbi Yaakov Bruchin (Karliner), author of the hassidic work “Mishkenot David.” After the death of her mother, Rosa, together with her seven brothers, moved to the town of Gomel to live with their grandfather, Mordechai Ben Hillel.
In 1919, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rosa immigrated to Palestine as a stowaway on the celebrated ship, “Ruslan.” This voyage marked the beginning of the Third Aliya (wave of immigration to the Land of Israel.) Rosa, who was known as “Rosa the Red,” because of her beliefs, was a committed firebrand socialist and revolutionary, and was highly regarded in the ranks of the Ahdut Avoda political movement in which she played a prominent role.
With regard to Rosa, I was in possession of a great deal of personal details. But after the assassination of the prime minister, when I was totally involved in Limmud FSU, I decided to embark on a search for details of Nehemia Rabin, Yitzhak’s father, of which very little was known.
Here began my own personal “Thousand and One Night’s Tale.” A story which is intimately bound up with that of Limmud where, against all the odds and establishment doubts, we have managed to reach out to the most remote of Jewish communities in an attempt to bring to young Russian-speaking people something of their heritage, history, culture, and the life of their forefathers.
We knew that Yitzhak Rabin’s father, Nehemia Rabichov had been born in 1886 in a small stetl somewhere in Ukraine. Nehemia’s father had died when he was a child and he had to work to help support the family. At the age of 18 he sailed to the United States where he joined the Poalei Zion movement and changed his name to Rabin. In 1917 he embarked for Palestine with a group of young volunteers from the Jewish Legion with the firm intention to fulfill his dream of living and working as a pioneer in the Land of Israel. The couple, Rosa Cohen and Nechemia Rabin met in Jerusalem and after a period in Kvutzat Kinneret, they married. Yitzhak was born in Haifa on 1 March 1922.
That was about all that was known about Nehemia and I decided to investigate further. Rachel Rabin, Yitzhak’s younger sister, and a member of Kibbutz Manara in the Upper Galilee, informed me that the village where Nehemia had come from had been destroyed, or so Rabin and Haber had been informed by the Ukrainian authorities during the official visit of the prime minister to Kiev, one month before his assassination.
I was by no means convinced of the authenticity of the information that had been given and decided it called for further investigation and I embarked upon extensive research in Ukrainian government archives. One year ago, the snow up to my knees, I duly arrived in the remote village of Siderovichi, a small village of 200 souls, not far from the Polish border and just 50 kilometers from Chernobyl, in Western Ukraine. On the spur of the moment, I telephoned Dahlia Rabin, Yitzhak’s daughter in Tel Aviv and told her “I am standing in your grandfather’s village.”
“But the village was destroyed” she answered.
“Nevertheless, I am here,” I replied.
She was not convinced and suggested that I call Rachel in Manara. I spoke to Rachel and asked her if she could check among family documents including Nehemia’s passport and see if it says where he was born. She checked and gave me the name: it was identical to that of the village in which I was standing.
I then called Yuval Rabin, Yitzhak’s son and told him, “I am standing in your grandfather’s village. I suggest you get on a plane and come and see it for yourself.” A little later, during a Limmud conference in Ukraine in February this year, Yuval Rabin arrived and again, deep in snow, he and I together with some Limmud activists, made our way to this isolated village. The whole village was awaiting the arrival of the son of the slain Israeli prime minister and winner of the Nobel Prize for peace. Yuval Rabin was moved when the village librarian showed him in documents that the Rabichov family went back several generations in the village, several of them called Nehemia. Rabin unveiled a memorial plaque situated opposite the community hall, between Ukrainian and Israeli flags.
Yitzhak Rabin was fifteen and a half when his mother died and Rachel his sister was only twelve and a half, and they were brought up by Nehemia, their father. For us at Limmud this was yet another closing of a circle – a theme which is central to the philosophy of Limmud.
We are managing with considerable success to forge a link between young Russian-speaking Jews throughout the world to their common heritage. Following that path, over the last five years, we have held meetings in six countries where young Russian-speaking people have participated in study sessions, lectures, workshops, presentations, and panels about all and every subject of interest to the Jewish world.
What began as our own dream to link young Russian Jews to their spiritual heritage has led to a time of reawakening. It was this spirit that brought Yuval Rabin, born in the 20th century back to his grandfather Nehemia Rabin born in the Ukraine in the 19th century and thus to close another circle in the saga of Jewish peoplehood and national awakening.
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, was formerly treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel.