This is the story of Rabbi Zev Vagner, editor of the “Encyclopedia of Russian Jewry,” who travels throughout the former Soviet Union and Israel, deeply entrenched in outreach and helping to bring Jews back to Judaism. For his significant literary work, he earned the honor of becoming an official Fellow of the Russian Academy.
Zev Vagner was born in 1951 to a family that was deeply connected to Grand Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel Twersky of Machnovka, who had been exiled by the Soviets for his continued efforts on behalf of Judaism. His grandparents, Reb Aharon and Miriam, were very religious—scrupulous about mitzvah observance even in the harsh years of Communist rule. His parents were less meticulous, but they kept Shabbat, kashrut and Jewish holidays.
“They had regular places in the Great Synagogue of Moscow. I remember going with my father to the synagogue when I was very young,” recalls Vagner of his early years. “I knew I was Jewish, but it took me time to realize that I was different than other people.”
“Once, when I was 6, I told my non-Jewish friends that tomorrow was the New Year. They argued with me, telling me that the new year would be in another four months. I’d heard my parents saying that tomorrow would be Rosh Hashanah and naively believed that everyone kept Rosh Hashanah.”
His parents spoke Yiddish at home, and there was a mezuzah on the door. It was hidden in the doorpost, but young Zev knew where it was and what it meant. He remembers waiting in line for hours outside the Great Synagogue to buy specially supervised Passover matzah, lighting the Chanukah menorah, and his father quietly teaching him the aleph-bet.
“I’ll never forget the time that I was walking with my father on Yom Kippur, and I looked at the people in the streets and realized how different I was. We were coming from the synagogue—full of holiness—and it was just an ordinary weekday outside. I decided that when I got married and had my own home, I would be particular to keep all the mitzvot, like my grandparents.”
In 1970, he did get married—to Irina Vishnivetsky in Moscow. Both 19, they married under a chuppah, which was a rarity in the Soviet Union in those times. Irina was from a non-religious Jewish family, though the couple agreed before the wedding that their home would be religious.
“After the wedding, we lived in Moscow and kept all the Jewish laws. Every Shabbat, I would walk to the synagogue. It was a three-and-a-half hour walk in each direction. Sometimes, I would sleep in the home of someone who lived closer; then it was only an hour-and-a-half walk each way.”
His observance brought him to join the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“In the Russia of those days, Judaism was Chabad. Chabad was the only address for Jewish needs, from tzitzit to kosher meat. That’s what turned me into a Chabadnik.”
The Vagners decided to move to Israel, but the government refused to let them emigrate for two years. Finally, they managed to leave, settling in Israel’s only religious absorption center in Kfar Chabad.
‘One Mitzvah Draws Another’
Vagner's work as editor of the six-volume “Encyclopedia of Russian Jewry” earned him the honor of becoming an official Fellow of the Russian Academy.
“I felt like I’d entered the Garden of Eden,” recalls the rabbi. “I can still remember the smell of the orchards that greeted us. To walk around in a place where everyone was an observant Jew, to go into a store and buy whatever we wanted without having to check the kashrut certification, to daven [pray] in a shul close by—it’s impossible to imagine how amazing this was for us.”
He wasted no time. Within two months of their arrival in Israel, he began to work for Shamir, an organization established by Professor Yirmiyahu Branover, with the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to help former citizens of the Soviet Union.
Vagner was involved in a broadcast on Radio Kol Yisrael, and he posted announcements and articles about Jewish subjects in the Russian-language newspapers. He made home visits all over the country, disseminating Judaism among the new immigrants. He distributed books, Jewish items, mezuzahs and more.
“I figure I knew at least 95 percent of the Russian immigrants. I knew so many that we even made some shidduchim [wedding matches]. A few years ago, I met a man whose shidduch I made 30 years ago, and he wanted to pay me for it.”
When pressed for a special incident that happened during his travels, it was hard for him to choose just one story from all the stories he accumulated over years of daily traveling. In the end, he told me this: “I talked about brit milah with one new immigrant. It took a while, but in the end he agreed to do it. Afterwards, he turned to me and asked if I had a little more time for him. When I said yes, he asked if I could go to his house and put up a mezuzah.
The rabbi and his wife Irina, who passed away last year.
“Today, that man is a rabbi who publishes books on Jewish law. This incident reminds me of the words of the Mishnah: One mitzvah draws another one after it!”
While her husband was spreading Judaism, Irina was busy with something just as important: She managed a laboratory for an institute that pursued solutions to infertility in accordance with Jewish law. At the time, it was the only institute in the country that did focused on such work, which helped married couples have children.
A Return to Russia
At the end of 1989, Vagner went to an international book fair in Moscow, bringing with him Jewish books that had been published by Shamir. He stayed for 10 days, during which time he realized that he had to do something for Moscow’s Jews.
“We returned to Russia just before the holidays. All through the holidays, I thought about what I could do for them. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for our children to relocate to Moscow or for my wife to leave her work, but I felt we had to do it,” he says. “I took the older children to Russia via New York, so we could get the Rebbe’s blessing to become shluchim [emissaries] to Moscow.”
Once they had received approval, Vagner hurried to get to work. He published Jewish books that had been translated into Russian and distributed them all over Russia, gave lectures about Judaism to various communities, and initiated the first Jewish book fairs in Moscow, Riga and Petersburg. They attracted visitors from all over Russia and caused a huge resurgence of interest in Judaism.
Vagner with sons Rabbi Aharon Vagner and Rabbi Binyamin Vagner, both Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Russia
At his initiative, the times for lighting Shabbat candles began to be published in the popular newspaper Vicherna Moscow, in addition to articles about Jewish subjects in a number of other newspapers.
Another project was searching for archival materials relating to the Rebbe’s father and father-in-law.
“A journalist from Dnieper told me that he could get archived material about Rebbe Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father. I went with him to the archives, photocopied the material and sent it to the Rebbe. The Rebbe was so happy! Later, I managed to get more material about the Rebbe’s father-in-law—the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. This material threw a lot of light on many incidents.”
When the Russian Academy started a project to preserve information on various minority groups in Russia, they turned to the Shamir organization for help with a Jewish encyclopedia. The project received the Rebbe’s blessing, and Vagner shouldered the responsibility for it.
“I began to collect material, with a staff of hundreds of people in different countries,” he explains. “We’re still working on it. So far, we’ve published seven volumes—more than 10,000 pages. We’ve covered all the places that Jews lived in Russia, and Jews who lived in Russia at different times. Now we’re working on the third part of the encyclopedia.”
The encyclopedia is sold in Israel, Russia and the United States, and is found in libraries all over Russia. Its publication prompted the Russian Academy to honor Vagner as an official Fellow of the Russian Academy.
“Encyclopedia of Russian Jewry”
“I’ve received tens of thousands of letters from people who read the encyclopedia—people who found their Jewish roots, people who found family members mentioned in it and more. This project is having a far, far greater impact than we’d thought it would.”
Besides this massive project, the rabbi is publishing the Tanya in many locations in the former Soviet Union, at the behest of the Rebbe. He’s even printed it in the town of Lubavitch—the cradle of Chabad chassidus—as well as in St. Petersburg, where the Previous Rebbe was imprisoned, and in Vilna and in other cities.
An Emissary on Wheels
In 2002, Vagner became the rabbi of communities that have no permanent rabbi. He travels from community to community, helping them with their Jewish needs—kosher food, a synagogue, a Jewish school, brit milah, bar mitzvahs, weddings—everything from birth to Jewish burial.
It’s just like the days when he traveled the length and breadth of Israel for Shamir, except that he’s traded in his car for airplanes and trains. Now in his 60s, he still maintains the energy and drive for the work of spreading Judaism.
“I’ve made Shabbat, Passover seders, helped people prepare for holidays, given lectures on Jewish subjects, organized conferences for heads of communities, set up the first Jewish day schools in places where there are no emissaries . . . , ” he enumerates. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of satisfaction to be gained.”
One community that was under his supervision was Tula, a city near Moscow. A man there established a community center with a synagogue in memory of his grandmother. For half a year, the place was almost empty. The donor pleaded with Vagner to come to be rabbi there, so that the community center would be filled with Jewish life.
“Since Tula is close to Moscow, I went a lot, but he wanted me to be there on a regular basis. It was hard for me. I was used to living in capital cities like Moscow and Jerusalem,” he acknowledges. “Tula is a relatively small city, with a population of only half a million, but I understood that this was important, so I agreed.”
From there, the rabbi continues his visits to various cities, rejuvenating local Jewish communities.
A Loss . . . and a Continuation
Irina Vagner passed away suddenly this past October. She had always been supportive of her husband, realizing that his work required him to depart for days and weeks at a time to teach Russian Jews, move frequently, leave whatever she was working on at the time, and open their home at all hours to every Jew and welcoming them warmly. She gave her heart and soul to reconnecting Jews to Judaism.
The rabbi did not allow himself to sink into mourning; he has continued on with his work.
At the moment, he’s in Israel, continuing to do outreach. He Skypes lectures to the Jews of Tula, writes for a weekly Jewish newspaper that’s published there and lectures to Russian-speaking Jews throughout the world.
Two of the Vagners’ five children are emissaries of the Rebbe in Russia: Rabbi Aharon Vagner and his family serve in Irkutsk; and Rabbi Binyamin Vagner and his family serve in Krasnoyarsk.
This is how they act on the education they received at home—an education that prepared them for self-sacrifice for the good of all Jews, wherever they reside.