Mottel der Shoichet, 97, was a fierce survivor of decades-long Soviet persecution. Exiled to the Soviet gulags for seven years for the crime of Torah study and his connections to Chabad, he went on to serve for decades as Moscow’s only shochet (kosher slaughterer) and mohel (circumciser).

Boruch Mordechai Lifshitz—or Mottel, as he was affectionately known—was born in Kiev in the summer of 1916, just months before the Russian Revolution swept through the region, bringing with it the oppressions and challenges that would come to shape so many Jewish lives, including his. His parents, Zalman and Frume Sarah Lifshitz, were both from families that had been adherents of the Rebbes of the Chernobyl Chassidic dynasty for generations.

Orphaned from his father at a young age, Mottel was a student at the secret chadarim (schools) organized by Chabad Chassidim in his hometown. The students would hide in synagogue attics, remaining as quiet as possible lest the authorities get wind of their presence, which they knew would spell incarceration or death for their teachers. Among Mottel’s teachers at that time were rabbis Avrohom Drizin (Mayorer), Binyamin Lipman and Yonah Zhitomerer, who inspired him with their warmth, love of Judaism and deep connection to their Rebbe—the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

Later, Mottel would also study in Yeshivah Tiferes Bachurim, a study program founded by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak for older students who would devote their after-work hours to Torah study.

Mottel was also active on a communal level. He raised funds for Chassidim who had been arrested for their “illegal” activities on behalf of Judaism, helped create secret mikvahs (ritual baths) and Torah schools, and carried on a correspondence with his beloved Rebbe.

Then the inevitable happened. Just three days after he became engaged to be married, 23-year-old Mottel was arrested by the secret police.

Solitary in Siberia

He was accused of several serious “crimes,” including the offenses of “holding a substantial written correspondence with an agent of the Polish secret police named Schneersohn” and “gathering youth to study the banned talks and discourses of Schneersohn.” The damning evidence included Chassidic texts that he owned and a photograph of himself that he had sent to the Rebbe.

Reb Mottel, a longtime mohel and shochet, was sentenced to forced labor in Siberia for his fearless efforts for Judaism.
Reb Mottel, a longtime mohel and shochet, was sentenced to forced labor in Siberia for his fearless efforts for Judaism.

Throughout his interrogation, Reb Mottel made sure to remain silent about his comrades and their activities, only sharing the names of older men he was sure the authorities already knew.

Reb Mottel was sentenced to forced labor in Siberia, felling trees.

In his memoirs, which have been published in Yiddish, Reb Mottel wrote about the time his mother sent him a package of matzah for Passover. He decided to share them with his Jewish barrack mates, many of whom had been high-level Communist officials, victims of Stalin’s purges.

Upon touching and tasting the matzahs, many said they were flooded with memories of their Jewish upbringing in the shtetl.

“It is impossible to transcribe the emotions that those pieces of matzah brought out in these Jewish souls,” he wrote. “It was not Passover, but rather a wonderful Yom Kippur.”

Reb Mottel’s refusal to work on Shabbat cost him dearly, earning him 10 days in “kartzer”: solitary confinement in an unheated porous cell, into which the biting Siberian winds blew, until the agonized prisoner was allowed to warm up near an oven before being sent out again.

Ultimately, he was removed from “kartzer,” only to be punished for his crime of feigning illness to avoid work on Shabbat by being sent by cattle car to the goldmines of Kolyma in the Arctic Circle, where he and his comrades would work in temperatures of 50 degrees (Celcius) below zero, equivalent to 58 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, fighting with the stubborn earth.

Upon discovering their destination, many people hurtled themselves from the moving cattle car, preferring sudden death as opposed to the painful frozen starvation that awaited them—after which they would be thrown to the polar bears.

Kolyma proved to be as terrible as expected. In his memoirs, Reb Mottel described being worked for 30 hours in the biting cold, and seeing his fellow prisoners drop dead from exhaustion and malnourishment.

At family gatherings 70 years later, he often told his children and grandchildren: “While in Kolyma, my only prayer was that I would somehow be buried as a Jew, and not thrown to the beasts—and even that I did not expect. That I would one day have a family of my own was simply beyond my wildest imagination.”

Reb Mottel speaking at Chabad of Midtown Manhattan with his grandson, Rabbi Levi Haskelevich.
Reb Mottel speaking at Chabad of Midtown Manhattan with his grandson, Rabbi Levi Haskelevich.

During the excruciating workdays, the workers sang folk songs to themselves. Reb Mottel wrote that he quietly sung the Chassidic melodies he had learned in yeshivah—most notably, the hauntingly sweet Poltava Niggun.

Saved, and Then a New Chapter

During the exceptionally cold winter of 1941-42, Reb Mottel was saved by the most extraordinary circumstances. Having gotten frostbite on his toe, he was admitted into the hospital, where his toe was partially amputated (without anaesthesia). As he recovered, he made himself useful serving the needs of other patients. By the time he was released back to his work brigade, he discovered that the camp was almost deserted—during the months he had spent in the not-as-frigid hospital, most of his fellow slave-laborers had died from the bitter cold.

For a portion of his time in Kolyma, Reb Mottel was able to avoid working on Shabbat through the help of the Jewish camp doctor, who wrote notes saying that he was ill. Eventually, the doctor stopped out of fear that the pattern would be discovered.

Although his sentence ended in 1942, Reb Mottel wasn’t able to leave the gulag until 1946, when he returned to Kiev only to discover that his friends and family were gone. His mother, sister-in-law Chana, and nephews Ben Zion and Yisroel had been killed by the Nazis in the woods of Babi Yar. His brother, Chaim Gedalya, had died on the front.

Many of his Chabad friends never returned alive from the clutches of the KGB.

Eventually, Reb Mottel learned that many Chabad Chassidim had gathered in Lemberg (Lviv), hoping to sneak under the Iron Curtain with forged Polish passports. He hastened to join them, only to discover that he was too late. The window of opportunity had clanged shut.

Reading the ketuba at the marriage of a refusenik couple in Soviet Russia.
Reading the ketuba at the marriage of a refusenik couple in Soviet Russia.

Making peace with the situation, Reb Mottel married and started a family. His son Schneur Zalman and his daughter Chaya Sarah (Haskelevich) were born in Lviv. His daughter Shaindel (Wiener) was born later.

He later relocated to Kharkov to serve as a shochet (a skill he had learned in Chernovitz in 1949), standing in the market place unobtrusively serving slaughtering chickens for whomever came his way.

In 1957 he moved to Moscow to learn at the newly formed Yeshiva Kol Ya’akov, where he was certified as a shochet for both fowl and mammals. It was there that he also learned the craft of milah, circumcision.

Rabbi Yehuda Levin, chief rabbi of Moscow who headed the Moscow yeshivah, advised Reb Mottel to move to Frunze (Bishkek), in Kyrgyzstan, where he would put his skills to work at the service of the local Jewish community.

Eventually, the KGB caught wind of his “illegal” activities and threatened Reb Mottel with lengthy prison time unless he would start working for them as an informer. Determined never to cause harm to his fellow Jews, Reb Mottel decided to leave Kyrgyzstan, which was a problem because the KGB had his passport. A well-placed 10,000 rubles got him back his passport, and Reb Mottel was on the road back home to Kharkov—but not for long.

A Leader and an Example

Again, Levin charged him with another mission: to serve as rabbi, chazzan, shochet and mohel in the Jewish community of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg), Russia, which he did until the local authorities forced him to leave.

In 1967, Levin invited Reb Mottel to join him in Moscow, where he would serve as shochet and mohel, a position he would hold for a quarter century, even as his children left the Soviet Union and settled in New York.

Rabbi Levi Haskelevich and Reb Mottel with Benjamin Nathans, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rabbi Levi Haskelevich and Reb Mottel with Benjamin Nathans, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1973, his new son-in-law, Rabbi Berel Haskelevich, asked the Rebbe if Reb Mottel could perhaps visit for the High Holidays and Sukkot. The Rebbe demurred, asking how he would be able to leave the city of Moscow bereft of a “shochet, etc.?” (Apparently, the Rebbe did not want to write “mohel” since it was a much bigger crime in the eyes of the Soviets and might cause him harm should the note fall into the wrong hands).

Yuli Edelstein, an Israeli politician who currently serves as Speaker of the Knesset, described a circumcision he once attended in Moscow in the early 1980s. Family and friends were gathered in a basement with windows blackened by sheets. A few minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin, the KGB arrived banging on the door and dispersed the terrified crowd.

Reb Mottel, the mohel, had seen the commotion and waited across the street. Minutes after the KGB agents left, Reb Mottel strode in, performed the brit and left as quickly as he had come.

Yuli Edelstein dancing with Reb Mottel der Shoichet
Yuli Edelstein dancing with Reb Mottel der Shoichet

Speaking at Lubavitch House at University of Pennsylvania, served by Reb Mottel’s grandchildren—Rabbi Levi and Nechama Haskelevich—Edelstein spoke of how he and his fellow refuseniks learned to stay strong in prison, despite tremendous pressure, by emulating Reb Mottel’s example.

In his memoirs, Reb Mottel wrote glowingly about messengers from the free world who would visit from time to time, singling out Rabbi Pinchas Teitz from Elizabeth, N.J., who brought him transcripts of the Rebbe’s talks, and Moshe Davidovitch, from Antwerp, who brought kosher necessities and Judaica supplies.

Rabbi Shalom Dovber Levine, chief librarian of the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, whom the Rebbe sent to visit Moscow in 1988, recalls the warm greeting he received from Reb Mottel, who had learned with Levine’s father back in Kiev half-a-century earlier. “He was more than just the shochet,” he says. “He was the leader of the community in the Archipova [Choral] synagogue.”

Upon hearing how much Reb Mottel wished to read Kfar Chabad magazine—a weekly Hebrew-language publication with teachings and news relevant to the Chabad community—so that he could keep abreast of the Rebbe’s talks and initiatives, Levine surreptitiously left a copy under a book at Reb Mottel’s place in the synagogue.

Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, remembers his first time meeting Reb Mottel back in 1987. “The situation was still quite bleak and dangerous,” he recalls. “People were afraid to speak to us foreigners, but not Reb Mottel. He came right up to me and asked if I had an Algemeiner Journal [a Yiddish-language newspaper published in New York]. Only later, after he knew that I could be trusted, did he call me into his office and explained that he did not care for the news in the paper; he just wanted to read the Rebbe’s talks that the newspaper carried, something he could not safely request from a stranger.”

Twenty years after Reb Mottel left Moscow, Lazar says he still meets people who speak of how Reb Mottel arranged Jewish weddings for them and otherwise helped them live as Jews.

“He was a brave man who risked his own safety for Judaism,” says Lazar. “At that time, the Archipova synagogue was full of informers—from the clergy to the officers. Most of the Chabad Chassidim preferred Marina Roscha synagogue, where you knew you were safe when the spies left. Reb Mottel was never afraid to be there throughout the day. His deep faith was what allowed him to survive.”

Accordingly, Reb Mottel was the address for young people wishing to learn about Jewish observance and traditions.

“When Reb Mottel would sing a niggun, you just sat and listened; it was an experience all of its own,” remembers Lazar. “He would often sing a well-known Chabad melody in which a Chassid longingly asks when he will be reunited with his Rebbe.”

In 1987, after training another shochet to temporarily take his place, Reb Mottel finally visited the Rebbe for the High Holidays—meeting his spiritual mentor for the first time. In his memoirs, he described his delight at moments that include receiving an aliyah in the Rebbe’s presence, standing near the Rebbe for the blowing of the shofar, and even receiving a lulav and etrog set for the holiday of Sukkot as a gift from the Rebbe.

In 1993, satisfied that his position would no longer go vacant, he consulted with the Rebbe and moved permanently to Brooklyn, N.Y., to be near his daughter, Chaya Sarah. He would become a fixture in the Crown Heights community for the next 21 years.

He was often seen on Thursday nights in a small room at Lubavitch World Headquarters, sitting with Russian-speaking students over a bowl of chopped tomatoes and onions, and a small bottle of vodka. In addition to learning with them, he shared inspiration and his memories from long, long ago.

Frank Neuman, a retired businessman who lives in New York and Valencia, Spain, says visiting Reb Mottel in his Brooklyn apartment this past winter was an “absolutely unforgettable” experience.

“His room was full of books, and he was studying when we came in,” says Neuman, who dropped in with Lazar for a Shabbat-afternoon visit. “He stood up to greet us and was just so thrilled to have visitors. He wanted to cut the cake, pour drinks, and do everything for us, as if we were his honored guests. There was this tremendous energy just sparkling from him. He was a beautiful representative of the Judaism that he suffered for, and I am sure that he is still doing the same, praying and fighting for those of us down here.”

Reb Mottel passed away in his 98th year, full of faith, vigor and spirit until the very end.

He is survived by his children, Schneur Zalman Lifshitz, Chaya Sarah Haskelevich, Shaindel Weiner, and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.