Reb Berke Schiff possessed a trait paramount to the survival of Jewish life in the Soviet underground: He was a man who could be trusted. As a key activist in the secret Chabad-Lubavitch community that flourished in isolation for more than a quarter-century—from 1946 until 1972 in Samarkand, Soviet Asia—Schiff helped fellow Jews find jobs that didn’t require them to work on Shabbat; taught Torah and encouraged mitzvah observance among local Bukharan Jews; and accepted clandestine missions on behalf of the Jewish community that saw him travel thousands of miles into the Russian wilderness.

In the process, he helped found Chamah, an underground Jewish welfare and educational organization directed by his friend and mentor, Rabbi Moshe Nissilevich. Later in Israel, he did the same for the Ohr Simcha-Bukharim Yeshiva for Sephardic Russian-Jewish immigrants from in and around Uzbekistan.

Schiff passed away unexpectedly on Sept. 19 at his home in Lod, Israel, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He was 76 years old.

In 1964, he set out on a journey that would echo the fate of Russian Jewry.

Shortly after marrying Batya (Rabinovich) in Samarkand, Schiff was asked by his new in-laws to travel to Kursk, some 2,000 miles away, to ensure the proper circumcision of their newborn twin grandsons—the children of Batya’s brother and sister-in-law, who were no longer religious.

Before he left, Schiff was informed by Nissilevich of a message relayed by Chief Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin in Moscow, who had received a letter from a man by the name of Miyasin living thousands of kilometers away in a remote Siberian village. The letter-writer said he had three Torah scrolls in his possession and asked the Jewish community to salvage them before he passed on. Nissilevich asked Schiff to accept the mission.

Schiff in his later years.
Schiff in his later years.

Arriving in Moscow, Schiff proceeded to Kursk with Reb Mottel Lifschitz (more commonly known as Reb Mottel der Shoichet, a survivor of decades-long Soviet persecution who served for decades as Moscow’s only shochet and mohel), who circumcised the boys in the presence of their mother and Schiff. Once back in Moscow, Schiff wavered about whether to follow up with his assignment to search out an anonymous old man in the middle of nowhere hoping to find Torah scrolls.

“Borke decided to look up plane tickets that went to that region,” recalls Rabbi Betzalel Schiff, Schiff’s younger brother, referring to him by his Russian nickname. “If there was anything available, it would be a sign he should go.”

He got the tickets and boarded a flight to Krasnoyarsk. “He went in his little city shoes; he wasn’t ready for Siberian weather at all,” says his brother, one of the founders of Shamir Publishing House in Jerusalem, which specializes in Jewish books in Russian.

The old man’s letter had said that when the Jewish community’s messenger got close to his village, he should start asking around for Myasin, and someone would direct him. Two flights and a rocky bus ride later, Schiff found himself at the ends of the earth. Hours passed, and Schiff scolded himself for his own poor judgment. “Then one person told him he heard of a Myasin, and his house was up the hill. He told him he had just died.”

The Siberian snow drifts were piled high. Schiff trudged ahead. A Russian peasant took pity on him and gave him a pair of boots before walking him to the correct hut, outside of which a few older Russian women stood, sobbing. “You’re the man from Moscow?” the women exclaimed. “How he waited for you! He said someone who looked like you would be coming around. He passed away early this morning.”

Berke Schiff, left, and above him his father, Yosef Schiff. Fourth from left is Berke's older brother, Aryeh Leib. Reb Yerachmiel Chodosh, Yosef's father-in-law, is in the center.
Berke Schiff, left, and above him his father, Yosef Schiff. Fourth from left is Berke's older brother, Aryeh Leib. Reb Yerachmiel Chodosh, Yosef's father-in-law, is in the center.

Still unsure if the deceased was even a Jew, Schiff stepped into the house. A body covered by a tallis lay on the table. Candles burned in the room. Along the wall was an ark with an emblazoned Star of David and inside three Torah scrolls, just as the old man had promised in his letter, along with a machzor, siddur and a shofar.

“They were all converts,” explains Betzalel Schiff, noting that the machzor, which his brother kept for many years, was printed using an old Russian translation. “They had been sent into exile for converting to Judaism years earlier. Because of communism, they all stopped being religious except this one man.”

Schiff sat up the entire night saying tehillim (psalms) near the body, as is customary. The next morning, Myasin’s family arranged for a dog sled to take him to the bus station. A few days later, he was home in Samarkand with the scrolls.

The Stringent Soviet Era

Gershon Dovber Schiff was born in 1938 in Voronezh, Russia, the second of Yosef and Malka Schiff’s four children. His grandfather had studied at the famed Lithuanian yeshivah of Volozhin before settling in Voronezh and becoming a wealthy man. In the early 1920s, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—arrived in Voronezh. The Rebbe’s grandson was ill with typhus, and so the only one who agreed to host the party was the elder Schiff.

In return for the kindness, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak offered to take Schiff’s son, Yosef, back with him to study at the yeshivah then located in Rostov.

“That’s when my father became a Lubavitcher, as did the entire family,” relates Betzalel Schiff. “Then he married my mother, who was the daughter of Reb Yerachmiel Chodosh and came from an old Lubavitcher family.”

The founding of Chamah: Four young men gather and swore to uphold Judaism with self-sacrifice. From left is Berel Zaltzman, Moshe Nissilevich, Aryeh Leib Schiff and Berke Schiff. On the table sits a Tanya wrapped in a "Pravda" newspaper.
The founding of Chamah: Four young men gather and swore to uphold Judaism with self-sacrifice. From left is Berel Zaltzman, Moshe Nissilevich, Aryeh Leib Schiff and Berke Schiff. On the table sits a Tanya wrapped in a "Pravda" newspaper.

Berke came into communal work in the late 1950s during an extraordinarily difficult period for Jews in the Soviet Union. Years earlier, with news of Nazi atrocities reaching Jews in Russia and German troops rapidly approaching, thousands of Jews fled their homes in Ukraine and Russia, and headed east with a large Chabad refugee community to Samarkand and Tashkent. Among them was Malka Schiff and her three children at the time—Berke the middle one—while her husband Yosef was at the front. Schiff’s father returned from the war in 1943, minus the use of an arm.

When the war ended and a window of opportunity to leave the USSR via Polish repatriation presented itself, a majority of the Chabad community-in-exile escaped on westward-bound trains using falsified Polish papers. The operation was expensive and dangerous; a number of organizers were arrested and imprisoned, where they either died or spent long, hard years. And then there were the families who hadn’t managed to procure the proper papers in time. Locked behind a newly reinforced “Iron Curtain,” the community of 40 or 50 families stayed in Samarkand, a place far from the center of Soviet power in Moscow where they could more easily hide the existence of a religious community.

A meeting of young Chamah activists in Samarkand. Schiff can be see in the bottom row, far left.
A meeting of young Chamah activists in Samarkand. Schiff can be see in the bottom row, far left.

Life in Samarkand

The Chassidic community in Samarkand had all the staples of Jewish life: a cheder (literally a “room,” a traditional elementary school) for younger children, a yeshivah, places where a Shabbat minyan could be held and a mikvah. Although far safer than in the larger eastern Russian cities, the Jewish infrastructure had to be kept hidden as long as it was functioning.

Schiff’s father was an injured veteran, and after the war had been forced to join the Communist Party. That meant his legal status was more clearly defined than many of those who had not served in the military, let alone been injured. As a party member, he was able to manage a factory where he worked to employ Jews and use his status to pull strings for the community.

Berke followed his father’s lead, and after the elder Schiff fell ill took over the factory. As a boss, or nachalnik—a coveted status in the former Soviet Union to this day—the younger Schiff became relatively wealthy himself, purchasing a home in Samarkand that for a while served as a synagogue and yeshivah for the community. (A yeshivah could not stay in one place indefinitely because it was only time before a neighbor became suspicious of the activity.)

Berke and Batya (Rabinovich) Schiff's chuppah in Samarkand.
Berke and Batya (Rabinovich) Schiff's chuppah in Samarkand.

“My father wasn’t afraid to do anything,” says Berke’s daughter Chana Mishulovin. “He didn’t hesitate; if something had to be done, he did it.”

When the famed Reb Mendel Futerfas, who had helped organize the Lubavitch community’s escape to the West in 1946-48 before being caught and sent to a gulag for 14 years, was finally freed and arrived to join the community in Samarkand, it was Berke Schiff who greeted him.

“The great tzaddik Mendel Futerfas, he came to Samarkand and everyone was afraid to visit him” because he was a convict, shares Betzalel Schiff. “But someone needed to bring him food. Borke wasn’t afraid; he went to him, and brought him eggs and milk. And when Reb Mendel got permission to leave, who saw him off? Borke Schiff!”

Surrounding the Chassidic community were thousands of Bukharan Jews. Traditional, pious people, they had lived in Asia for generations and kept their religious flame alive. Chabad had had a long connection with the Bukharan Jews, stretching back to the 1890s when the first Lubavitcher arrived there and began working to raise the level of Jewish education. When Chamah was founded, one of its goals was to teach Torah to the Bukharan children, with young activists such as Schiff, Rabbis Hillel and Berel Zaltzman, and Rabbi Moshiach Chudaitov traveling throughout the countryside setting up cheders and yeshivahs in order to do so.

That’s when Schiff learned their language and customs, which would later prove invaluable in Israel.

Berke Schiff poses with three of his children just prior to his emigration from the Soviet Union.
Berke Schiff poses with three of his children just prior to his emigration from the Soviet Union.

Festival of Freedom

By 1972, much of the remaining Chabad community was finally given permission to leave the Soviet Union. Many settled in Israel, among them the extended Schiff family. That Passover, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—paid for the new immigrants to come to New York and celebrate the holiday at Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

After speaking about the “Mah Nishtanah?”—the four questions traditionally asked by children at the Passover seder—at the farbrengen on the first day of Passover, the Rebbe addressed the crowd.

“Is there a child here who has recently left Egypt?” he asked.

There was. Berke’s son Yerachmiel and Yerachmiel’s cousin were lifted over the crowd and deposited near the Rebbe, who poured them some wine and wished them a l’chaim. Then, in a flawless Yiddish, the Russian boys proceeded to ask “The Four Questions,” ending with the traditional “Tatte, I have asked of you the questions, now, please give me an answer.”

“The Rebbe was very emotional,” remembers Schiff. “And he started singing ‘Ee v’vade mi ne utonim, ee v’agne mi ne zgarim,’ and the whole room was singing.”

The Russian words were the ultimate anthem of the hardscrabble Russian Chassidim, sung over and over, faster and faster: “And in water we will not drown, and in fire we will not burn.”

The early beginnings of Yeshivat HaBukharim in Kfar Chabad, Israel. From left are Berke Schiff, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Ledaiov, Rabbi Zevulun Leviev, Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman, Rabbi Moshe Nissilevitch, Rabbi Lipa Klein and Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin.
The early beginnings of Yeshivat HaBukharim in Kfar Chabad, Israel. From left are Berke Schiff, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Ledaiov, Rabbi Zevulun Leviev, Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman, Rabbi Moshe Nissilevitch, Rabbi Lipa Klein and Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin.

Building a School and a Home

When Schiff had been at his private audience with the Rebbe, he had noted that many recent Bukharan immigrants to Israel had been integrating poorly into society. The Rebbe suggested that Schiff take the situation into his own hands.

Over the next year, Schiff worked to place the children in religious Jewish schools throughout Israel. Families in the Chassidic village of Kfar Chabad took many in and transformed a school that was closing in nearby Rishon Letzion into a dormitory. Still, it was an uphill battle; despite finding the youngsters housing closer to Jewish schools, many of the schools turned down the children. Delinquency rates within the Bukharan Jewish community skyrocketed.

During his next private audience in 1974, the Rebbe made it clear that he meant Berke should start his own institution to care for the children.

A Bukharan child studies at Schiff's yeshivah. Schiff connected with the students and the families, including linguistically, building a massive institution in the process.
A Bukharan child studies at Schiff's yeshivah. Schiff connected with the students and the families, including linguistically, building a massive institution in the process.

Arriving back in Israel, Schiff founded Yeshivat HaBukharim in Kfar Chabad together with Rabbi Simcha Gorodetsky—after whom it was named Ohr Simcha when he passed away in the early 1990s—and the help of Reb Shlomo Maidanchik and others, running the rapidly growing institution out of a collection of trailers. More than just a providing an education (many of the children were illiterate coming from Bukhara), the yeshivah took youngsters from broken homes and provided them with a stable atmosphere geared uniquely towards them.

“Even if the other schools would have accepted these children, they didn’t know how to handle them,” says Schiff. “They were coming from a different world. The parents knew and respected Borke from Samarkand; he spoke their language and knew their ways, and he understood them in a way others simply couldn’t.”

Chana Mishulovin remembers her father being totally dedicated to the cause.

“He was out of the house at 6 a.m. and driving to pick up the ‘house mothers,’ ” she says. “It wasn’t like a regular school. There were kids who were 6 years old there, and there needed to be food and clothing and everything to make it like home. Food was very important to my father. He never wanted the institution to skimp; he wanted the children to have big, healthy meals.”

No matter what was happening, Schiff made sure to keep the Rebbe appraised of the successes and challenges of the Bukharan Jews.

“He was like a soldier, he kept moving,” says his daughter. “He never wrote a journal; he was just busy, busy, busy. He saved thousands of young men from the street.”

A class at Ohr Simcha-Yeshivat HaBukharim. Schiff stands against the window.
A class at Ohr Simcha-Yeshivat HaBukharim. Schiff stands against the window.

The yeshivah grew to encompass a vast campus, including school buildings and dormitories, and continues to operate today.

Schiff’s brother remembers sitting together with Reb Mendel Futerfas at one of Berke’s family occasions. “He kept saying Borke, Borke, Borke, and he told us, ‘You know why I call him Borke? Because after 120, he’s going to go up to heaven, and they’re going to pull out their list of names to judge him.

They’ll ask him his name, and he’ll answer Gershon Ber. They’ll look at the paper and won’t find that name. He’ll tell them he’s also known as Borke from Samarkand.

“They’ll look again and tell him, ‘Borke from Samarkand? We have a long list of good deeds for you. We know exactly who you are.’ ”

In addition to his wife, Schiff is survived by his children: Yerachmiel Schiff, Chana Mishulovin, Yoske Schiff, Michoel Schiff, Malky Chabib, Schneur Schiff and Mendy Schiff; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is also survived by siblings Aryeh Leib Schiff, Devorah Chein and Betzalel Schiff.

Reb Mendel Futerfas, left, who helped organize the Lubavitch community in Russia’s escape to the West in 1946-48 before being caught and sent to a Soviet gulag for 14 years, with Reb Berke Schiff.
Reb Mendel Futerfas, left, who helped organize the Lubavitch community in Russia’s escape to the West in 1946-48 before being caught and sent to a Soviet gulag for 14 years, with Reb Berke Schiff.