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Teacher, The Son of a Teacher

In his book of memoirs “...So that You Remain a Jew” Rav Yitzchak Zilber (may the memory of a righteous one be blessed!) tells about his wedding, which occurred in 1945, on the 14th of Elul. It wasn't luxurious. The chupa, as prescribed, was set up outside, under the sky, and the number of men was exactly a minyan. Among them was the Rav of the city of Kuybishev Shteinmarder, Rav Yehoshua Yehuda Leib Meirovich from Lithuania, and former deputy of the Latvian parliament Rav Morchechai Dubin, who was young Rav Yitzchak's shadchan.

 “To this day I remember the speech of Reb Mordechai Dubin at this wedding. He quoted the famous words of the Talmud:

“A traveler walked in the desert, and the way was difficult. But then he came to a fruit tree. It grew next to a clear spring, and its' fruits were refreshing. The traveler ate the fruits, drank the water, and addressed the tree: “Tree, what blessing should I give you? To grow next to water – you are already growing next to water. To have good fruit – your fruit is already good. I'll give you a blessing that everything that comes out of you should be like you.”

That was what the Rav wished me: good children, loyal to our fathers' faith. What do you say? I think it was fulfilled.”

We can readily agree. What could be higher than such a reward for the parents! And Rav Yitzchak received it justly. His children – son Ben Tzion and daughters Sarah, Chava, and Malka – faithfully supported him throughout his difficult and honorable life journey; they carry an imprint of his righteous soul and kind heart.

By his personality and occupation R. Yitzchak was a teacher and a spiritual guide for two decades. He devoted himself to bringing the Israeli Russian speaking community closer to Torah, and he did not stop there. He spoke about Torah in every setting and with anybody – even getting into a taxi; he would begin to tell the driver about the content of the weekly Torah portion. His home was always open to people, and it sometimes happened that his wife was able to set up her Shabbos candles only minutes before Shabbos began – the table was used for a circumcision. He helped countless “Russian” women to obtain a get (document of divorce) and to rebuild their lives. He himself took long trips, looking for missing husbands all over the world.

This feeling of responsibility and readiness to help a Jew where ever he might be Rav Yitzchak also passed along to his children as a spiritual heritage.

The carrier of these traditions of teaching and spiritual guidance is, in my opinion, his son, Rav Ben Tzion Zilber, who after his father's passing took upon himself the responsibilities of the spiritual leader of the organization Toldot Yeshurun, which deals with religious education for Russian-speaking Jewry.

His life experience prepared him for this position.

At the age of five under the guidance of his father he already learned Torah and prayed. And how he prayed! R. Yitzchak remembers that in the thirties some Jew from Kuybishev made a joke, addressing R. Zilber's father-in-law: “So Binyamin, when are you planning to start eating pork?” He did not believe that there would remain any Jews true to Torah. “Many years later this man came to Kazan and stopped by to see Gita [R. Yitzchak's wife]. Our Benchik was then five years old. He ran into the room, stood aside, and began to pray. This man couldn't believe his eyes: he teased the grandfather if it might be time to eat treif and finish with the nonsense, and here is the grandson, a little boy, praying with concentration, by heart. And the guest said, “This is the kind of grandchildren I want to have!” That means he already changed.”

In Kazan Rav Yitzchak used to take Ben Tzion with him to the secret Beit Midrash, and the boy listened to people discussing different talmudic questions. Each Shabbos they used to go to pray in a minyan. At the same time, Ben Tzion studied in a regular Soviet school (he was accepted into the third grade right away), where he had to hide his religiosity, but on Shabbos he, as well as other Zilber children, did not attend school.

In 1960 Rav Yitzchak and his wife were fired from their jobs (from 1941 he worked as a school teacher), and at the school they arranged a meeting where they demanded that he reject his faith in G-d, threatening otherwise to take away his children. The authorities were unable to break him, but after the meeting he received a summons to come to the KGB. R. Yizchak writes, “... Somehow I didn't want to go. I knew I'd be able to come in, but come out – who knows? So what should I do? Flee?

I remember how my wife said, “Where will you flee? They'll find you anyway. They can announce a nationwide search.”

The children, of course, knew of our affairs, and little Ben Tzion all of a sudden blurted out, “Daddy, flee!”

And R. Yitzchak secretly fled to Tashkent, where he worked and where he later was able to bring his family.

Here, in Tashkent, the spiritual making of young Ben Tzion took place. He, like his sisters, found himself in “a Jewish environment, with Jewish friends, and it was especially important.”

“We were growing up with a unique feeling that being a religious Jew is joyous and free,” remembers R. Ben Tzion's sister Chava. “It was especially fun after Havdala, the separation between the holy day from the weekdays, at the end of Shabbos: our father played games with us, began to dance with Ben Tzion, told us stories from Jewish history with “sequels.””

Once Ben Tzion got sick, and his father, obtaining the ticket with difficulty, sent him to a sanatorium. At the age of 14, torn away from home and familiar environment, the only Jew in that sanatorium, he kept everything and throughout the four-five months stay he managed to pray (he hid his tefillin in the forest, in a cavity in a tree) and keep Shabbos. “Ben Tzion made Kiddush on Shabbos quietly over two pieces of bread, havdalah – over a cup of tea or coffee; he said Birkas Hamazon (the blessing after a meal with bread) covering his mouth with his hand, so he wouldn't be noticed.”

When he came out of the sanatorium in better health, Ben Tzion continued his studies in the school for working youth (where he didn't have to attend on Saturdays; he graduated at the age of 15), as well as in the underground yeshiva, where he and several other young men were taught by Rav Zalman Pevzner (Reb Zalman Bober), originally from Belorus, and Rav Yitzchak Viner from the Uzbek city of Margelan (R. Yitzchak Margelaner).

“At the age of fifteen-sixteen,” writes R. Yitzchak, “my son knew Tanach almost at the same level as myself, a grown up... He (R. Yitzchak Viner) treated my son as his own and considered him his student.” This connection between a teacher and a student continued when they both moved to Israel, up until R. Yitzchak Viner's death...

Ben Tzion's studies were so successful that by the time he left the Soviet Union he managed to learn a portion of the Talmud. (Rav Yitzchak related that he began to get up before Ben Tzion as a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, when he was sixteen years old...)

But before the aliya, so long wished for by the whole family, there were the years of “refusal” (Rav Yitzchak began to apply for emigration to Israel in 1956).

In Tashkent in the sixties and seventies there was a lack of teachers who could teach children Torah. And Rav Yitzchak said to Ben Tzion: “You must leave your studies and begin to teach children.” His son objected that he himself is an “am haaretz” and is only beginning to learn. “Every day after my studies with the Rav I learn Gemara and Tosafot for three hours. If I quit, what will become of me?” But Rav Yitzchak insisted: “...What is more important for the Al-mighty: that you and your friend know Gemara better or that people who know nothing about G-d learn about Him, learn to say “Shema,” put on Tefillin, and thus remain Jews? This is my decision: you have a right to leave your studies and go teach.”

And Ben Tzion, giving up his nighttime studies, became a teacher.

“His daily schedule was as follows: from 8 to 12 – work, then he ran to learn, and at night, by 6 or 7 we both left: I went to my students, and Ben Tzion went to his. It was done in secret from my wife: she would have died of fear if she knew that Ben Tzion goes to people's houses and teaches.”

To obtain a profession which would enable Ben Tzion to support himself, he (being the winner of the city-wide school math competition) entered the physics and mathematics department of the Tashkent Teachers' Institute. His sister Chava remembers with humor that he once came home all white and frightened after the exam on the subject of the history of the Communist Party, where he was the only one to receive an excellent mark. “He was terrified. It was very unpleasant for him to know this subject so well...” At the lectures, he tormented the teachers with sinuous questions (such as the number of repressed in the thirties), which could have harmed him in the future...

Then came the year of 1972, and with it, the permission for the entire family to immigrate to Israel 

When they arrived, the question arose: where should he learn? Tentative plans (while still in Tashkent) to continue studying mathematics in the university in Jerusalem (according to Chava, he did not know about the existence of yeshivos in Israel) gave way to a solid resolution – only yeshiva.

Rav Yitzchak remembers:

“An interesting thing happened with Ben Tzion's studies. I offered: “Go to all the yeshivos, learn in each for a few days. Stay in the one where you feel that you are receiving knowledge and yiras shamayim (fear of Heaven).”

He went through several, got to the Mirrer yeshiva and said, “I am not going anywhere.”

The yeshiva was then headed by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. He cried when he tested Ben Tzion's knowledge.”

Half a year after arrival, during the Yom Kippur war, Ben Tzion married the daughter of Rav Baruch Rosenberg, ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka yeshiva (Bnei Brak), where he learned from 1973 till 1977. After the birth of their first son, the family moved to Jerusalem and he came back to learn at the Mirrer yeshiva.

Chava relates that Ben Tzion was received very well in the yeshivos – people were amazed and cried when they found out that he came from the Soviet Union with such knowledge that was not only adequate for the yeshivos' requirements, but was in some ways better. At first he was unaccustomed to the way of learning where everybody speaks out loud during learning, and he sought solitude somewhere in Mea Shearim (a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem), but then he got used to that.

Then Rav Ben Tzion himself taught in different yeshivos, participated for some time in radio programs for Russian speaking listeners, including those outside of Israel.

Rav Ben Tzion Zilber is one of the greatest Russian-speaking halachic authorities in the Land of Israel as well as outside of it. It is precisely on the questions of halacha that he consults and looks over books published in Russian on Jewish subjects.

He edited his father's book of memoirs “...So that you remain a Jew,” which became very popular with Russian-speaking Jewish readers in Israel and in other countries.

Several times he traveled to America, organizing lectures, classes, and seminars.

Every day he gives classes. People come to him for advice on shalom bayis (family issues) and other subjects. Presently, as has been mentioned, he heads Toldot Yeshurun, the county-wide organization founded by his father. He gives classes in the Toldot Yeshurun Kollel, develops the curriculum, fulfilling the wishes of Rav Yitzchak Zilber, who said, “Do it! This is very good! I've had this dream for a long time: everybody who learns seriously will teach others. G-d will help!”

Russian-speaking Jews come to the night kollelim of Toldot Yeshurun after work or school and receive a knowledgeable partner, with whom they move along in their study of Torah and Talmud, at the same time mastering lashon hakodesh (holy tongue). A system of such kollelim exists all over the country. Parallel to the men's learning there is learning for women. The network of these classes is headed by Rav Yitzchak's daughter Chava Kuperman.

Avraham Kohen, one of the founders of Toldot Yeshurun, relates that Rav Yitzchak told him that when he came to Israel thirty years ago, there were no Russian-speaking Jews in Jerusalem who learned Torah. That is why, perhaps sacrificing his own learning, he decided to devote himself to people, to bring them closer to tradition.

And now this work is continued by his son Ben Tzion Zilber and the organization Toldot Yeshurun headed by him, where more than 250 teachers of Torah, mostly young, are working with enthusiasm.

Both father and son Zilber are truly teachers, transmitters of their ancient rabbinical heritage.  

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