Rabbi Katzin’s Story Inspires Hundreds of Russian-Speaking Jews

June 23, 2020

By Ilya Bratman

Searching for a leader who inspires, educates and innovates the Jewish field forward forces us to look deeply inside of ourselves. Who has promoted change, sustained creativity, continued to motivate other leaders, has educated from the bottom up, while exhibiting the values we aspire to possess and to showcase to the world? Furthermore, who has done it for years and continues to grow in influence and impact?

Many incredible sages have impacted my personal journey through the pathways of Jewish exploration and discovery. I have been blessed to meet remarkable and groundbreaking Jewish trailblazers, but few had encouraged, motivated, impacted and educated me in a deep and profound manner. One of these experts and masters is Rabbi Aryeh (Lev) Katzin. Rabbi Katzin currently serves as the CEO and President of RAJE, Russian American Jewish Experience, an outreach educational organization in Brooklyn, NY.

Rabbi Katzin was born in Moscow, Russia in the sixties to a regular Russian secular family, as did millions of other RSJs in Russia. In the late 1970’s, Jewish folks in Russia were deeply awakened by their desire for Jewish life, freedom of religious beliefs and traditions, and their personal expression of Jewishness. Many wonderful Jewish leaders and common folks became ‘refuseniks.’ They tried to leave Russia and immigrate to Israel and were refused this opportunity by the Soviet regime. Their status changed and they became ‘enemies of the state,’ people not to be trusted by the authorities and continuously harassed by the KGB. Natan Sharansky was one of these pioneers and resisters. He paid a heavy price and was in the terrible Soviet gulags.

Rabbi Ilya Esses was another. He was a spiritual leader, a Rabbi in the land of very few educational, Torah outlets for the Jewish minds of the time. They hid in his apartment and learned Hebrew and the basics of Torah thought. All of these actions were illegal and could have caused Rabbi Esses and the fellow learners incarceration in the distant and terrible Gulags. His place was very small, apropos to the apartments in Moscow. Young Lev Katzin was interested in this new Jewish ‘thing.’ He faced anti-Semitism as a young man in high school almost daily. As he attempted to enter the University in Moscow, he was denied because he was a Jew. This denial and other barriers further awakened his need and desire to connect to these deeply buried roots. He searched for folks who were thinking similarly. He found Rabbi Esses and the small band of Jewish misfits hiding their aleph-bet booklets smuggled by brave Americans in small Moscow apartments. He started to attend some of these clandestine sessions as a 17 year-old newly-discovering Jewish teen, ready to explore, and opening his own world to the possibilities of Jewish thought and traditions.

After some time learning together, he offered Rabbi Esses to use his apartment, where he lived with his mother. It was a bit bigger and located in the center of Moscow. By opening his doors to these rebels, he became a target of the KGB, who had been infiltrating this group of learners for years. One night, after a couple of weeks of classes in his apartment, the session was suddenly halted. Someone was pounding on the door. The students, aged between 15-75, hid the books under the bed. Lev Katzin peeked through peephole and saw a group of official men at his door. He opened the door and they barged into the apartment. They were KGB agents. Everyone was arrested that night and placed in black vans waiting outside.

They removed the black bag that wrapped young Lev Katzin’s head and he was roughly placed on a lonely chair in a dimly lit room without windows. There was only one other man in the room. He was reading something and smoking belomor cigarettes. They sat like this for a while as Boris, the infamous KGB interrogator, read the dossier slowly. Lev was frozen with fear and confusion. He thought to himself: ‘This is the end, my mom will never see me again.’ Boris looked up from the papers, smirked and began his questioning. He told Lev that he was never going to see sunlight again and that the next place he would live would be significantly further east of Moscow. He accused Lev Katzin of conspiracy, and of leading the band of rebels, of collusion with American agents, and of subversion of the Soviet regime. He threatened him, cajoled him, aggressively attacked him. All night, Lev persevered though the barrage of these attacks, insinuations and accusations. Hours had passed. Lev had nothing to say. He knew nothing. He was a lowly Jewish kid, excited about Hebrew, and the bits of tradition that has been forbidden to him. By morning, Boris was visibly tired and disgusted by this Jewish youngster. He looked steadily and with pity at Lev, smirked for the final time and left the room. Hours later, someone came in and said that Lev needed to leave and do it immediately and to know that next time, he would be going far away and for a long time!

As Lev Katzin walked out of the Lubyanka KGB headquarters in Moscow, he felt the piercing eyes of the agents in the street following him. He was reaffirmed at that time that this was not his country, not his homeland. The next day he went to the Israeli consulate and asked for a way to get out, to escape. He knew that he was being followed, but he felt like he had no choice! To his incredible surprise, he was not refused. He had a way out. He remembers that he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Rabbi Ilya Esses, who was arrested alongside many other refuseniks and Jewish students of all ages and was sent to the far east. The pain of leaving the only place you know, the only place you have called home was tangible and palatable. However, this was a chance for real freedom and the yearning for Jewishness would lead him to Israel, to our homeland. He was able to escape in 1980. In Israel, Torah was finally accessible to him, Hebrew, our culture and traditions were finally in his grasp. Lev embraced our practices and beliefs and attended a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, quickly becoming a talmid hacham and a scholar, engaging hundreds of other young Russian-speaking olim. He took the name Aryeh. His lionheart, (the translation of his Russian name Lev – Lion) was finally at ease as he was able to fulfill his dreams of reconnecting and returning to the Jewish people.