The message Rebbetzin Shterney Kanelsky plans to deliver to hundreds of women in Connecticut next week is very different from her previous speeches. After decades of describing the horrors of the anti-Semitism she and her husband endured as children in what was then the Soviet Union, her story now has a happier ending.
“Our fear has been transformed,” she said, talking in her home in Hillside, headquarters of Bris Avrohom, the Chabad Lubavitch organization led by her husband, Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky. “Something so negative has become so positive in our life now. We no longer have this fear.”
Shterney Kanelsky, who serves as Bris Avrohom’s associate director, will describe the visit they made in November to Moscow when she speaks on Friday, Feb. 15, at the Tenth Annual Russian International Shabbaton. The gathering, which each year draws more than 1,000 participants, is for adherents of the Chabad Lubavitch chasidic movement originally from the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU). It will take place Feb. 15-17 in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Stamford, Conn.
After this trip, “We want to visit there again,” she said.
The rabbi left Russia as a 9-year-old in 1970; his wife, who lived in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, left at age 10 a year later. Neither had been back since then, nor had they wanted to, despite meeting and hosting numerous groups from the FSU in recent years. “They told us things have changed and we should come, but I never wanted to go,” the rabbi said, joining the discussion.
But, to their astonishment, they were presented with two tickets as a gift, with flights and hotel rooms booked. As guests of Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia and chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Commonwealth of Independent States (the FSU), they spent six days there.
“We landed on Thanksgiving,” Shterney said, clearly still absorbing the wonder of the whole episode. It had been 48 years since she and her parents and siblings grabbed the brief window of permission granted by Leonid Brezhnev’s government to leave their home and go to Israel. The rabbi, who is her first cousin, managed to get out with his family — they lived in Malakhovka, a Moscow suburb — the following year.
With their mutual grandparents, they settled in Israel; in 1980 they came to the United States and were married the following year. They had eight children (one died in infancy), and their 17th grandchild was born Feb. 11.
Though Kanelsky’s brother, Rabbi Meir Simcha Kanelsky, who was born in Israel, went to Russia as a Chabad emissary, Mordechai rejected all invitations to visit. The memories were too grim. As a child, he and his family were subject to prohibitions on religious practice and the need to hide their Jewish observance. He said he chose to hide in the basement for much of that time so he could study Jewish texts with a tutor. His parents told the authorities that he had gone to live with his cousins in Samarkand. When government agents came to check and searched the house, his grandmother telegraphed warnings to him — in Yiddish — to run from one spot to another as he heard the heavy footfalls moving through the house.
Shterney’s memories are less extreme but still traumatic enough to be etched in her memory. She described vividly how her family spread her and her two sisters out across the town, so that when they came up with excuses to miss school each Shabbat, their absences would not be too obvious. “How many excuses can you bring?” she laughed.
She was the only Jewish child out of the 500 in her school. One day, when everyone in the class was told to declare their ethnicity, the teacher yelled that she was Jewish. The boy seated behind her, in a spasm of disgust, slashed her back with his ruler.
Upon their return in November, the Kanelskys were astounded by the openness of the welcome they received in Moscow and by the seven-story building housing Rabbi Lazar’s headquarters, with its three kosher restaurants. Between them, in six days, they gave 17 talks to youth groups and young professionals. Though there was no time for sightseeing or leisure, both said it was a joyful and astonishing experience.
They were nearly thwarted from going into one place they very much wanted to visit, the house in Malakhovka where the rabbi lived and studied in hiding.
Two days before their departure, a van brought them to the site. The sprawling homestead was immediately recognizable but a locked gate in the high iron fencing prevented their entrance. The rabbi was frustrated but resigned — but his wife said, “I could not accept that he would not get to see inside.”
Then, at one of the gatherings in Moscow, a woman recognized Shterney from a visit to Hillside. After Shterney told her of their disappointment in Malakhovka, the woman said that her husband is the head of the housing authority, “and maybe he can help.”
And he was. The woman’s husband was able to identify the house’s current owner, track him down in Moscow, and persuade him — with an offer of payment for his time — to come to the house on Tuesday, the morning before the Kanelskys were to depart.
For the rabbi, the visit was deeply emotional. An obstruction prevented him from entering the basement where he had spent so many months, but just looking into it brought him to tears. “I could feel just how it was, as if I was still that child,” he said. His wife managed to climb down, accompanied by the photographer who traveled with them.
“The owner was so moved when he saw how much it meant to us,” she said. As the Kanelskys had done so long ago, he was using the cold underground space to store bottled and canned foods, and he insisted on giving them two jars of tomatoes. (Though they would not eat the nonkosher preserves, they accepted the gift with appreciation.)
The day of their visit, Nov. 27, the rabbi pointed out, also happened to be the 220th anniversary of the release from prison of Chabad founder Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe.”
For Shterney Kanelsky, there was a moment in Russia that underlined the immense appreciation for freedom that she and her husband try to inspire in other Jews. After relating to a group of about 150 young women how her mother used to make a 36-hour train journey every month to visit a mikvah — a stunning contrast to the elegant spa-like structure built by Bris Avrohom in her own backyard in Hillside — she challenged those present “to take on themselves one extra mitzvah, and write a letter about it to be placed at the gravesite” of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Queens.
One young woman told her she had had a baby, a son who had not been circumcised. Her non-Jewish husband had warned her not to have it done, but she felt compelled. Shterney said she has since heard that this baby did have a bris and that the husband accepted it. “I was crying when I heard that. That one story — dayeinu — that is enough,” she said.