Kollel Milhamta Shel Torah of Queens A Spiritual Home for Torah and Tefillah

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By: Ellen Geller Kamaras

“It’s Torah and tefillah in its purest level – no ulterior motives.”

This is how one student describes his experience as an avrech (young married student) in Kollel Milhamta Shel Torah in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, a unique full-time Torah learning program serving the Bukharan community of Queens.

The kollel was founded in October 2013 by Rav Ariel Baal-Lev, a Bukharan Jew born in Vienna, Austria, with the encouragement of his rebbe, Rav Mordehai Lamet, and Rav Yaakov Moshe Hillel, Rosh Yeshiva of Ahavat Shalom. The students are scholars of the highest caliber who relocated from Eretz Yisrael with the specific goal of spreading Torah in Queens, which is home to the largest Bukharan Jewish community outside Israel, numbering approximately 100,000.

Beyond providing a framework to enable its outstanding avrechim to realize their potential as Torah leaders, the kollel also runs numerous programs for all the various segments of the population.  Kollel Milhamta is run under the guidance of Rav Meir Stern, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva Gedola of Passaic; Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola Zichron Moshe South Fallsburg; and Hacham Yosef Raful, Rosh Yeshiva of Ateret Torah, to whom the kollel brings its complex questions regarding the community. The kollel has also received the endorsement of Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt”l.

In an interview with Community Magazine, Mr. Ariel Yagudaev, the devoted administrator of Kollel Milhamta, shared the unique history of the Bukharan Jewish community, and described the struggles it has faced upon reaching these shores. He also outlined the bold, ambitious vision that guides this very unique Torah institution which seeks to spiritually energize the community and lead it to higher levels of Torah commitment.

The History of Bukharan Jewry

Bukharan Jews are Sephardic Jews from Bukhara (the former Central Asian Emirate of Bukhara), Uzbekistan. Some trace the roots of Bukharan Jews all the way back to the time of King David, and others claim they are from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel that were exiled from Eretz Yisraelby the Assyrian Empire.

The Jews of Bukhara traditionally spoke Bukhori, or Judeo-Tajik, a dialect of the Tajiki-Persian language that includes some Hebrew. Bukharan Jews worked as merchants and craftsmen, trading along the series of trade routes known as the Silk Road.

As one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world, Bukharan Jews often had difficulty maintaining their standards of Jewish practice. In 1793, a Moroccan-born rabbi from Safed named Rabbi Joseph Mamman Maghribi traveled to Bukhara and was disturbed by the low level of observance among the community. He decided to stay in order to reeducate the Bukharan Jews about their Sephardic traditions and prayers. Rabbi Mamman had a profound impact on the community, and is credited with revitalizing religious life for generations of Bukharan Jews.

In 1920, during the Russian Revolution, the Red Army arrived in Central Asia, and in 1924, Bukhara became part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, a republic of the Soviet Union. As in the rest of the Soviet Union, the Stalinists launched a campaign to eradicate Judaism. They left just one synagogue for each large community, and made religious practice all but impossible. In the late 1930s, the Soviets shut down Jewish newspapers, stopped the publication of Judeo-Tajik books, and closed Jewish Bukharan schools.

During World War II, large numbers of Jewish refugees fled to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Anti-Semitism in the region intensified in 1948 with the founding of the Jewish State of Israel, as angry Muslims vented their anger at the local Jews. By 1959, the Jewish population of the city of Bukhara was only 5,000.  In the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Soviets discontinued diplomacy with Israel and forbade its Jews from emigrating to the Jewish State. The ban on emigration was loosened in the early 1970s, whereupon considerable numbers of Bukharan Jews immigrated to the U.S. and Israel. A second mass exodus took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Immigration accelerated in the 1990s when Uzbekistan established independence, prompting fears of violence by Muslim and nationalist extremists against Jews. Nearly all of the Bukharan Jews moved to Israel, the U.S., Canada or Europe.

Today, only some 1,000 Jews remain in Uzbekistan.

The Bukharan–Syrian Connection

Numerous similarities exist between the Bukharan community and our own Syrian community.

Both groups are Sephardic and exceptionally close-knit, and both passionately value community, family and the cultural and religious traditions received from their ancestors. They are also resilient, strong-willed, and unwaveringly committed to their goals. Both communities emigrated from a harsh and unwelcoming country so they could practice Judaism freely and without fear, and both communities cherish and take pride in their unique customs and traditions. And both communities faced enormous challenges in trying to reconstitute their communities and perpetuate their traditions here in the United States.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the story of the Bukharan Jewish community generally, and Kollel Milhamta specifically, has strong links to our Syrian community.

This connection goes back to 1890, when one of the great sages of Halab (Aleppo), Rav Yosef Yedid Halevi, emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, settling in Safed and becoming one of the leading halachic scholars in the country. He moved to Jerusalem in 1912, and was appointed as a dayan (judge) for the Bukharan community. Rav Yosef taught many Bukharan students, including Rav Mulla Yehuda Ari Chaimov, a native of the city of Andijan, who became a leading rabbi in Jerusalem’s Bukharan community.

Returning to the 21st century, Rabbi Baal-Lev, the Rosh Kollel of Milhamta Shel Torah, is married to the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Bensalmon, a friend of Rabbi David Ozeri of Yad Yosef, and one of the first students of Rabbi Chaim Benoliel, Rosh Yeshiva of Mikdash Melech. He was among the pioneering figures in the Syrian community, serving as the first youth director at Ahi Ezerin Brooklyn, and enrolling his son in the first classes of Yeshiva Ateret Torah. Having seen firsthand both the struggles and joys of communal growth, Rabbi Bensalmon is a source of encouragement for Rabb Baal-Lev and his community, frequently reminding them of how the Syrian community grew and flourished despite widespread skepticism and the countless hurdles that needed to be surmounted.

Many other rabbis and lay leaders of the Syrian community have also stepped up to share with Rabbi Baal-Lev their wisdom and knowledge gained from their experience along their spiritual journeys and efforts to advance their community’s transition from Syria to Brooklyn and New Jersey.

What’s more, the kernel of inspiration to create Kollel Milhamta came from our community. Rabbi Baal-Lev recalls the time when he was introduced to Rabbi Raymond Haber by Mr. Zura Zafrani at the nighttime Torah learning program at Shaare Zion. The sight of hundreds of enthusiastic participants made a deep impression upon him, and motivated him to create something similar in his own community.

Rabbi Baal-Lev expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the Syrian community for all the assistance and support it has provided to the Bukharan Community of Queens and Brooklyn, and for enabling Kollel Milhamta to enjoy such great success. He noted that several prominent rabbis and leaders of the Syrian community hosted or spoke at parlor meetings for the kollel, taking precious time away from their important work for their own institutions and projects for the benefit of the Bukharian Jewish community.  For example, Rabbi Joey Haber and Rabbi Eli Mansour recently delivered a series of lectures in the community about Shovavim, the six-week period during the winter when it is customary to work on raising our standards of purity and modesty.

Last year, during the winter of 2018, the kollel’s parlor meeting was hosted by our community’s very own Rabbi David Ozeri, despite his being very busy running his special Purim campaign at the time.  Other prominent figures from the Syrian community also attended the event, including Rabbi David Sutton, Ezra Erani, Joe Setton, Jimmy Khezri, Gabe Khezri, and Ronnie Adjmi. Rabbi Baal-Lev emphasized the especially warm relationship he enjoys with these esteemed individuals, and the encouragement they have consistently provided.

The event was attended by numerous figures from the Bukharan community, including  Ruven Yusupov, Yona Batchayev, Yossi Yitzhakov from Miami, Boris Ahronov, Yitzchok and Shalom Shalomov and Yosef Borochov. Distinguished figures from Ashkenazi communities in attendance included Rav Eliezer Ginsberg, Rav Elya Brudney, Mr. Rubi Schron and Reb Avraham Fruchthandler.

The Bukharan Community in Queens

The project to build Torah life for the Bukharan community in Queens was spearheaded by Mr. Simcha Alishayev who partnered with Rabbi Shmuel Elishayev from Bnei Brak to build Yeshivat Shaare Zion and the Beth Gavriel Bukharian Jewish Center in Forest Hills. Rav Igal Haimov and Rav Tzadka built additional Torah institutions for the Bukharan community in Kew Garden Hills.

In 2013, after 14 years of diligent Torah study in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Baal-Lev arrived in Queens and connected with a group of young men who recognized the rabbi’s unique strengths and talents which could benefit the Bukharan community. Eager to establish a vibrant center of Torah learning for promising young scholars, they helped the rabbi set up the kollel.

Around a year later, Rabbi Baal-Lev had a meeting in Rav Igal Haimov’s home.

“I have taken the community to this level,” Rabbi Haimov said. “Take a part in this project and help take it further to the next level.” 

Rabbi Baal-Lev took these words to heart. He began by running a night kollel, and then later launched a morning kollel. In just five years, he was presiding over a full-time, active bet midrash pulsating day and night with the rigorous, intensive study of Torah at the highest levels.

The revered 20th-century sage Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz) wrote that the greatest influence upon a community comes from Torah scholars learning in its midst. Kollel Milhama is a shining example of this influence, as noted by Rabbi Noach Oelbaum, one of the leading rabbis in Queens.

“What we have here in Queens is a reine vinkel (a pure corner) which influences the community,” Rabbi Oelbaum says of Kollel Milhamta.

The kollel welcomes all who wish to participate in its various programs, regardless of their level or background.  The atmosphere is friendly and amicable, and everyone is made to feel comfortable. 

Kollel Milhamta has expanded into our neck of the woods, as well, opening a nighttime learning program in Flatbush, at E. 7th and Ave. L, which operates six nights a week from 8:45pm to 10pm. The Flatbush program is run by Rabbi Baal-Lev’s brother, Rabbi Emanuel Baal- Lev, with the encouragement of Rav Elya Brudney.

The “War of Torah”

The name “Milhamta Shel Torah” literally means “the war of Torah,” and it was selected on the basis of the comments of the Or Ha’haimHa’kadosh, one of the famous Sephardic Torah commentators, regarding the war waged by the nation of Amalek against the Jewish People. The Midrash teaches that Gd brought Amalek to attack the Jews because they were lax in Torah study, and the Or Ha’haimexplained that certainly, the Jews were involved in study, but they were not waging the “milhamta shel Torah,” investing energy and passion in their learning, applying themselves to reach the highest standards of achievement. It is only through this “war,” our rabbis teach, that we earn peace and the arrival of Mashiah.

True to this goal, Rabbi Baal-Lev is not sitting on his laurels, content with his kollel’s achievements. He aspires to extend his reach even further, to establish a kollel and Torah center in every neighborhood, and to build a yeshiva and a Bet Yaakov school.

The Bukharan community emerged from behind the Iron Curtain eager to rebuild itself after decades of isolation and Soviet oppression. Kollel Milhamta, the first institution of full-time, rigorous Torah learning in the community, is emblematic of its resounding success in surmounting the huge obstacles that stood in the way of this lofty goal. Like our own Syrian community, our Bukharan brothers and sisters have beaten the odds and refuted the naysayers by transplanting their customs and traditions on American soil, and, now, by building a glorious citadel of learning that shines the brilliant light of Torah far and wide, throughout the community and far beyond.

The Kollel’s Accomplishments

·         The kollel features daily Torah learning, mornings and evenings.

  • A nighttime learning program is held in Brooklyn, in addition to the program in Queens. In total, some 70-80 people learn throughout the week at the Queens and Brooklyn Night Seder programs.
  • Inspired by the kollel, ten community members took it upon themselves to learn each day on the way to work on the subway. Approximately every third week, they celebrate a siyum.
  • The kollel runs a Yarchei Kallah program attended by 50 people who sacrifice a day of work in order to grow in Torah.
  • A women’s program inspires the community’s women to grow in all areas of religious observance.
  • The kollel produces a weekly leaflet containing divreh Torah and essays on halachah, as well as special booklets for the holidays with essays written by the kollel’s students. These publications are distributed throughout Queens and Brooklyn, as well as in other parts of the world.
  • The kollel is currently in the process of producing a special volume with divreh Torah on every Torah portion and the holidays.

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach.  Her coaching specialties include life, career and dating coaching.  Ellen can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com..