BROOKLYN, NY — Eight young students sat around the table celebrating the anniversary of the passing of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. In between singing stirring melodies, they ate bread, herring and hot potatoes, in the “Tailors’ Synagogue” in Berdichev, Ukraine.
Velvel Averbuch, 84, a resident of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., remembers the evening well.
A sign of the times, the doors were barred shut from the inside with heavy planks of wood. The youngsters had pushed some heavy benches in front of them, planning for the worst. Their two teachers’ voices echoed from the walls of the relatively empty synagogue, inspiring them to keep learning Torah and be meticulous in their daily studies.
Most of the group on that 1938 night came from cities across the Soviet Union. Constant harassment by Communist authorities forced them from their homes, lest their parents continue to be hounded for not sending the children to government schools. The students came to Berdichev of their own accord in order to study in the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch underground Jewish school system. Some had traveled from city to city, spending a brief amount of time in each underground school in order to elude the watchful eyes of the Soviets.