by Rabbi Shlomo Galperin
I was born in the former Soviet Union and raised there by my parents and grandparents. My family persisted in maintaining Jewish and Chabad Chassidic observance in private, despite the Communist attempt to stamp out religion in the USSR. Our family had been yearning to leave the Soviet Union, hoping to be able to live a full Jewish life without secrecy and hardship. By the time our family emigrated in 1971, I was already a college educated. Finally, after much effort and heartbreaking struggle, we had been given permission to leave.
Even with permission it still wasn’t that simple. So much had to be done and there were hurdles and blockages at every turn. Everything from buying airline tickets, getting necessary permission papers/documents for our Jewish books, packing up a container of our possessions to ship via container, endless lines/queues in so many different government offices. There was almost an open demand for bribes at every office and every step was an unbelievable hurdle. The jealousy and hatred was visible and thick you could feel it as if you could cut it with a knife. But overcoming the mounting obstacles just strengthened our desire and resolve to leave as soon as possible.
At the end of many arrangements, preparations, worry and angst, after all those many steps and worries at each one, it was down to one last barrier: a young soldier at the border, in front of a boom barrier (those arms that go up and down at toll-booths). A few short steps were all that separated me from religious oppression and all of my past in Russia on one side and the free world, the unknown and my future ahead on the other.
It was then that the young Russian border guard turned to me and asked, “Are you ready to take that step and cross the border gate and give up and throw away the Motherland?” Mother Russia was a theme that was consistently and constantly ingrained and instilled in every Russian citizen. It was almost inbred, it was a natural sentiment. I didn’t have words to answer him, I may have been too anxious at this last barrier, I didn’t say anything. So he asked again, this time harsher: “Do you know that when you cross beyond that barrier, you will be a traitor to the Motherland? Are you ready to do that?” I could not respond. And with that he pulled up the rope (it was a manual boom-barrier, not automatic like the toll-booth arms of today) and I crossed over to the other side.
I remember that boom-barrier, its black and yellow stripes. I remember it lowering behind me, as I took that one, single step to freedom and to my future. For years afterward, every Friday night when I made Kiddush and said the words “Zecher L’Yitziyas Mitzrayim” (remembering the Exodus from Egypt) that opening and closing of the boom-barrier leaving Russia – and all that it stood for – flashed before my eyes.