Rabbi Nachum Katsenelenbogen always knew his father was a hero. Arrested by the NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, in 1950, Moshe Katsenelenbogen spent seven-and-a-half years in a Soviet prison simply for being Jewish. Once he was free, he poured his heart into instilling a strong love of Judaism in his children.
As a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Owings Mills, Katsenelenbogen aims to bring his father’s teachings to his Baltimore-area friends, students and congregants. When his father passed away on Sept. 3 at the age of 83, the rabbi began to reflect on his father’s sacrifices. By keeping his faith under harsh circumstances, Katsenelenbogen believes his father helped ensure the spread of Judaism for future generations.
“My whole life, I dreamed about being a Chabad rabbi because of my father’s unwavering commitment to Judaism,” Katsenelenbogen, who directs Chabad of Owings Mills, said last week. “I try to pass on the lessons he taught me to the Baltimore Jewish community. He might be physically gone, but his story lives on.”
Later this year, the Chabad center will be dedicating a new Torah scroll in honor of the late Katsenelenbogen, ensuring that his memory lives on as inspiration for Jewish learning.
“My father did not die for Judaism,” said his son. “He lived for Judaism.
“My father was a walking, living Torah scroll,” he continued. “When I thought about how to commemorate his life, the Torah just seemed like the most natural fit.”
Katsenelenbogen’s father devoted his life to defending his religion. Born in the Former Soviet Union, Moshe was part of an underground network of Jewish educators and activists coordinated by Chabad leaders. Coming from a Lubavitch family, his own father, Rabbi Michoel Katsenelenbogen, was one of the original students at Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim, the movement’s flagship educational institution.
When Moshe was just 6, his father was arrested by the secret police and murdered shortly after. Despite his father’s death, Moshe continued to learn in the underground system.
“The Chabad movement taught my father the entire Jewish calendar by heart,” said Katsenelenbogen. “Many boys his age would learn arithmetic by going to baseball games. My father studied Jewish law in secret. He knew exactly [when Yom Kippur] fell, so he knew when to fast. He was fluent in the Jewish code of law.”
Moshe’s mother helped forge passports and Polish documents to help Jewish families escape from Russia. But his Jewish background and beliefs would lead him to jail.
After his arrest for refusing to attend a Soviet school and not testifying against his mother, he faced torture, physical abuse and starvation in prison. His only crime was that he was a practicing Jew.
“They told my father he had 90 months, and my grandmother was sentenced to death. They say 90 months rather than seven and a half years because psychologically, it sounds longer,” said Katsenelenbogen. “In jail, they whipped him in front of his mother and gave him minimal food. They wanted to break his spirit. Instead, they made him stronger.”
After he was released from jail, Moshe left the Soviet Union in 1971. Immigrating to London, he focused on igniting a passion for Judaism in his five children.
“My father’s stories about jail truly inspired me to pursue a career in Jewish education,” said Katsenelenbogen. “He used to share prison stories with me all the time. One of my favorite tales is his Passover story. In jail, they only feed you bread, sugar and water. Therefore, on Passover, he did not eat for eight days. He simply said eating was not an option. He was arrested for practicing Judaism, and there he is, in a Soviet jail cell, observing Jewish holidays.”
From donning tefillin under the blankets to creating his own candles on Chanukah, Moshe created a portable Judaism. This Yom Kippur, Katsenelenbogen plans to use his father’s life lessons as the inspiration for his High Holiday sermon.
“People do not want to hear a preacher, they want to hear a story,” said Katsenelenbogen. “My father’s story is real, and I think the Baltimore community can benefit from hearing about it. My father visited Owings Mills many times in his life and loved the community. When he died, thousands of Baltimoreans reached out to me. He might be one person, but his courage has inspired thousands from Eastern Europe to London to Baltimore.”
With the pressures and distractions of today’s society, Katsenelenbogen fears his father’s generation may be forgotten.
“My father had such a strong perseverance,” said Katsenelenbogen. “Even though we are not being killed by Stalin, we still face peer pressure every day. I take my [bar and bat mitzvah] students to meet Holocaust survivors and physically see their numbers. The previous generation fought so that we can celebrate Judaism freely. My father taught me well, and I want to teach my students well.”