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Rabbi Yoseph Y. Zaltzman

Rabbi Yoseph Y. Zaltzman

Senior Rabbi & Founder

Who's Who at the JRCC

RZ Agu 2007.jpg

Rabbi Yoseph Y. Zaltzman
Senior Rabbi & Founder
416.222.7105 x278
yoseph.zaltzman@jrcc.org

Rabbi Yoseph Zaltzman was born in Russia in 1956. His grandfathers from both sides were rabbis who worked clandestinely to strengthen Jewish life in the Soviet Union under the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbes at the time. His parents continued in the same tradition, a calling that made life in the U.S.S.R. very complicated, to say the least, but also imbued him with an appreciation of the spirit and power of Judaism, and the ability to put challenges in perspective.

His parents faced a daily struggle to raise a Jewish family. The story of his naming is illustrative of the lengths people had to go to conceal their Jewish ties. The Brit Milah took place in the city of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. His father wanted to name him Yoseph Yitzchok after the previous Rebbe, but that would have indicated that the family had a close connection to Lubavitch, and would have been seen as a serious offence. To conceal the real reason for choosing the name, a “fight” was staged between the two grandfathers, who also happened to be the Sandek and the Mohel, just prior to the naming ceremony. Each claimed that as the first grandson in his family the child should be named after a deceased member of his family. One demanded the baby be named Yitzchok, while the other demanded Yoseph. An uncle intervened to stop the “fight” and suggested that the baby be given two names so that both grandfathers would be satisfied. And so he was named Yoseph Yitzchok. That’s how they outsmarted the KGB that time. At the celebration after the bris someone pointed out to Rabbi Zaltzman’s father that this also happened to be the name of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, and he pretended to be surprised.

In the brief two years Rabbi Zaltzman’s parents lived in Dushanbe, they accomplished many things, including the construction of a Mikvah together with Rabbi Dovid Mishulovin, who currently resides in LA. Before the construction of the Milvah, Rabbi Zaltzman’s mother used the local river as a Mikvah in the summer, but in the winter, when the river was frozen, she would sometimes have to travel by train for 36 hours each way. Traveling by plane was out of the question except in extraordinary circumstances, as the cost of the ticket was equal to about a month’s salary. The Zaltzman family lived in Dushanbe for only five months after Rabbi Zaltzman’s birth, and he spent the rest of his childhood shuttling back and forth between Samarkand and Moscow, where his grandparents lived.

Even the simple aspects of Jewish life we take for granted today were difficult and even dangerous in the USSR. Nevertheless, Rabbi Zaltzman’s parents made extraordinary efforts with tremendous self-sacrifice to provide cholov Yisroel dairy, glatt kosher meat, and shmura matzah. They functioned as part of the underground Lubavitch network that was the only organized source for such items in the U.S.S.R.

Despite the enormous personal danger involved, throughout his childhood Rabbi Zaltzman’s parents always had yeshivas and other elicit underground activities going on in their home — the only way to ensure a Jewish environment for their children and the other students. His parents did not want him to attend public school and be exposed to communist propaganda and be forced to desecrate Shabbat. So he studied at underground yeshivas in their home in Samarkand and at another such underground Lubavitch yeshiva in Moscow and Tashkent. These yeshivas were part of an underground network of Lubavitch yeshivas that were the only yeshivas functioning in the U.S.S.R., so they attracted students from a variety of backgrounds from across the U.S.S.R. Since not attending school was a crime, Rabbi Zaltzman had to be shielded from the authorities, and spent the school months (September to June) from age seven to 12 in hiding. Whenever the police would ask where he was, his parents would say their son was living with his grandparents in another city.

Rabbi Zaltzman’s parents always wanted to leave Russia. Their main concern was that their six children should grow up as Jews, build Jewish homes, and educate their children Jewishly. (Despite the communists’ intention to destroy our Judaism, all of Rabbi Zaltzman’s siblings are leaders in different communities throughout North America.) From 1966 to 1971 they were Refuseniks. But, finally, in August 1971 they were allowed to leave Russia and go to Israel. On August 3, 1971, they landed in Israel, and as their feet touched the soil of Eretz Yisroel they bent to kiss the ground. Rabbi Zaltzman was exciting to attend to a “real” yeshiva in Lod and study there for three weeks. Visiting the Kotel was also very uplifting. But the most exciting moment came on September 18, 1971, when Rabbi Zaltzman saw the Rebbe for the very first time. He traveled with his father to New York and after the holidays received the Rebbe’s blessing to study in the United States and was accepted to the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey.

While studying in the Rebbe’s yeshiva, Rabbi Zaltzman was fascinated by the Rebbe’s vision and determination for the benefit of world Jewry. Until then, Judaism for him had been mainly about survival, and Rabbi Zaltzman often wondered what life would be like without that struggle. When he met the Rebbe, he realized that our collective Jewish life as a people was struggling in different ways, even in the free word, and that the Rebbe had a vision to reinvigorate it. He decided that his life would be dedicated to becoming one of the Rebbe’s emissaries, joining his army of emissaries in order to help the Jewish people worldwide and make the dream of Moshiach Now a reality. In 1975, at the age of 19, Rabbi Zaltzman was sent on his first mission as a yeshiva student emissary to Kfar Chabad, Israel for ten months. During those years he also helped lead Passover Seders for Russian Jews in Brighton Beach (Brooklyn), Detroit and Denver, and served as a camp counselor for Jewish Russian kids in Parksville (NY) and LA. In 1978, he was assigned as a student emissary to the Lubavitcher Yeshivah on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.

On his first date with his future wife, Chiena, Rabbi Zaltzman discovered that they both shared the same goal in life — to join the Rebbe’s army and go wherever they would be sent in the service of their people. In November 1979 they were married, and Rabbi Zaltzman spent a year studying post rabbinic studies at the Kollel in Brooklyn, New York. In December 1980, he was sent by the Rebbe as his emissary to the Jewish Russian community of Toronto, Ontario.

As soon as the Zaltzmans came to Toronto they made it their passion and goal in life to help enrich and inspire every Russian Jew in Ontario. They take this mission very personally: The triumphs of each Russian Jew give them great pleasure, while their sorrows sadden them.

Over the years, their entire being has been immersed in the continuous pursuit of this mission. Following the Rebbe’s demanding approach of optimism and perseverance, when things don’t work out as planned, they find a way to fix it, and when plans succeed, they look for ways to make it even better. The challenges are

1. How to reach every single Russian Jew in Ontario?

2. How to develop the organization and hire qualified staff for each position?

3. How to attract qualified volunteers?

4. How to maintain their excitement, professionalism and interest to grow in the position to the full success of each department in order to fulfill our mandate all together?

The Zaltzmans arrived in Toronto the day after Chanukah, December 11, 1980. Rabbi Zaltzman began visiting two Russian families every day, and attended every Jewish Russian gathering, be it a wedding or a funeral. The first public event they organized was on Purim in 1981. In April 1983 Mrs. Zaltzman and their three children went to Los Angeles to be with Rabbi Zaltzman’s parents for Pesach, but Rabbi Zaltzman stayed behind in Toronto to conduct a public community Seder. During Chol Hamoed he flew to Los Angeles to join his family. He carefully observed his parents’ activities — his father was publishing a magazine and his mother was calling people to remind them of upcoming Yahrzeits in their families — and incorporated these activities into his work back in Toronto.

Around this time Rabbi Zaltzman came to the realization that they could never fulfill their mission alone. At that stage there were 2,000 Russian families in Toronto and he was visiting two a day. That would be ten a week and 500 a year. At that rate, it was going to take them four years just to visit each family just once! And when would they see them again? Four years later? So in July of 1983 the first edition of Exodus Magazine was printed, enabling the JRCC to reach the entire community on a monthly basis. It has been printed every month since then, and the English edition was launched in 2002. At the same time, the JRCC hired its first employee. It was her task to call all Jewish Russian families to ask them for the Yahrzeits of their loved ones, and offer them a pushke. She contacted the 1,600 families we had on our list, and half of them agreed to participate. When she finished calling the entire list, she started from the beginning and called them again. She found that out of the 800 families who declined the first time, around 400 changed their minds and joined after the second call.

In 1985, the first JRCC synagogue opened its doors in the Bernard Betel Centre. Until then, the Zaltzmans had been participating in services at other synagogues, Bnai Torah in North York and later Chabad Gate in Thornhill, and they invited Russian Jews to join them there. Another milestone was reached in 1994 when the JRCC opened a full-time Preschool and Daycare, which has become one of its most successful and popular programs, licensed and partly funded by the City of Toronto. There have been many exciting developments over the years — read about the JRCC’s history to see for yourself.

The Rockford synagogue opened in 1987, and eventually evolved into the first JRCC Branch in 1998. As a branch, the focus shifted from the being the central synagogue of the Jewish Russian community to serving the spiritual needs of the Jewish Russian families of the Rockford neighborhood. The JRCC has since opened ten branches in various neighborhoods in the GTA.

Rabbi Zaltzman acknowledges that he is only able to do all this work and dedicate so much of his time and energy to the community thanks to his devoted wife, Chiena, his partner in this mission who single handedly manages the day to day running of their home and caring for their children.

The accomplishments mentioned here are only attainable due to the hard work and dedication of the JRCC’s rabbis, staff and volunteers.

Rebbetzin Chiena Zaltzman (nee Lipsh) is a sabra, born in Israel. Her father, hailing from the Radzin Chassidim, spent the war years in Siberia. He arrived in Germany in l947 where he met Lubavitcher Chassidism at a DP camp and enrolled himself in a Lubavitcher Yeshiva. He landed in Israel in l949 and became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Her mother, also a sabra, was born in Tel Aviv and came from a Lubavitch family. Her parents were from Poland and were almost the only survivors of their family who were not murdered by the Nazis.

Chiena grew up in Kfar Chabad, immersed in a vibrant and energetic environment that lived by the Rebbe’s directives. There were always Shabbat guests that came from kibbutzim all over Israel to experience a Hassidic Shabbat and young adults and teens that came to see the Chassidic way of life.

Chiena and her counterparts were in the forefront of these activities. Every year, Kfar Chabad ran a big Matzah Bakery where they hosted thousands of children who converged on this little town from all over Israel, to see the special round matzhas, shmurah matzas, being baked. Chiena and her friends would act as their guides and hosts and take them through the process. In the same vein, every year on Chanuka, these Lubavitch students would go to orphanages, nursing homes and hospitals all over Israel, to give out Chanuka Menoras and spread the light of the Holiday. On Purim, the students would give out Mishloach Manot, Purim gift baskets, to widows and orphans of wars, and to people in hospitals and nursing homes.

During her high school years, the Rebbe initiated ten Mitzvah campaigns aimed at educating the Jewish public and bringing them closer to their roots. Chiena and her friends took on these campaigns with enthusiasm and energy and reached out to their fellow Jews all over Israel.

In the summer of l973, the Lubavitcher Rebbe asked his Chassidism to gather children in order to learn Torah with them and teach them about Mitzvot and prayer, stating that children’s learning and prayers destroys the enemy. It was a quiet summer in Israel in l973 and the Rebbe’s request puzzling. Nevertheless, rising to the call, Chiena and her friends fanned out all over Israel and gathered children daily to teach and acquaint them with their heritage. That Yom Kippur, war broke out in Israel. After high school, Chiena continued her education in Seminary, where she spent three years and completed a Teachers’ Degree. During this time, Chiena played a major role within the student body, acting as a mentor to many students, studying with many girls, helping them with their learning and guiding them.

After Seminary, Chiena was introduced to her husband and after a short engagement, they were married in Israel. Chiena left her family, close friends, and everything familiar behind and immediately after the wedding, the young, idealistic couple moved to Brooklyn, New York where Rabbi Zaltzman continued his rabbinical studies for another year. Chani, their first child, was born in New York. At this time, the young couple was offered a position to come to Toronto as the Rebbe’s emissaries . Having grown up with the Rebbe’s ideas and ideals and always aspiring to do the Rebbe’s work, it was not a hard decision for the young couple. After receiving the blessings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, their small family moved to Toronto. The year was l980. One can say the rest is history.

When Rabbi and Mrs. Zaltzman first came to Toronto, there were one thousand families from the former Soviet Union. The community now numbers l6,000 familes and the vast majority know they have an address to where they can turn in their times of joy or sorrow. Together, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Zaltzman have built a vibrant, cohesive and close-knit community that embraces both the youth or adults, the infant or seniors.

Chiena has carried the passion for the Rebbe’s directives into her work within the JRCC community, devoting herself to her family and to the community. With a big smile and a bigger heart, she gives selflessly of herself to the people who reach out to her in their time of need. Chiena has created a warm home for their large family of fourteen children, looking not only after her own children, but after the Jewish Russian Community as well. With an open house full of guests, be it Shabbat, Jewish Holidays or during a regular week day, their open home at any given time resembles a kindergarten, hotel or a counseling office, with people dropping by constantly for her wise advice or a hot meal.

Together, Rabbi and Mrs. Zaltzman have married off some of their own children, as well as members of their community, some of whom lived with them, walked down the chuppa with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin on either side and consider the Zaltzmans their adopted parents.

Chiena has taught children of all ages and also heads the Judaic Program in the JRCC Daycare, where an exceptionally warm and loving environment affords the children an opportunity to see the beauty of growing up Jewish, concomitantly benefiting from a rounded, high-caliber learning program. Chiena also gives Judaic classes on a broad range of subjects to the ladies of the community and teaches brides in preparation for their marriage. She has acted as a role model to countless people and has truly inspired them to lead more meaningful lives with Jewish values.

The passage of years has not diminished the beehive activity around the home, with the grandchildren dropping in and the number of Jews getting affiliated with the community growing.

When asked about her goals for the future, Chiena answers: “ to prepare ourselves and our surroundings to greet Mashiach NOW!”