Israel’s Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein will deliver the keynote address at this week’s Kinus Hashluchim, the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which takes place Nov. 19 through Nov. 24 in New York. Here, he discusses his lifelong connection with the Rebbe and his emissaries.

“Did I have a connection with the Rebbe?” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein repeats during an interview granted to Kfar Chabad magazine. There’s a short pause as he overcomes his reluctance to reveal something he’s always kept to himself. “Look,” he finally says, “conditions weren’t so pleasant, but since you’re asking, I’ll answer.”

Edelstein casts his thoughts back 30 years when he lived in the Soviet Union. For partaking in activities frowned upon by the KGB, he was under house arrest while he waited for his sentence, which turned out to be three years in a Soviet labor camp. In the gulag, Edelstein fell from a guard tower and broke a number of bones. His wife, Tania, who was working unceasingly for his freedom, began a hunger strike.

“The Rebbe sent a number of messengers,” Edelstein reveals. “One of the messengers brought a letter of encouragement from the Rebbe, another brought a dollar for tzedakah from the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory], and a third even brought a l’chaim from the Rebbe. The Rebbe was trying to convince her to quit the hunger strike—to tell her that everything would turn out all right in the end.”

Edelstein’s modest personality is an unusual trait for one with his job title: Speaker of the Knesset. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu catapulted him to this influential post last winter, when he organized his new government.

The Speaker of the Knesset is addressed with the same formality used in speaking to the prime minister or to the president, which gives some insight into the importance of the position in Israeli politics. “The Speaker of the Knesset said ‘no’ to tens of requests for interviews. The reason he agreed to this one is because he has such warm feelings for Chabad,” says one of his inner circle.

When Edelstein—a “prisoner of Zion,” as Soviet Jews were once called—speaks about Chabad’s activities in those days, he sounds like one who is “in the know.” The nuances of his conversation, his familiarity with Chassidic names like Reb Mottel (Mottel der Shoichet, Rabbi Boruch Mordechai Lifshitz) and the ease with which he describes the situation all vouch for his being an insider. He was born in Ukraine and made aliyah more than 25 years ago, after a prolonged fight with the Russian government over his right to go to Israel.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Edelstein spent his childhood in Moscow, after his parents moved there to pursue higher education. They became English professors, and their home was filled with secular culture. “You couldn’t even call our house ‘assimilated,’” Edelstein once told Rabbi Aharon Dov Halprin, in an interview granted many years ago. He was surrounded by thousands of secular books and not exposed to even a speck of Jewish awareness.

Life was pleasant, he recalls, except for his longing for his grandfather, who had stayed behind in Ukraine. “Unlike my parents, who never knew any other life, my grandfather left Judaism and became assimilated. Such a man is always longing for his past. I never saw him go to shul or keep even one mitzvah, but every erev Pesach, I noticed that he went secretly to the old ladies of the city and bought scraps of matzah from them.

“When grandfather was in his 80s, he decided to learn Hebrew. He bought some books and a Hebrew-Russian dictionary, and dedicated himself to learning the language with exceptional diligence for many hours a day. After a short time, he passed away, and I, who loved my grandfather very much, started to leaf through the books that had occupied him in his last days. When I realized what he was learning, I felt it would be right for me to continue what he had begun. I began to learn Hebrew myself, and in a very short time span went from being a student to being a teacher. With that, my process of coming closer to Judaism began—not like a spark that suddenly caught fire, but slowly, stage after stage.

“My rebellion began in my university days. Unlike most students, I was against the whole Communist ideology. I didn’t waste even a minute thinking about our dictator, Joseph Stalin. Here I have to tell you that my opposition to Communism didn’t stem from Jewish considerations or Zionistic ones. Since I was a rebel, it was natural for me to form a connection with the refuseniks, who were also fighting Communism. It didn’t take long for me to understand and decide that my place was in Eretz Yisrael, too.”

Edelstein married in the Jewish year 5737 (1977).

Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, right, officates at the wedding of Yudi Edelstein, center, in the Soviet Union.

“After the wedding, friends from abroad sent us a ‘Request for Family Unification’ letter so that I could immigrate to Israel. At that time, I was reading about Israel’s wars, especially the [1948] War of Independence. I was enormously excited about Israel and inspired by the living examples of proud Jews who were returning to the birthplace of their forefathers and fighting for the right to live there. I decided that in any case—whether I was in Russia or in Israel—I would always be a proud Jew.

“One Friday night I asked one of my Jewish friends if he remembered any Jewish traditions that had to do with Shabbat, and he told me there was some Jewish prayer called ‘Kiddush’ that ushers in the Shabbat. After he explained what it was, I picked up a cup of wine and uttered some words. I didn’t understand much, but while I was doing it, I felt a rush of joy at connecting to the Jewish nation.

“The years passed. I continued learning about Judaism, but I didn’t know about more than a very few mitzvah. The situation changed when our daughter turned 5, and I felt that she was having trouble relating to my wife’s and my own foggy notions about our identity.

“She would tell us: ‘You tell me stories from the Torah, but you switch on the lights on Shabbbat.’ She understood; we didn’t. We decided that we had to be more serious about Judaism. When I tried to find out where I could do that, I found the Chabad underground. We joined a few other young Jewish intelligentsia who were learning the laws of Judaism, about mitzvah and Torah, with guidance from some elderly Chabadniks, among them Rabbi Mottel Lifshitz. Once we were sufficiently committed to Judaism, two Chabad rabbis arranged a wedding so that my wife and I could be married in accordance with Jewish law.”

Edelstein smiles when he speaks about the wedding. “When the Chassidim sat down to write our ketubah, they wrote my Jewish name, Yoel. I was sure that when they wrote my wife Tania’s Jewish name, they’d write ‘Tova’ or something similar, but they wrote ‘Tania,’ assuming that that was how it was spelled. In those days, the Chassidim used to called me ‘ba’al’ (husband or master of) HaTania.”

Edelstein gets emotional when he describes the dedication of the elderly Chassidim in those days. “In the beginning, I didn’t understand that kind of dedication. I didn’t understand what motivated them. They never turned down an invitation to a bris or any other Jewish event. They would come even though just coming put them at tremendous risk.

“The Chabadniks organized any kind of help that anyone needed for daily Jewish life, whether it had to do with obtaining kosher food, a place to daven [pray], putting on tefillin or making a bris. Reb Mottel himself was a shochet and a mohel, and wore other hats as well. … Unlike the mohels today, who are always in a hurry, Reb Mottel would spend an hour at a bris. When there was a bris for an adult, a Jewish doctor would always be brought to monitor the medical situation.”

Edelstein has more to say about Reb Mottel’s dedication. “Children today think that a hero is a person who battles evil and is always victorious, and there are many comic and movie superheroes like that. But in my eyes, a real hero is something completely different,” he states, lost in thoughts about days gone by.

“I’ll never forget how, one time, everyone was invited to a bris milah in a relatively large apartment in the middle of Moscow. Everyone was waiting for the mohel—Reb Mottel—to come and do the bris. Suddenly, there was a banging at the door. A policeman was standing at there, insisting that the neighbors had complained about the noise we were making. He wanted to come in and see what we were doing. The police had obviously been informed in advance about the gathering. We said were celebrating a birthday, but he demanded to see everyone’s identity card. Whoever didn’t produce his card would immediately be registered with the police.

In 1987, Reb Boruch Mordechai Lifshitz, right—or Mottel der Shoichet, as he was affectionately known—received a lulav and etrog set for the holiday of Sukkot as a gift from the Rebbe.

“He only left the apartment 45 minutes later. We breathed a sigh of relief, but we were sure there would be no bris. They were standing outside the apartment and stopping everyone who wanted to enter. In those days, before the era of cellphones and beepers, it was impossible to contact other people immediately.

“While we were still deciding what to do, we saw Reb Mottel at the door, as pale as whitewash. Whitewash? What had happened? He was on his way to the apartment when he saw the officer come in, so he hid nearby in a pile of plaster and waited until the policeman left. Then he hurried into the apartment to make the bris.

“What do we have here? A man who knows he’s going to do an illegal act; after all, he’s not a doctor. It’s illegal for him to ‘harm’ someone else. This is unquestionably illegal. What does a ‘normal’ person in Soviet Russian do in such a situation when he sees the police? He leaves! But Reb Mottel sat and waited, and waited, until they left, and then he immediately made his way to the apartment. This is a different kind of heroism. It’s a simple case of, ‘If I am not for myself (in this case, the Jewish people), who will be for me?’ He knew that no one else would do the bris, that there was no one else nearby who could, and that it was completely up to him.”

In 1979, Edelstein made his first request to leave Russia. “I went to the dean of the university in which I taught and asked for a number of documents that I needed for my emigration request. The dean provided them for me, along with another document—a notice that I was immediately fired—and then he shook hands with me and said goodbye.”

Edelstein expresses that he is impressed by Chabad’s extensive international activities. “I was in many places, and I saw a lot of activity. A few years ago, I was in Odessa with my colleague Moshe Kachlon and fellow Member of the Knesset Amnon Cohen. The Jewish community was initiating a number of big events, among them opening a preschool for Jewish children, and was celebrating with the mayor and senior city officials.

“During the Shabbat meals, we sat together with other honored guests and philanthropists. There was good food and good drink, and as it says, ‘Our hearts were joyful with wine.’ I asked permission to say a few words. After we all drank a l’chaim, I said, ‘Friends, I think my colleagues are going to think that life here is so good that it’s just a string of banquets. I’m going to tell you that until just a few years ago, most of the shluchim didn’t even have cucumbers and tomatoes. It took a long time until they were established, until they found sponsors and a place to daven and ways to fill all their other needs.’

“After the meal, the wife of the shaliach in Odessa, Rabbi Avraham Wolff, approached me and said: ‘When you spoke, I sat and cried. I remembered that the first time I went back to Israel, after half a year of shlichus in Odessa, I told my mother, “Ima, I want a vegetable salad.” Ima didn’t understand why I was so insistent. She didn’t know that I’d seen neither tomato nor cucumber for six months!’

“It’s true, not every shlichus starts out this way, but all of the emissaries experienced it, even those who built large empires, like Rabbi (Shmuel) Kaminetsky from Dnieper and Rabbi (Avraham) Wolff of Odessa.”

The Speaker of the Knesset has thought a lot about Chabad’s activities. It’s clear from his manner that he’s not just speaking lightly. “The activities, which provide continuity for the ways of the Jewish people, have saved millions of |Jews, against all odds, and I’m not exaggerating. Today, the saying ‘Wherever you are in the world, you’ll find Coca-Cola and Chabad’ is an old joke, but it used to be far from true. When the Rebbe of Lubavitch announced the need to connect to the Jews of the USSR, it sounded like a joke. Those Jews, at least, some of them, didn’t want to connect to the larger Jewish world. You couldn’t force them. If nuclear weapons didn’t scare the USSR, what were a few old men going to do?”

Edelstein and Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, met earlier this year in the Knesset with a group of deaf students from Russia.

Edelstein is amazed at how Chabad has gotten stronger and more widespread since the Rebbe passed away on the third of Tammuz in 1994. “This is the main point,” he emphasizes. “Everyone had a feeling—I did, too—that, as is the way of the world, within a year or two of the Rebbe’s passing away, everyone would be fighting with everyone else, and the great man’s enterprise would crumble. It didn’t happen. The activists just got stronger.”

Regarding this week’s International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in New York, he says: “Every emissary is a part of a huge picture, so I respect Chabad ceremonies and conferences.”

Translated from Hebrew by Esther Rabi