Originally published in The Kosher CORner Passover Guide 2019
From being hunted by the KGB to being a COR mashgiach, Rabbi Mikhail Belenky has a fascinating story to tell.
All Mikhail Belenky has ever wanted was a nice, quiet place where he could study Torah.
It wasn’t the Ukraine.
Mikhail was born in Ukraine in 1959, at the height of the Soviet power.
“From a very young age,” he says, “I experienced anti-Semitism. I always heard from my neighbours, ‘One day we will kill you all.’”
Religion was outlawed.
“All yeshivos and shuls had been closed before I was born,” Mikhail says. “I attended a public school. The education was excellent, but we Jews constantly felt hatred toward us.”
Nevertheless, Mikhail always had a thirst for knowledge, “From a young age, I always asked my parents and grandmothers to tell me about Jewish history and teach me everything about Jewish lifestyle. They tried to avoid these conversations, because if neighbours would hear, they would call the police.
“Finally, one day (I remember that it was before I was bar mitzvah age), they told me that they would teach me on condition that I would never tell anyone. My grandmothers taught me aleph-bet while I was sitting under the table in the dining room with the blinds closed so that neighbours (in adjoining apartments with which we shared thin walls) could not see or hear us. They also taught me halachos, mussar, and how to live amongst the non-Jews in everyday life.”
On the outside, Mikhail maintained his façade of an assimilated Jew – as did his parents, grandmothers, and older sister – all while secretly looking for people who could teach him more about being Jewish.
“From the age of bar mitzvah,” he recalls angrily, “I started to hate the Soviet government for what they did to us and previous generations. I asked my parents if we could move to Israel, but it was not possible to leave.”
At age 22, Mikhail got a structural engineering job in the construction department of a company that was developing nuclear-proof underground bunkers for the government. After one year at the job, he had a reputation as a master of negotiations, and his bosses started to train him as a backup to the CEO, in a company that employed 10,000 people. His main duty was procuring supplies for the company’s projects.
“So in my mid-twenties,” Mikhail says, “I became arrogant. I thought, ‘I am special. I am untouchable.’ So Hashem reminded me who runs the world.”
One day, some goods that had been purchased by the company for an astronomical amount of money disappeared. And Mikhail’s signature – forged, of course – was found on the documents.
“I was able to find out who did it,” Mikhail says, “This person had visited the company very often, and we’d worked together. He was jealous of my success.”
But this person had also disappeared.
Mikhail consulted a judge, who told him that he was going to have to find Mikhail guilty, but hinted that for the price of a customary bribe, he could be released soon after without actually going to prison. A bribe seemed to be Mikhail’s only option, because, as the judge told him, “It has never happened that a professional criminal appeared at this point and confessed to the crime.”
“I realized that my arrogance was wrong,” Mikhail admits. “My whole life flashed before my eyes, but I remembered what my grandmothers had taught me: “Cry to Hashem – do teshuva – and Hashem will help you.”
“So I did, and a miracle happened.”
Just a few days later, this person called the company and asked to see Mikhail. The man had no idea that Mikhail had figured out who’d framed him the first time, and was hoping to do it again.
So Mikhail gave the company’s armed guards an order to let the man in. When he entered, Mikhail called in some witnesses and cornered the man, offering him a choice: Sign a confession and be allowed to walk out, getting a head start before the cops showed up, or refuse and face prison time.
The man begged for his life and signed the confession.
At this point, there was nothing Mikhail wanted more than to leave the country. He applied for permission to do so with his family, but was refused. In fact, the KGB tried to make his life a living torment. They constantly inspected all his work documents and stopped trucks to inspect the freight; all to try to arrest him as an enemy of the state.
At every turn, though, Hashem kept him out of prison.
“In one of the court appearances,” Mikhail recalls, “the KGB prepared witnesses to testify as to how bad I was. And one woman stood up and said, ‘He is so evil that we cannot recommend the court put him in jail, because he will convert hardened criminals to Judaism, and they’ll go to Israel to fight against our friends, the Arabs.’”
Then one day, in 1988, the police called and advised Mikhail that he and his family should renounce their citizenship and leave the country as soon as possible, as his name had appeared on a list of refuseniks that president Bush had presented to the Soviets to release from their country as an act of good faith. So Mikhail prepared to leave the country with his wife, their young son, and Mikhail’s mother. His sister had left the country years earlier to move to Canada with her husband, who had gotten permission to reunite with his family there.
“They told us to gather at the train station at the border. (We were probably about 100 people). But when the train arrived, they closed all the doors, and soldiers with machine guns and dogs surrounded us. They ordered us to open our luggage for inspection, threw everything on the ground, and said that we had 5 minutes to gather it all up and board the train.”
“I will never forget those 5 minutes, when women were being ushered through the doors, children were being pushed through the windows, and men were still jumping onto the train as it pulled away.”
The train was to stop in Austria, where everyone would be allowed to stay for a maximum of three weeks while waiting for their immigration paperwork to go through to other countries. For most, it took longer than that.
But his stay in Austria was not uneventful: “Soon after we got into the hotel, Mossad requested an interview with me. Then, an American agency did the same. They told me that they’d been watching me at my job for years, and that they knew every project I’d worked on.”
The agencies were particularly interested in any access Mikhail had had to military information, as well as how he kept outsmarting the KGB’s attempts to incarcerate him.
“I didn’t!” Mikhail protested. “Hashem did that!”
But they didn’t understand.
After 3 weeks in Vienna, Mikhail’s family moved to Rome and continued their immigration process there.
“This is where I went to minyan for the first time,” Mikhail says proudly. “Hashem also arranged that I had a neighbour from Ukraine who remembered everything he’d learnt in yeshiva before the communists closed it down. He taught me a lot.”
After some time, Mikhail found a job in a travel agency as an independent salesman, as he knew the Italian historical sites and could speak 5 languages. (The educational system really was very strong). This is where his G-d given talents as a negotiator came back into play.
“I sold so many tours across Italy that they didn’t have enough buses to accommodate everybody,” he says. Particularly, he sold a lot of trips to the Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish communities, as all the Italian salespeople could not communicate with them to make the arrangements.
During his stay in Italy, Mikhail also helped a lot of Jewish immigrants find proper accommodations, arranged private schooling so their children could learn in English in preparation for their eventual immigration to the States and Canada, and even organized the first Rosh Hashanah celebration they’d had in their lives.
A short time later, Mikhail received a job offer from another travel agency that wanted to pay him a large commission if he accepted their proposal.
“I accepted,” he says, “selling the same tours that I’d been selling before, and soon afterward, their business grew tenfold. Every time, I asked myself, ‘What is going on?’ And soon after, I got an answer.
“One evening, the owner of the previous travel agency stopped me and told me that he was not actually the owner of the business, but that his company was owned by the mafia. And if that wasn’t enough, his boss wanted to talk to me in a car that was waiting outside.
“He also told me that he likes me and wants to help me, and that I should pretend that I don’t understand Italian so he could talk on my behalf. (The manager later admitted to me that he’s a Jew, and said that Jews help each other).
“We got into the car, and the boss asked my manager if I’d known that I was working for the mafia and had specifically switched over to their enemies’ company (as this second travel company was apparently owned by a rival mafia), or if I didn’t know anything and had simply accepted the offer because of better pay. My manager replied that I didn’t know anything and had just switched for the money, and the boss let us go, saying that he would ‘take care of the business.’”
And sure enough, the next day, Mikhail read the following headline in the local paper: “War Between Two Mafia Families; Many Killed or Wounded.”
“I realized,” he says, “that Hashem had again saved my life, and was sending me a message that I should not spend all day at work, but instead make time to learn.”
Soon afterward, Mikhail received a letter from the Canadian Embassy saying that his family had received the status of landed immigrants. He and his mother could now reunite with his sister, who offered Mikhail and his family to live with her in Toronto as long as they needed, so they could save up enough money to start a new life.
Mikhail’s mother passed away shortly thereafter, and his wife was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. The doctor told them that she would not live more than 3 months. Upon hearing this, Mikhail’s wife told him that he shouldn’t cry, but rather go to shul to do teshuva and learn.
“I didn’t eat or drink for 3 days,” Mikhail says. “I just learned Torah and did teshuva. After that, a miracle happened: The pain disappeared, and my wife lived for another 3 years.”
A day before she passed away, she told Mikhail to place a Chumash next to her bed. She also told him that after she passed away, he should go to Rav Raphael Marcus z”l, the rav of the B’nai Torah shul, who would learn with him.
“Then she told me,” Mikhail says, “that I was going to meet a wonderful woman – my future wife.”
“Sometime after,” he continues, “in 2006, I received a call from a friend, and she told me that she would like to introduce me to a very special woman and gave me her phone number. When I called this woman, she tested my Torah knowledge and asked me about some Kabbalistic explanations of what I’d just learnt. Soon after, we got married.”
In the meantime, Mikhail had started a business working as a broker for trucking companies. But eventually, Mikhail recognized that he should quit the business, as it wasn’t leaving him enough time to study Torah. Why come to a country where he could actually learn freely and then spend his days doing something he could have done in any of the previous countries he was in?
So he quit his business and soon received a couple of offers for high-end management positions, but he rejected those offers too, instead accepting a part-time job as a delivery driver, in order to dedicate more time for learning.
“After 3 years of this back-breaking job,” he says, “I quit that too, because I was very tired and couldn’t learn properly.”
Not long after, in August 2018, Hashem helped him find a job as a route mashgiach at the COR, in which he visits bakeries, restaurants, and catering businesses every day. Yes, his route eats up most of his day (though he still finds plenty of time to learn), but as Mikhail says, “It is a mitzvah and a privilege to work for the benefit of the Jewish community.
“I started to analyze my life and think about how, back in Ukraine, my mother and I walked a long distance to a shochet, and how every Jew risked their lives to get matzos for Pesach, and how my grandmother taught me to hide non-kosher food offered by neighbours in her sleeves and pretend she ate it.”
“I was also impressed with the warmth, professionalism, and caring showed toward me at the COR,” he adds. “My supervisor, Reb Mendel Gansburg, tirelessly helps me and is always ready to answer my questions and concerns.”
So, he took a job with the COR, where, when he’s not learning, he could at least help people keep kosher, which is one of the mitzvot his family tried so hard to keep in Ukraine.
“Many times in my life, I was called a ‘stranger’,” he says, “and now when I look back, I would like to wish that all of K’lal Yisrael feel like strangers in a strange land until Mashiach comes to redeem us and bring us back to Eretz Yisrael.” If it were up to him, he says, he’d live in Israel, but overall, Canada is not bad.
Reb Mikhail concludes with the words of King Solomon: “The sum of the matter when all has been considered: Fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”