Fall was just beginning to turn the Moscow air crispy when the lot of us -- 10 high school seniors and three faculty members of Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls' School -- trudged down the stairs of our Intourist Hotel in the late '80s, and began our walk of several miles, not to the better-known Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue or to the Moscow Choral Synagogue, but to another shul in the city's north.
Marina Roscha was discreetly tucked away, just out of view from the street it shared with a major hospital. Its old frame building was as unobtrusive as its beginnings. It had been built in those first few years of post-Revolution confusion, when it was still possible to act without Big Brother noticing. (Although it had withstood decades of Communist rule, it was firebombed -- twice -- since our visit, and only recently rebuilt as a Jewish community center.)
The minimum mandatory age for the local attendees appeared to be 85. Besides us, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli thinker, davened there that Shabbat morning. After services, many of the men gathered around a table to study Mishnah. The class had invited Steinsaltz to speak, so I listened in as he addressed them in Yiddish.
"Yidden, this morning we read the portion about Noah. Do you know what the lesson of this portion is in a nutshell?" Not waiting for a response, he continued: "There are two lessons. One is that it is possible that a person can wake up and find that the entire world has gone mad, that he is the last sane person to survive. Two is what you should do when this happens.
"Let me tell you a story. After World War II, I returned to Paris to look for family. The last thing I expected to find was a shul to pray in on Shabbat. In fact, there was such a shul, and I joined a handful of old, broken survivors for davening. Ten years later, I returned, and sought out the same shul. Certainly, I thought, all the old ones would have passed on, and the shul would have closed. Instead, I found more people than a decade before. There were some middle-aged people, and even a few children.
"Another decade or so passed. How delighted I was to find that the shul was now bustling with people of all ages, with children running everywhere.
"A week ago, I visited again, and found fewer congregants than before. They told me that the shul had become so big that it had spawned two breakaway shuls, and siphoned off many people! Those few beaten-down survivors had succeeded in creating a vital community!"
He looked hard at the faces of the men who had known nothing but communist oppression for the last 70 years.
"What do you do when you are the only sane person left, when there is nothing but madness around?" he asked. "You keep to your principles. You keep doing what you know God wants you to do. You may discover one day that you have triumphed, and single-handedly rebuilt a better new world."
Although these old men were hardened by adversity, there was hardly a dry eye among them. They recognized the message as the summation of their lives. To Lenin goes much of the "credit" for inventing state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government's will. Individuals simply did not matter. And religion had to be crushed to make way for more progressive ideas.
Many of us find ourselves crushed under the weight of a world burdened with a new variety of madness. At the same time, the principles and practices that offered Jews dignity and purpose in other stormy times are often attacked as outdated and insufficiently progressive.
Noah showed that tenaciously clinging to the truth can be profoundly lonely, but crucially effective. Ultimately, he got the best of Lenin. It just took a while to find out.
This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 19, 2001.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.