By Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky
In this week’s sedra, Vayeishev, we read about how Jacob’s sons sold their brother Jospeh into captivity in Egypt.
This reminds us of a particularly painful time in Jewish history, which began in 1827 when conscription to Russian military service was enforced on underage Jewish children and other minorities. These children, who were called “cantonists’, were drafted at the age of 12 to begin their six-year military education.
After completing their studies at the age of 18, they were required to serve in the Imperial Russian army for 25 years.
They experienced unimaginable cruelty. They were institutionally underfed, beaten mercilessly, verbally abused and poorly dressed in the harsh winter. Many died. It was the responsibility of the Jewish communities to decide which children would be sent as cantonists. This placed the communities under huge pressure.
Although some communities implemented a fair process, most sadly didn’t. The communities first enlisted the children coming from the weakest and poorest families, such as orphans. The enlisted children were rarely from wealthy or powerful families. To prevent children from fleeing and
hiding, communities employed informers and kidnappers, who caught the boys and kept them till they were conscripted.
The Yiddish newspaper, Der Yiddishe Shtral, published an article written by a former contonist. Already orphaned from his father, he was taken at the age of nine from his widowed mother. Although as an only child he was legally exempt from conscription, a wealthy relative bribed the authorities to take him instead of his own son.
Several weeks after conscription, he and other children arrived at a gathering point in Lyutzin, now Ludza. They were met by Rabbi Naftali Tziyuni of Lyutzin, and members of the local Jewish community who arranged for the children to be fed and hosted by local families.
During their four-week long stay, the rabbi spent time with the children, offering words of kindness and comfort. He also taught them Torah, especially about Jewish figures, who remained loyal to their faith despite unimaginable torture. He would retell the story of Joseph who was sold to slavery by his own brothers after almost being killed by them. Despite feeling hurt and betrayed, he remained loyal to his family’s values rather than abandoning his past. This is why he would forever be known as “Joseph the righteous”.
On the morning of departure, as the children were ready to leave, the rabbi cried aloud: “Children, you are embarking on a long, hard journey. There will be many challenges and hard tests. Children, you are Jews! Know and remember that you are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Remember Daniel, Rabbi Akiva, and remember Joseph the righteous!”
• Boruch is rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue