A Brit Milah in Russia

We came to the bus station to meet the bus driver who was bringing us some kosher provisions for the winter. We were told the time that the bus would be arriving and made sure to be there on time. However, to our great consternation, the bus had already left and was now on its way to its last destination, Tobolsk.

This took place a number of years ago in the city of Tyumen, in Siberia, Russia. Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, the rabbi of the city and Chabad Shliachwas anxiously awaiting the important delivery. However, as happens in life, their disappointment took an unexpected and very positive turn.

Certain kosher items for us and a few other families in our city are delivered to us via a bus traveling with passengers which stops in our city on its way to Tobolsk. The driver of the bus gave us the time he would be arriving in our city. But it seems he made a mistake in the time he told us and was now he was already on his way to Tobolsk, about 100 kilometers from us. We started to think of ideas how to get the box of kosher provisions we desperately needed for the winter.

The city of Tobolsk does not have a proper Jewish community. The city sits on the banks of the rivers Tobol and Irtysh. It’s not a very large city, with only about 99,694 residents at the last census. In its time, it had a large Jewish population from among the communities in Siberia. There were three synagogues and many Jews lived there. Most of the Jews were Torah observant. Most were exiles, some from the time of the Czar of Russia and others from the communist era. For many they were prohibited from being in contact with their families until the 1980s! Those who passed away there, could not even have their names placed on a marker over their graves. In the passage of time, the synagogues were destroyed and with them the community. Many Jews left the city and today very few Jews live there.

We tried to find someone Jewish who could get to the bus station and pick up the package for us. We contacted the Israeli consul who helped us locate a few Jews with whom they had some contact. But no one answered the phone. A mere half hour was left before the bus would be there. Suddenly the phone rang. A person by the name of Valudya returned our call. I presented myself and told him what was going on. Without hesitation, and though he was in an important meeting, he agreed to go immediately to the bus depot to retrieve our package. He managed to get there just as the bus pulled up and was able to get it.

After he informed me of the good news, we continued to talk for a while. He told me that he is one of the last Jews still in Tobolsk. We agreed that I would come the following morning to meet him and retrieve our package, a three-hour journey from our city.

We arrived there at 8:00 in the morning. Valudya, a fifty year old, was a warm-hearted Jew, though he knew very little about Judaism. When he met us, he told us about his city and about his mother, of blessed memory. Her name was Chana, the daughter of Mendel, he told us. Her father had been exiled there in the days of the Czar.

We put up a mezuzah in the entrance of his house and Valudya put on Tefillin for the first time in his life. He hardly knew about these or other mitzvot. He showed me the only remembrance he had from the glorious past of his family: A chumash Vayikra which was printed in Vilna in the year 5632. His mother had saved it as a remembrance from his grandfather Mendel.

Valudya did not understand the meaning of the Tefillin which he put on, yet, when he recited the prayer “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” (Here O’ Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One), it was with great feeling. It was as though his pure neshama (soul) had been waiting for this moment – as our Sages say, “Every Jew will be gathered in to greet Moshiach”.

As we parted, I noticed saw that Valudya had tears in his eyes. I thought to myself, who knows how many more years his Jewish soul would have waited to put on Tefillin and put up a mezuza, if our kosher provisions hadn’t got lost on the way?!

For Purim Valudya came to visit us. And then for Pesach he joined us again and kept a proper kosher Passover. He returned for the special day of Pesach Sheini – the Second Passover (a special holiday which takes place a month after Passover and enables someone who was not able to bring the Pascal sacrifice for whatever reason, to do so at this time). When he learned that there is no such thing as a Jew lost to mitzvot because Hashem always provides us with a second chance, he decided to get a brit milah (Jewish circumcision), and enter the covenant of Abraham our Father.

As mentioned earlier, his grandfather’s name was Mendel. We had told him stories about the Rebbe and mentioned that the Rebbe was known in Russia as ‘Grandfather Mendel’. It was in the merit of the Rebbe that he would be getting a brit milah, because the Rebbe cared to send his Shluchim (emissaries) around the globe to assist all Jews.

Valudya chose to call himself Mendel and at his circumcision, he was named: MENACHEM MENDEL BEN CHANA!


Told by Chabad Shliach Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik.

Adapted and translated from Sichat Hashavu Parshat Chayei Sarah # 1817- from “Shatz lelo Minyan”.

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