Rabbi Tzvi (Harry) Bronstein’s Campaign to Perform Bris Milah Behind the Iron Curtain
“Ki alecha horagnu kol hayom — For we had been killed for You the entire day [Tehillim 44:23]. Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi amar, zu milah shenitnah b’shemini — Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi says, this is referring to bris milah which was given on the eighth day” (Gittin 57b).
The simple understanding of this Gemara is that at times, when a child receives his bris at the tender age of eight days, the result may be tragic. However, as seen throughout our history, this may also refer to the mohel’s risking his life to perform a bris milah, and not the baby.
Rabbi Tzvi Bronstein, zt”l, traveled behind the Soviet Iron Curtain nine times between 1958 and 1967, risking his life as he performed hundreds of clandestine brisos on Jews of all ages. Rabbi Bronstein also smuggled sefarim and tashmishei kedushah into the Soviet Union for the Jews there who thirsted for the word of Hashem and to perform His mitzvos. After he was finally arrested by the KGB, expelled from the country, declared persona non grata and permanently barred from re-entry, he led Al Tidom, an organization dedicated to supplying the religious needs of Soviet Jewry trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
In June of 1968, Rabbi Bronstein testified in the House of Representatives about the persecution Jews faced in the Soviet Union. During his testimony, he revealed some of his heroic acts on behalf of these Jews and the treatment he received from the KGB when he was expelled from the country.
Tzvi Bronstein was born in Vishkuv (Wyszkow), Poland, in May of 1911 to a family of Amshinover Chassidim. At a young age, he joined the Novardok yeshivah and learned under Harav Avraham Joffen, zt”l, for nine years. The fire of Novardok, with which the Alter of Novardok inculcated his talmidim with the middah of amitzus (courage), burned brightly within him.
In 1933, Rabbi Bronstein moved to Montreal, Canada, where he married his wife, Tzivia Rochel, and served as a Rav in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and later in Moncton, New Brunswick. In 1944, he came to the United States, and during World War II he served as an army chaplain in Wilmington, North Carolina, the location of two of the largest military bases (by population) in the world, Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune. In this capacity, he prevented hundreds of Jewish soldiers from intermarriage, as he ran Sedarim on Pesach and other Jewish programs, and counseled hundreds of soldiers.
Although the family was provided with a beautiful home, a car and material comforts in Wilmington, Rabbi Bronstein soon realized that in order for him to raise his four daughters as ehrliche Yidden, he would have to move his family to New York. On Motzoei Pesach 5705/1945, he left for New York and rented a three-room apartment in Brownsville. Despite his lack of a job, Rabbi Bronstein moved his family out of Wilmington to be able to raise them in a Jewish atmosphere.
Rabbi Bronstein began serving as a mohel and trained others in the skill of bris milah. In 1954, he designed a new type of clamp, which came to be known as the Bronstein Mogen, as a substitute for the Gomco clamp, used then by doctors when circumcising children. The Gomco clamp was deemed invalid by the poskim, but Rabbi Bronstein’s guard avoided the problems presented by the Gomco clamp.
In the Torah journal Hapardes (30:1), Harav Eliezer Silver, zt”l, gave his written approval to the Bronstein Mogen. Other poskim held it was not the preferable way to perform bris milah, because the periah would be together with the milah and it would not be done using the fingernail. However, most poskim held that a bris done with the Bronstein Mogen was valid, and it encouraged some hesitant Jews to use a mohel for their children’s brisos instead of a doctor.
Rabbi Bronstein was an active member of the Vaad Hapoel of Agudath Israel of America. In 1958, he attended a meeting where Elimelech “Mike” Tress related that 20,000 Jews who had returned to Poland after World War II were in desperate need of a mohel. Harav Eliezer Silver, who attended that meeting, proclaimed Rabbi Bronstein as the ideal candidate for this mission, since he had been born in Poland and spoke Polish fluently, and he was one of the most acclaimed mohalim in America.
In February 1958, Rabbi Bronstein made his first trip back to Poland. He returned to America and asked for assistance in supplying the religious needs of the Jews living under communist rule, but was met with skepticism. Harav Eliyahu Yosef Henkin, zt”l, the head of Ezras Torah, was one of the first to help, and soon several Gedolim, including Harav Eliezer Silver, zt”l, and the Satmar Rebbe, zy”a, sponsored his subsequent trips to Eastern Europe as Rabbi Bronstein endeavored to spread Torah and mitzvos to those forsaken Jews. In addition to performing hundreds of brisos both in Poland and later in the USSR, he eventually trained some 37 young men to be mohalim in Poland, Russia, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
In his June 1968 testimony before Congress, Rabbi Bronstein was asked by Chester D. Smith, the General Counsel for the House Committee, if he went to Poland for a particular purpose and if he accomplished what he set out to do.
“On February 11, 1958, I arrived in Poland and found hundreds upon hundreds of young men, not children, clamoring for circumcision,” Rabbi Bronstein told the committee. “When I asked them why, they told me that psychologically they feel like non-Jews because they were not circumcised. This is an historic fact, that these young men between the ages of 8 and 28 begged for circumcision. They refused even local anesthesia. They just clenched their fists, but they went through this ritual.
“I think that this is the greatest challenge to communism. We must remember that these young men had been trained and indoctrinated in communism, that religion is the opium of the masses, the first slogan that a child upon entering the nursery in the Soviet Union is taught.
“Still, when they came to Poland, and Poland did not prevent them from going through with this ritual, they demanded circumcision. I have circumcised hundreds of them and I have trained 37 young men, 18 from the Soviet Union and 19 from satellite countries, in this field. After I had left, they continued and still continue to do this work.”
Rabbi Bronstein then described how he performed these brisos during his stay in Russia.
“I wish to describe to the committee under what conditions these young men are circumcised today in the Soviet Union; I think you would all cry.
“They are hiding in cemeteries. I had to go with them to places where I would never dream or dare to go, and they have not only demanded but begged me, ‘Rabbi, make me for a Jew.’[sic] After completing the ritual act, they embraced me and kissed me, saying, ‘Thank you, Rabbi, for making me a Jew.’”
In addition to describing the mesirus nefesh of the Jews who underwent bris milah, Rabbi Bronstein spoke of the lack of Jewish education amongst the masses and to what lengths some went in order to educate their children.
“There are no schools in the Soviet Union which are Jewish or Hebrew. You cannot see a young man or a young woman in the synagogue, not because neither wants to go there, but because we must remember that the Soviet Union, being that it is the ‘paradise,’ so they say, people work there six-day weeks and no Jewish child or young man or woman would dare be absent from work to go to a synagogue.
“There are parents who do train their children in the so-called underground in the Jewish religion. I know of a family whose children refused to go to school on the Sabbath. When this boy or girl came on Monday to school and was asked, ‘Why did you miss school?’ he said, ‘My father told me to go. In fact, he beat me. He told me to go, but I know on the Sabbath you are not allowed to go to school. Therefore, I didn’t go.’”
So how did they manage to teach their children about Yiddishkeit? Rabbi Bronstein described how a grandfather, retired and able to attend shul, took a siddur and secretly tore out the front page. “The first page had the alef-beis, the Jewish alphabet, and he would take this page and teach his grandchild how to read from it.”
Rabbi Bronstein continued, “I have been there nine times. They want an alphabet and a religious shawl. In Kiev, I gave an elderly gentleman a tallis, and he began to dance with tears in his eyes. I said, ‘Why are you so happy?’ He said, ‘Now we have something to die with, because they bury a Jew in a tallis.’
“Our problem is the hundreds of thousands of Jews who do not want to have the tallis to be buried with, but to live with and worship with, but they can’t get it.”
Rabbi Bronstein explained how he would hide religious items, including mezuzos and slides of sefarim, in his shoes, and as he walked on a beach, he would have them fall from his shoes. Russian Jews would follow him and retrieve these items from the sands of the beaches, circumventing the prying eyes of the KGB.
Rabbi Bronstein’s final visit to the Soviet Union began with his arrival in Kiev on May 30, 1967. From there he traveled to Zhitomir and a few other small towns to visit kevarim of tzaddikim. He also spent some time in the city of Berditchev.
“I was entitled to a car three hours each day, and for six hours one day because I did not use my car the day before. I engaged an Intourist chauffeur and he drove me to Berditchev,” Rabbi Bronstein told the spellbound House committee. “On the way back, on the outskirts of Berditchev, I was arrested, and they interrogated me for two and a half hours. They told me that I did not have a special visa to go to Berditchev, and my visa was only to Moscow, Kiev, and a few other cities.
“I told them I did not sleep over in Berditchev, but I went for a ride with an Intourist chauffeur. The chauffeur was also interrogated and his license was taken from him. And upon returning to Kiev, I was made to pay a penalty of 50 rubles, which is about $55, for overriding the time of my car which I was entitled to. This was not an arrest; it was an interrogation.
“I spent the weekend in Kiev, and on Sunday morning, while on my way to the airport at Lvov, three KGB agents came over to me, saying ‘Rabbi Bronstein, you are under arrest, and please follow us.’
“I didn’t know why. I first thought that this was the result of my so-called illegal trip to Berditchev, but I soon found out it was not so. I was taken to a room where three KGB agents began to interrogate me. They didn’t give me a chance to answer one question when another question came. They attempted to confuse me, but with G-d’s help I stood my ground. And they had a dossier, a file on me which weighed over a kilo, with pictures and statements and letters from Russian citizens that my purpose in the Soviet Union was not just as a mere tourist, but that I came to organize an illegal exodus of Russian Jews.
“The head of this interrogation read off a list of various names with whom I had met in the Soviet Union during my nine visits there, and most of them did manage to leave the Soviet Union. They asked me why most of the people I had met with had left the Soviet Union. In other words, this was proof that I came to organize this illegal exodus.
“They accused me of spying, working for the State Department and other organizations, and also accused me of working for the Joint Distribution Committee. I have never worked for them. I want to help Jews. My purpose in going to the Soviet Union was to strengthen the religious faith of my people who are gasping for air, for religious freedom.”
Rabbi Bronstein often related how he once served as a baal tefillah during a visit to Vilna in 1966. Rabbi Bronstein put his entire heart and soul into the davening, as the words “Matir assurim” and “Ga’al Yisrael” took on a deeper, more relevant meaning. An elderly mispallel approached him afterwards and said, “Rav Bronstein, you were mechallel Shabbos — you lit a fire in our hearts!” Indeed, until his passing on 13 Nissan, 5753/April 4, 1993, the fire of Novardok still burned within Rabbi Bronstein as he continued to kindle fires in Jewish hearts generations later. To do this, he dared not be silent.
Photos are courtesy of Moshe D. Yarmish, grandson of Rabbi Bronstein.
Rescuing the Yerushalmi
One of Rabbi Bronstein’s most daring exploits involved smuggling out the manuscripts of a tzaddik and gaon who wrote sefarim in Moscow under the noses of the KGB.
Harav Yitzchak Isaac Krasilschikov, zt”l (1888-1965), was a talmid of the Mirrer Yeshivah in the early 1900s, while it was under the leadership of Harav Elya Baruch Kamai, zt”l (the father-in-law of Harav Leizer Yudel Finkel, zt”l).
He published the first volume of Tevunah, his commentary on the Rambam, in Poltava; it was the very last Jewish religious work published in communist Russia. During the Holocaust, he fled to Siberia, and later returned and settled in Moscow.
On May 12, 1965, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Levin, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, asked Rabbi Bronstein to accompany him to a hospital to visit Harav Krasilschikov, who was near death.
Harav Krasilschikov confided that beneath his cushion lay a thermometer and the manuscript of the second volume of Tevunah. He cautioned Rabbi Bronstein that he feared that some of the nurses were secret agents of the KGB, and that he should remove the manuscript from beneath the cushion so that it would appear as if he was just removing the thermometer. When there were no nurses present, Rabbi Bronstein reached with one hand to extract the thermometer and with the other he removed the manuscript, which he promptly placed in his sock.
Rabbi Bronstein promised that if he would manage to smuggle the manuscript out of Russia, he would publish it. Rabbi Bronstein was able to keep his word, and 50 years after the first volume of Tevunah was printed in Poltava, the second volume was published.
Harav Krasilschikov also confided that he had written a commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi, and the 20 volumes, containing some 20,000 pages, were hidden in the houses of his daughters. The following day, on May, 13, 1965, the Rav passed away.
“This revelation astounded me. Who would have thought, in communist Russia, that in such conditions, such a monumental work would be created as a commentary on the Yerushalmi?” (Rabbi Bronstein, introduction to Maseches Brachos).
“So I asked him in wonder how one of the greatest Rabbis of Lithuania like himself spent many years of his life on the Yerushalmi? When he heard my words, tears flowed from his eyes. When he calmed down a little, he answered my question. Because of his weakness, it was difficult for him to speak. He spoke slowly and in short phrases, and this is what he said: ‘All my days, I have turned my soul towards our Holy Land … to Yerushalyaim, the Holy City … the rejoicing of our heart and the precious part of our soul … for many years I bore the hope I would be privileged to reach Yerushalayim, the Holy City … When I saw that my hope was lost … the ways were closed … the gates locked … and the years passing by … I picked up the Yerushalmi and in it, I placed all my yearning towards the Land and our holy cities … I began my work on the Yerushalmi on Maseches Shvi’is, that I wrote in the year 5712, which was a Shemittah year. I said in my heart, ‘It should be your will, as if . . .’” (Rabbi Bronstein, introduction to Maseches Maasros).
Rabbi Bronstein made many attempts to smuggle the Yerushalmi manuscript out of Russia. After he was no longer permitted to enter the Soviet Union, he continued his efforts through intermediaries. Finally, on the 17th attempt, the first of the 20 volumes was successfully smuggled out of Russia by Harav Yaakov Pollack, zt”l, the Rav of Congregation Shomrei Emunah of Boro Park.
In 1980, the Mutzal Me’esh Institute, under the auspices of Rabbi Bronstein and the Al Tidom Association, began publishing Harav Krasilschikov’s Yerushalmi in Bnei Brak. The sefer includes the text of the Yerushalmi, surrounded by the dual commentary of Harav Krasilschikov. One, titled Toldos Yitzchak, is a clear and lucid explanation of the Yerushalmi; the other, Tevunah, contains more detailed discussion. The editing was done by Harav Berel Weintraub, zt”l, with, ybl”c Harav Chaim Kanievksy, shlita, and Harav Shachna Kolodetsky, shlita.
In addition, Rabbi Bronstein smuggled out a manuscript on the Hagaddah written by Harav Avraham Aharon Friedman, Hy”d, who perished in the Holocaust. It was published as Haggadah Mutzal Mei’eish in 1974 by the Al Tidom Association.
Rabbi Bronstein arrived to Eretz Yisrael in 1965 carrying with him the precious Yerushalmi he helped smuggle out of Russia. He came to my parents, and I recall how impressed they were by his readiness to sacrifice his life for the sacred mitzvah of bris milah and for Jewish education.
Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein