Reb Chanoch Hendel Galperin lived during a historically dark time—Soviet Russia had stifled religion to criminal degrees, with any mention of it immediately perking the ubiquitous ears of authorities.

Jews chose to either continue practicing in secret or simply surrender their heritage altogether. Those fortunate enough fled, but Reb Chanoch, imbued with love for his fellow Jews, stayed behind to coax sparks—which never die—from the embers of Soviet Judaism, often succeeding. Here is one such instance.

One bitterly cold winter day, an elderly woman approached Reb Chanoch. She introduced herself as Chaya-Basha, a widow from the other side of town. Speaking in hushed tones, she told Reb Chanoch he needed to circumcise her grandson, the responsibility of arranging which fell squarely on her frail shoulders. Her son, Abrasha, wanted nothing to do with it.

For as long as his mother remembered, ardent patriotism decorated Abrasha’s world, which began expressing itself early in his childhood with his enrollment in Communist clubs. With time, he climbed the many ranks of the Communist Party until he became a recognizable and rather popular personality. He served as a member of several organizations as well as the director of the local Party.

Now many Jews had joined the Communist party, some of whom still maintained touch with their Jewish roots. Abrasha was one of them. Even if it was for the shortest while, one could always catch Abrasha attending the Yom Kippur services in the synagogue.

And so it came to be that Abrasha and his wife, also a Jewess, became the delighted parents of a baby boy. Circumcising his son never even occurred to Abrasha, yet his mother would give him no rest. Fearing for his own career, Abrasha was opposed to the idea. If the wrong people would hear about it, his tenure in the Communist Party would come to a swift end.

Abrasha’s resolution over the matter crumbled when his mother mentioned suicide. She threatened through tears, shaking Abrasha to his very soul. He eventually agreed, but on two conditions: The circumcision was to happen in absolute secrecy and without his participation. This way, Abrasha could extricate himself from potential fallout by blaming his mother.

Having spent several years in Siberia for his “counterrevolutionary” activities, Reb Chanoch was still unfazed. He gladly agreed to perform the circumcision, remarking, “I am so grateful to you, Chaya Basha. Because of you, I’ll merit establishing another soul’s eternal connection to its Creator.”

Looking bright already, Chaya-Basha gave Reb Chanoch an address, and the two appointed an hour for the ceremony. Before she hurried off, he told her to dress the baby in a clean diaper and also prepare a tub of warm water. Reb Chanoch picked up two trusted fellow Chassidim—one to act as sandek and one to assist in the circumcision—and then made his way through the frosty weather to the address.

In the small, quiet apartment, Reb Chanoch found the baby all prepped as instructed. The mother, isolated in an adjacent room, ignored the men. Chaya-Basha, however, bustled around them, making sure everything was in order. Reb Chanoch set his bag down, removed a white coat customarily worn for Yom Kippur and slipped it on. He also looped a surgical mask onto his ears. Within a few minutes, Reb Chanoch had deftly ushered the baby into Avraham’s covenant.

Because neither of the boy’s parents were present to specify a Jewish name, the three men decided on “Yisrael,” after the saintly Baal Shem Tov. Their reasoning: It was the Baal Shem Tov who gifted his followers with the love for their fellow Jews, which prompted them to risk their very lives for this child.

Suddenly, a muffled call for Chaya-Basha could be heard. Chaya-Basha rushed to the other room and reappeared with her daughter-in-law. The woman’s eyes were puffy and red. Looking at the Chassidim, voice shaking with emotion, the woman said, “Even though I don’t know Hebrew nor Yiddish, I am still a Jewess, my ancestors being respected rabbis in various cities. I’ve strayed far from tradition, and my husband is a Communist official. However, I’m glad I listened to my mother-in-law and agreed to this circumcision. Certainly, my little boy will be a Jew and will stay a Jew.”

The woman then rejoined her baby inside her room.

From his bag, Reb Chanoch produced a small cake. And from the kitchen, Chaya-Basha brought a bottle of spirits. The celebrants sat around the table, sharing “lechaims” interspersed with Torah insights. Spontaneous but soft singing broke out every once in a while. Caught up in their world, they didn’t even notice the deepening shadows.

Just as the Chassidim were about to head home, a series of raps sounded on the door, freezing the small apartment with terror. Chaya-Basha felt panic rising in her throat as she rushed to undo the locks to the door. Abrasha, weary from the office, stepped inside and surveyed the scene. He walked over to the men, inquired about their health, and even apologized for being held up in the office. The Chassidim offered him a “Lechaim” of his own.

Reb Chanoch plopped a kippah on Abrasha’s head and reminded him to say a blessing before partaking.

Several rounds of “Lechaim” dissolved Abrasha’s diffident attitude and placed him at ease in the company of Chassidim. Abrasha didn’t feel like he was home, but rather in some distant memory, gathered in an old synagogue with some old friends. Encouraged by Reb Chanoch, Abrasha reminisced. About the days in Cheder, about his old friends, and about his father who stood praying till noon and often wept in the middle. Unable to contain himself, Abrasha started singing the melodies recalled from his father’s prayer. Despite his closed eyes, tears rolled freely down his face.

Outside, the morning crept up.

“Listen, Abrasha,” said Reb Chanoch, looking Abrasha dead in the eye. “Even though there’s no one in this room capable of reaching your father’s heels, his righteous soul cannot rest content from your current lifestyle. You must start wearing tefillin daily, keeping Shabbat, learning Torah, eating kosher, and maintaining a separated kitchen… And we will help you every step of the way.”

Abrasha agreed. And since it was already 6 o’clock in the morning, the Chassidim bid him farewell and left.

Within a few days, Abrasha absolved himself from his government position.

This story was shared by Rabbi Shlomo Galperin, son of Rabbi Chanoch Hendel Galperin.