Freedom of religion was a concept that was foreign to us, citizens of the Soviet Union. As a child, it was ingrained in my bones that my every move was being monitored; with every step that I took in the street I needed to look back to see who was following me, who was keeping track of my activities. Invariably my shadows were KGB informers and agents.

Families like mine were right in their crosshairs. They knew that we were members of the “Schneersons,” as they dubbed us: Chabad chassidim who worked tirelessly to keep alive the flame of Torah and mitzvot, and its infrastructure, in Communist Russia. The “Schneersons” who built an underground network of Torah schools, synagogues, and mikvahs.

This was my childhood. Despite the risk and the constant vigilance required, we lived a traditional Jewish life. We prayed, studied Torah and all about Judaism, and even had chassidic gatherings, complete with singing and dancing as is Chabad tradition. Needless to say, all of this was done in utmost secrecy.

Public school attendance was mandated by the law, and school life was understandably difficult, presenting many challenges for a boy who wished to follow all Jewish laws and traditions. For example, I would always have to find a place to ritually wash my hands before eating my lunch sandwich.

I had three classmates who were religious. Naturally, we bonded and became close friends. After school, we would go to a secret location to learn Torah in a clandestine afternoon school. Sometimes the location of this “school” changed four or five times a week, for fear that the previous location might have been compromised. We took all this in stride; it was “normal” life for us.

One particular event sticks out in my mind. The school principal came to our class one day together with the school nurse. It was actually quite unusual for them to visit a classroom together. The principal informed us that we would be receiving immunization shots.

Now, while this might seem to be a routine medical procedure, for me it was far from simple . . . I was wearing tzitzit beneath my shirt. Tzitzit is a four-cornered garment with eight knotted strings dangling from each corner. This garment reminds us of the 613 commandments contained in the Torah, our holy guidebook for life.

If I would now pick up my shirt to receive a shot in my back, the nurse would definitely notice my normally concealed tzitzit. That could mean doom for my family and me.

I’m not talking about a small fine, or even some lashes. This could mean that my father, and maybe even I, would sit in a dark and dingy jail cell. My father had already sat in prison before, and my friends’ parents too. It was hell on earth. A wave of heat overcame my body. I immediately devised a plan: I would request permission to use the bathroom, and there I would remove my tzitzit.

I requested permission to the go to the bathroom. In a sly voice the principal responded, “Sure, you will receive the first shot, and after that you can go right to the bathroom.” I am not sure why he did not let me go to the bathroom first; perhaps he thought that I was trying to avoid getting the shot. I am certain that he was unaware of my tzitzit.

I tried to hide the fringes by hiking up my tzitzit as high as possible. All went seemingly well. The nurse administered the shot, and didn’t mention a word about the fringes. I wasn’t sure whether she didn’t notice them, or whether perhaps she simply ignored them.

The next day during lunch break, the nurse called me in to her room. I was sure that my time had come. She must have noticed them, and now I was in grave trouble. She closed the door behind me and gently asked, “Are those tzitzit, or tefillin?”

You can imagine my shock! She continued, telling me that she was Jewish, and how she recalled her grandfather wearing the same sort of garment. She distinctly remembered two Jewish ritual objects mentioned in her home, and she wanted to know which of them I was wearing.

She told me that she was inspired and heartwarmed by my strength and courage, maintaining my Jewish traditions under such harsh conditions. We discussed what it meant to be a religious Jew in Soviet Russia, as well as my personal hardships in school. She told me that from that day on, I could come to her room to ritually wash my hands and eat my lunch. And indeed, that was what I did from that day on.