The year is 1979. Recently arrived from Israel where his family settled after their fortuitous exit from the former Soviet Union, 19-year-old Mordechai Kanelsky is on a holy mission given to him by the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’’l: to provide former Russian Jews in America with halachic brisim, proper circumcisions. Rabbi Kanelsky reported that to date, 6,600 brisim have taken place under the aegis of Bris Avrohom. The ages of the recipients are from 8-days-old to, most recently, 82-years-old at a bris that took place only weeks ago. Working alongside Rabbi Kanelsky for the past 40 years has been mohel Rabbi Eliyahu Shain, father of Rabbi Mordechain Shain of Tenafly.
Rabbi Kanelsy proudly shared, “Through the multiple and ever-expanding activities of Bris Avrohom we have reached out and significantly touched the lives of over 30,000 individuals whom we have connected to their Jewish heritage.”
Rabbi Kanelsky emotionally shared the story of the very first bris that he facilitated. It was Asara B’Tevet in 1979. Three young boys, ages 7, 10 and 14, were scheduled to be circumcised at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital on that day. The requisite blood tests were delayed and the day was coming to a close. Soon there would not be sufficient time for all three procedures. The nervous father of two of the three was adamant that both of his boys be circumcised that day or else he would not agree to either. Each boy wanted his bris that day as they did not want to go one more day uncircumcised. As nighttime was approaching it was clear that one boy would have to wait until the next day. “I was shaking so hard that Rabbi Shain thought he would have to prevent me from fainting. Fortunately, the father agreed to postpone one bris to the next day. But I had to remain in the hospital overnight with his older son.”
During those early days, the Rebbe zt”l added on the responsibility of affixing kosher mezuzahs to the homes of the new immigrant community. “We sought out donors to sponsor one to two mezuzahs and then knocked on doors to convince families to place a proper mezuzah on their doorposts. It was not always an easy sell, as the Russians were still wary of admitting to being Jewish,” shared Rabbi Kanelsky.
In the early 1980s, many families newly arrived from the former Soviet Union resided in Newark, Jersey City and Irvington, and sent their children to the local public schools. Realizing that they would surely be lost to Yiddishkeit in these settings, Rabbi Kanelsky, together with his wife, Shterny, were determined to get these children into local Yeshiva day schools. They met with resistance as the yeshivas were only willing to accept small numbers of Russian children, only up to 10% of their schools’ population. Hashgacha provided a chance meeting between Rabbi Kanelsky and Rabbi Isaac Mintz, z”l, who was then the principal of Rogosin Yeshiva High School in Jersey City. After assurances from Rabbi Kanelsky that these children were adept at math and science, Rabbi Mintz, together with Sarah Ham, then-principal of the elementary school Yeshiva of Hudson County, accepted 125 children of these newly arrived families into their schools. Through the magnanimous support of Aaron and Roz Rosenbaum, z”l, transportation to these schools was provided at a reasonable cost. One year, when the selection of a Russian student as valedictorian of the graduating class was objected to, Rosenbaum came forward to defend the decision as he viewed the newly arrived students as “precious esrogim.”
The additional projects of Bris Avrohom are extensive and highly visible throughout New Jersey. For the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the entire community is welcomed to participate in the services at all three shuls under the aegis of Bris Avrohom, in Hillside, Jersey City and Fair Lawn. In advance of Sukkot, hundreds of sets of the arba minim are distributed.
During the eight days of Chanukah, 25 million travelers view the giant Chanukah menorahs placed at every Port Authority crossing between New York and New Jersey. Chanukah menorahs are stationed in the hubs of Penn Station in New York and Newark, on the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel and 42nd Street Bus Terminal, as well as at airports including Newark, LaGuardia and Teterboro. Chanukah celebrations for adults and children are held at several New Jersey shopping malls including the enormous Jersey Gardens Mall. Parties are hosted at government offices, city halls and senior citizen centers. Chanukah gifts are distributed widely.
For Purim, hundreds of mishloach manot packages are sent to supporters, and Purim parties are hosted at senior centers. Megillah readings are offered at venues throughout New Jersey.
Bris Avrohom hosts Pesach Seders at six locations and distributes over 2,500 pounds of shmurah matzah and Seder packages to the elderly and homebound from the local communities. Lag B’Omer carnivals are sponsored at shuls in the community together with pony rides and plentiful food. On Shavuot, ice cream parties are hosted for those who come to hear the Torah reading of the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments.
For every holiday, thousands of brochures in Russian and English are disseminated that explain the background and customs of the holidays. Over 10,000 Jewish yearly calendars are printed and distributed throughout New Jersey.
Bris Avrohom also takes note of the imprisoned population in our community and provides them with literature, gifts, food and celebrations year-long to help them through their incarcerations.
In 2006, Rabbi and Mrs. Kanelsky dedicated the magnificent, state-of-the-art Mikveh Batsheva Chaya Esther. The mikvah is dedicated to the memory of their beloved daughter Batsheva, z”l, and Mrs. Kanelsky’s late mother Chaya Esther, z”l. Visitors are overwhelmed by the attention to detail of the facility, which includes jacuzzis in every preparation room, elegant tiling, radiant floors, embroidered towels and robes and soft music throughout.
In looking back over the last 40 years of their activities on behalf of Bris Avrohom, the Kanelskys and their extended family are duly proud of the blessed work they were tasked to perform on behalf of klal Yisrael, and with the help of Hashem they hope to continue for many more years to come.
The main headquarters of Bris Avrohom, headed by Rabbi Mordechai and Shterny Kanelsky, Rabbi Dovid and Sarah Wilansky, and Rabbi Avremi and Chaya Kanelsky, is located at 910 Salem Avenue in Hillside.
The Fair Lawn site, under the direction of Rabbi Berel and Leah Zaltzman and Rabbi Mendel and Elke Zaltzman, is located at 30-02 Fair Lawn Avenue. This site houses a Sunday Talmud Torah program for the community. During the summer, it hosts a highly successful summer camp for over 450 children.
The third headquarters of Bris Avrohom is on 35 Cottage Street in Jersey City and is directed by Rabbi Boruch and Kreina Lepkevker.
For more information about all of the programs offered by Bris Avrohom and to be placed on their mailing list, please visit the Bris Avrohom website at www.brisavraham.org or email [email protected] or call 908-289-0770.
By Pearl Markovitz