Yechiel Michel Dorfman (1913 – 30 July 2006) was the de facto head of the Breslover Hasidim living in post-Stalinist Russia. Due to his persistence and planning, the annual Breslover Rosh Hashana kibbutz (prayer gathering) at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, which began in 1811, continued on a small scale despite the Communist ban on religious gatherings.
Dorfman was born in Kamenetz-Podolsk in western Ukraine and became a Breslover Hasid in his early teens. He moved to Uman at the age of 15, where he married Rivkah, the granddaughter of Rabbi Abraham Sternhartz, a leading Breslover figure.
During the Stalinist purges of the Ukraine in the late 1930s, Dorfman escaped to Leningrad, where he survived World War II. However, after the war he was arrested by the NKVD and incarcerated in Lubyanka prison in Moscow for two years. Afterwards he was exiled to Siberia for another four and a half years. Upon the death of Stalin in 1953, he was given a reprieve and allowed to settle in Moscow.
After World War II, the few remaining Breslover Hasidim in Russia moved far away from the government center in Moscow, to areas such as Tashkent, where religious practices were still forbidden but government scrutiny was less intense. During the year, these scattered Hasidim did not keep in contact with each other. However, before each Rosh Hashanah, they would go to public pay phones to call Dorfman in Moscow, who updated them on details of the upcoming holiday pilgrimage to Uman. Dorfman also corresponded with Hasidim who lived in remote areas, encouraging them to come to Uman.
Dorfman served as one of the prayer leaders at the secret Rosh Hashanah services, which were held every year in a house near Rebbe Nachman's gravesite. In contrast to the hundreds of Hasidim who participated in the Rosh Hashana kibbutz during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, only enough men for a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 men) risked the annual pilgrimage in post-Stalinist Russia. Often the police would raid the gathering and take down names of participants, threatening them with imprisonment.
Foreign Tourists to Rebbe Nachman's gravesite
In the mid-1960s, Dorfman began escorting American citizens to Uman to show them Rebbe Nachman's gravesite. During World War II, a fierce battle between the Russians and Nazis for control of Uman had demolished the ancient cemetery in which Rebbe Nachman was buried. The cemetery was razed and housing lots were constructed on it. The grave of Rebbe Nachman was rediscovered and relocated in the yard of a private house. Only with the aid of someone like Dorfman, who traveled to the gravesite several times a year, could foreigners hope to locate it.
By aiding foreign tourists, Dorfman placed himself in great personal danger. The government only issued tourist visas to large cities like Kiev or Odessa, not to Uman; thus, Dorfman was aiding illegal tourists. Due to his efforts, however, several hundred American and Israeli citizens were able to visit Uman. The increasing number of visitors and requests for visas to Uman in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s put pressure on the Soviet government to ease its restrictions. Finally the gates opened entirely with the fall of Communism in 1989.
Aliyah to Israel
After 38 consecutive years of petitioning the government through official and private channels, Dorfman and his wife finally received their exit visas in 1972 and immigrated to Israel. In recognition of his self-sacrifice on behalf of the Breslover cause in Russia for decades, Dorfman was appointed as honorary Rosh Yeshiva of the Breslov Yeshiva in Meah Shearim. He died on 5 Av 5766 (July 30, 2006).
- Fleer, Gedaliah (2005). Against All Odds. Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute. OCLC 71813459 ISBN 1-928822-05-3
- Kramer, Chaim (1989). Crossing the Narrow Bridge. Breslov Research Institute. ISBN 0-930213-40-8.