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9,200 Brissin For Grown-Ups? It’s Not Easy, But It’s F.R.E.E.

Most of us have seen a bris or two in our day. It seems like the simplest of procedures, especially since it’s performed on little babies in shul. A swift cut, a squeeze of gauze, a drop of wine and – mazal tov! Five minutes and it’s all over, without doctor, anesthesia, or trouble. (May all brissin be that easy!)

They say that a bris is much more complicated when performed on an adult. I’d heard that, but like most people, had no firsthand knowledge of such things; I’d vaguely assumed the reason was that the pain was so much greater. So when Rabbi Mendel Shagalov of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.) offered me the precious opportunity to be a sandek, a participant in the bris of a three-year-old Russian boy, I really didn’t know what was coming.

FREE arranges these brissin all the time. This is a good thing, since most of the many Russians of all ages who have recently been allowed to come to this country were not able to have one in the Soviet Union. In fact, F.R.E.E. just performed its 9,200th bris, so it can safely be said that they are experts in these matters.

Rabbi Shagalov accompanied me to Interfaith Medical Center (formerly Brooklyn Jewish Medical Center) in Brooklyn, and we went directly to a surgical area where a strange mix of people clustered expectantly in the hallway. A group of Russian boys about 6-11 years old, each with a digital thermometer watchfully attached to his forehead, chatted with men whose pale blue surgeons uniforms contrasted oddly with their flowing beards and rabbinic bearing. One of these, Mendel’s father, Rabbi Zalman Shagalov, greeted me warmly and ushered me into a changing room where I was issued my own set of sterile “O.R.” clothing. I suspect that any experienced father will remember these disposable garments from the delivery room.

What came next, though, was totally unfamiliar: A full-scale operation was about to take place. Our Russian child lay ready on the operating table, breathing rhythmically under general anesthesia. At the head of the table sat the anesthesiologist, monitoring the boy’s vital signs. Another surgeon-suited rabbi was introduced to me as Rabbi Avrohom Cohen, the expert mohel who has performed every one of F.R.E.E.’s 9,200 (and counting!) brissin. A third man turned out to be a respected urologist who performs kidney transplants and other complicated surgery when not assisting at a bris.

A sandek traditionally holds the baby while the mohel performs the bris. As this “baby,” however, was out cold on an operating table, I merely held his feet. Before I recited the brocho, Rabbi Cohen reminded me of an awesome fact: In a case where, for whatever reason, a Jewish boy has not had a bris, the obligation to circumcise him falls equally upon every single Jew, myself included. I literally had the right to make this brocho as though the boy were my own son.

The bris itself was performed as usual, but I was surprised at what came next. This was no job for a gauze pad. The mohel and the doctor worked for quite a while to clamp shut all the “bleeders” – blood vessels severed by the cut – and then to close the wound with what seemed like 50-75 stitches!

This, the mohel informed me, is standard procedure when a bris is performed on an older child or an adult. He explained that a considerable amount of skin is left unattached after a bris. The tissue and blood vessels of an eight day old infant are still sufficiently undeveloped that a skillful squeeze will stop the bleeding and bond the skin. However, if the patient is older – a real, live, operation is necessary, hospital, surgeons, and all.

As I left the operating area, I passed the group of boys still bravely making small talk with the FREE rabbis. They were next, and from all appearances were looking forward to it.

What in the world could induce people with little Jewish background to go through something like this?

Part of the answer, of course, can be attributed to the deep-rooted yearning of these Jews to reconnect with their suppressed heritage. And it should be remembered that many Russians put off having a bris for years before they finally feel ready. But undeniably, the lion’s share of the credit must go to organizations like FREE that make it their business to befriend Russian Jews and welcome them back to the faith of their fathers.

FREE was established 22 years ago, and in the time since has helped thousands of Eastern European refugees and Soviet emigres with their spiritual as well as material needs.

The organization runs an extensive educational system for both children and adults, including an associate degree program in liberal arts concentrating on English as a second language. The group also has an elementary school and a high school with a combined enrollment of over 300 boys.

In addition, FREE has an ongoing program allowing Soviet Jews with limited incomes to buy food at reduced prices, and conducts Russian-language Shabbos and Yom-Tov services, as well as Sunday programs, in Brighton Beach and at 1383 President Street. The group’s youth program serves over 4,000 young people.

Also in Brighton Beach, the group is fighting mightily against the insidious threat by Russian-speaking Christian missionaries who make a specialty of attracting Soviet Jewish immigrants. Rabbi Hershel Okunov, FREE’s executive director, says neighborhood residents must be warned not to think that any place with a Jewish star out front is necessarily a Jewish place.

And of course, there are the brissin. FREE performs about 20 circumcisions a week, and pays all costs when the families have no health coverage. While many brissin are on boys, a great many adults go through with the ceremony as well. The oldest to date was a 75-year-old man.

As I discovered for myself, such a bris is a major undertaking. Rabbis Morty Goldin, Youth Director, and Ze’ev Chazanovitch, the organization’s Director of Circumcisions, or other FREE staffers, accompany the men to doctors’ offices for medical tests, and to the hospital where the operation is performed. They also stay in touch with the “patients” for weeks or months after the operation.

Before I left Interfaith Medical Center, a thought hit me hard. As noted, I had never realized that the type of bris FREE arranges is such a serious procedure. Yet there they were – a surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, the works. Surely, all this must be extremely expensive.

“Who pays for all these people,” I asked Rabbi Meir Okunov, FREE’s National Executive Director. The answer, it seems, is a combination of the fact that brissin are, indeed, very expensive and costs must be raised through donations, and that FREE has, over the years, managed to develop a good relationship with the hospital, which charges the organization as small an amount as it can justify. Interestingly, confided the mohel, the urologist is glad to participate in FREE’s brissin: He is so impressed with the Torah method of performing this “operation” that he himself wishes to study it and practice his technique!

Still, each bris costs $600-$1,000. At 20 brissin a week, it’s easy to see that this great mitzvah involves a great budget. One thing that impressed me greatly is something Mendel Shagalov told me as we were leaving. Rabbi Cohen, the mohel, is actually a wealthy businessman who doesn’t take a penny for his services. For years now, he has been performing brissin in the mornings and attending to his business affairs in the afternoons.

Not many people, perhaps, can reach that level of dedication of time, effort, and money. Nevertheless, as I discovered, FREE is a very worthy cause indeed. To sponsor a bris or to contribute in any way, please call Rabbi Menachem M. Shagalov; The number is 718-467-0860.

Thank You

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