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F.R.E.E. Facilitates Senior Bris Milah

By Chana Ita Kruger

For the second time in a decade, 72-year-old Misha Gontcharov started a new life. At age 70, he won an immigration lottery, said goodbye to his home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and began life as a New Yorker. This spring, with the help of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.), he renewed his spiritual life by undergoing a bris milah – circumcision.

Misha may be old enough to be a great-grandfather to the eight-day-old babies who normally cry their way through the ritual welcome to the Jewish people, but he’s not alone. In the past few weeks, F.R.E.E. has helped Shaya, age 61, and Alexander, 63, enter the age-old covenant of the Jewish people. Back in 1970, when F.R.E.E. Circumcision Program first started, 90% of the participants were young boys. Today the majority is in the 30 to 60-year-old range.

“Fathers thought it was already too late for them to have a bris, but they wanted their sons to have the right start as Jews,” said F.R.E.E.’s chairman Rabbi Mayer Okunov. Years of living in freedom and as part of America’s Jewish communities fortified older adults with more resolve. Now they are saying, “it’s better late than never.’”

Many men of older ages choose to have a bris out of a desire to “be the same as their sons,” said Rabbi Okunov, or to celebrate important milestones where other Jewish ceremonies are involved – a son’s bar mitzvah, a daughter’s wedding. Shaya approached F.R.E.E. for a bris at the urging of his son David, who had his bris done with F.R.E.E. several months prior.

Strapping and solid from years of physical labor, Misha wanted a bris for as long as he could remember. His mother was afraid to broach the topic with his father, a non-Jewish Communist Party apparatchik. “I always felt I had missed something important in Judaism,” Misha said. At a F.R.E.E. Torah class in Brooklyn, Misha studied the life of Abraham. “I thought to myself, Abraham had a bris at 99. I am only 72, surely I can have one too.”

Misha is the 13,307th bris F.R.E.E. facilitated for Jews in need, mostly from the former Soviet Union, but he’s anything but a number to F.R.E.E. The organization offers emotional support before and after the bris. In addition, F.R.E.E., which has a 39-year track record of providing assistance of all kinds to Jews from the Soviet Union, clears any financial hurdles standing between a Jew and the covenant. They underwrite ceremonial and anesthesiology fees and, if need be, cover salaries during the recovery period.

“Now I feel like a complete Jew. The bris has given me peace of mind,” said Misha. He said he also felt confident because F.R.E.E.’s mohelim – ritual circumcisers – don scrubs and perform the ceremony the sterile, controlled environment of an operating room or outpatient medical clinic. Anesthesiologists work their pain management magic, and the blessings and festive meals wait until the participant awakens.

Urologists, on hand during the procedure, have been known to film F.R.E.E.’s chief mohel, Rabbi A. Romi Cohn, to record his technique for teaching purposes. In two encounters with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, a”h, Rabbi Cohn received the blessing that “Abraham, our forefather, stands at your right hand.” At the request of community leaders and rabbis in Alaska, Canada, Russia and throughout the continental United States, Rabbi Cohn and F.R.E.E.’s mohelim have traveled thousands of miles to avail adult bris candidates of their expertise.

Last month, Shaya’s mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok Kruger, looked at the group of family and friends who’d gathered to celebrate the milestone and said, “Today, life begins for you anew. Your past is past. You have a chance to start over again.” Shaya acted on his words immediately. Moments after completing the rite of an eight-day-old boy, he took on the responsibilities of a bar mitzvah boy and wrapped tefillin for the first time. With the help from F.R.E.E. the golden years shine with greater Jewish commitment for seniors around the world.

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