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FREE-dom of choice for Soviet emigres

By Gitelle Rapoport

Click here to see pictures of the event

Dmitry Livshits, an 8-year-old Soviet emigres, had a ritual circumcision at Brooklyn Interfaith Hospital a few weeks ago.

Dmitry’s was the 9,000th brit milah performed under the sponsorship of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), a Brooklyn organization devoted to helping Soviet Jewish immigrants. Most of those who have the operation are children and adults under 40. The oldest was 65.

Even Soviet Jewish men who have had no Jewish education undergo circumcision because “without brit rnilah, they feel they are not complete Jews,” says Rabbi Hershel Okunov, FREE’s executive director.

Still, deciding to have the operation is not easy. Some immigrants decide to do it immediately after arriving in the United States. Other wait two, three or even five years.

In the past it was “very hard” to persuade men to undergo the operation, said Okunov. “Now people know about it from their friends, and most of them call us and say they’re ready to do it, ” although ” it happens sometimes that they change their mind.”

“It wasn’t an easy step for me,” said 31-year-old Igor Goldberg of Brighton Beach, who had the circumcision a year and a half ago. “They [FREE] didn’t push me, but they helped me to understand that I should do it.”

Goldberg attends FREE-sponsored Torah classes, and his religious observance has increased since he arrived here. “I made an agreement with my boss that on Friday evening I go home earlier and I get Jewish holidays off,” he said.

Okunov, his brother Meir or other FREE officials accompany the men to the doctors’ offices for medical tests and to the hospital where the operation is performed. They also stay in touch with them for weeks or months after the operation.

Operating room procedures developed by FREE and hospital staffers allow a mohel to perform the brit with a urologist and surgeon present.

FREE performs about 20 circumcisions a week. It pays all costs for those without health coverage. The money comes from donations.

The idea for the 22-year-old organization came from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, said Okunov. Originally designed to assist refugees from Eastern Europe, FREE’s focus shifted to Soviet emigres in 1969, when the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six-Day War.

Circumcision is only one of the religious services that FREE provides. The organization also 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.

“We stress things that will help them adapt to life in this country,” said Anne Hershman, FREE’s educational director, citing courses in writing business letters, political science and American history.

Judaic subjects include Hebrew and life in American Jewish communities. “We try to give them a feeling of pride in their Jewish identity,” Hershman said.

Approximately 300 boys attend FREE’s elementary and high school in Crown Heights. Girls are referred to the local Bais Yaakov or the Lubavitch Beth Rivka.
Soviet Jews with limited incomes can buy food at reduced prices through FREE’s efforts. “We get Jewish wholesalers to cut their prices and our volunteers distribute the meat or fish, so we eliminate the middle man,” said Okunov. Immigrants may pick up the food, which is stored at several sites in Brooklyn.

FREE also offers Russian-language Sabbath and holiday services at a building donated by the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton Beach.

Another of FREE’s concerns is the missionary activity of “messianic Jews” who try to attract Soviet immigrants.

“We distribute literature about our activities and tell [immigrants] to be very careful about places in the neighborhood with a magen david, that these are not necessarily Jewish places,” said Okunov.

FREE officials also check the identities of immigrants to determine whether they are non-Jews trying to pass as Jewish.

These non-Jews “think Russian Jews here are very successful,” Okunov said. “They want to send their kids to Jewish schools because they’re better. They go to tremendous trouble to prove they’re Jews, ” faking documents and even getting a brit, if necessary.

FREE checks tombstones and uses contacts in the Soviet Union to obtain access to original birth certificates to find out who is really Jewish. Non-Jews who want to be circumcised are referred to a surgeon.

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