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Renewing ties with their religion

Susan Kreimer

Russian immigrants take advantage of the new freedom of expression that they have found in North America.

Two years before emigrating from Ekaterinburg, Russia, in 1997, Leonid Marder and his wife, Tamara, began observing Shabbat. After arriving in the United States, the retired couple gradually became more devout. But for some time, something didn’t feel quite right.

Like many Russian emigres who adopted Orthodox practices in the United States, Marder had to take the next step in becoming a Jew. That step was brit milah, a ritual circumcision, more commonly known as a “bris.” On June 21, 2001, at age 66, he seized the opportunity.

“It’s better late than never,” said Marder, a former engineering professor now living in Reisterstown, Md., a Baltimore County suburb that has a heavy concentration of Russian Jews.

Under the Communist regime, Marder recalled that rabbis who performed circumcisions were arrested and, in day care and schools, educators routinely examined children to ensure that boys were not circumcised. Immigration offered Russian Jews the chance to escape persecution and renew their faith in Judaism, and many came to realize that circumcision was a vital part of this reconnection.

“Circumcision is actually a physical bond between a Jewish man and the Creator. This is what God told Abraham,” said Rabbi Yosef Y. Okunov, the 25-year-old New York program director at Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), a Lubavitch-affiliated organization that assists Russian immigrants with their spiritual and material needs.

Okunov’s grandfather was arrested for his Jewish involvement and was held captive in Siberia. Now, he and his organization, whose mission is to provide emigres easy access to a mohel, a rabbi who performs the ritual under the watchful gaze of a urologist, have managed to co-ordinate the circumcisions of 13,000 Russian Jews, the oldest of whom was 82. With private donations, the group has been able to offer the service at no cost.

In Avigdor Roppoport’s case, FREE paid for a room in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Crown Heights, where he stayed for three days after travelling by train from his home in Rockville, Md., before Chanukah last year. The 45-year-old telecommunications businessman learned about the organization on the Internet and it was the only place where he came across information in Russian.

“I decided [to do this] a long time ago when I lived in Moscow,” said Roppoport, who added that it wasn’t easy to explain this in his new culture. “For Americans, it’s difficult to understand why someone hasn’t done it yet.”

Rabbi Michael Rovinsky, a mohel and St. Louis-area co-ordinator for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an arm of the Orthodox Union, remembers a bris in Dallas shortly after moving there in 1990. A 24-year-old Russian, speaking in broken English, taught the young rabbi an unforgettable lesson. The phrases “Me be like Abraham” and “Me do cut” puzzled Rovinsky, who replied: “Excuse me?” Then the young man made himself clear: “I cut. I do bris.”

At that point, the rabbi recalled, “I gave him the knife, helped him make the blessing and he gave himself a bris. I went to my car and I cried because here is an individual who knows nothing about Judaism. He was persecuted his entire life and didn’t know what it meant to be a Jew, and he was so committed and dedicated to want a bris. This was the only thing he knew.”

Yan Brunshteyn, a native of Moldova and a recent graduate of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco, wasn’t religious when he opted for a bris last fall, after Rabbi Aaron Hecht, who teaches Jewish ethics, law and history at the Orthodox high school, broached the topic with him.

“My mom wasn’t for it and she wasn’t against it. My dad told me, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Brunshteyn said. “I was hesitant, of course. It’s not an easy decision. But something told me it was the right thing to do.”

Brunshteyn, who is 19 and works as an office administrator at the school, convinced his nine-year-old brother, Eric, to join him that day. Their mother accompanied them. The little boy went first, and his circumcision was done at no charge. Hecht paid $500 for the elder one.

And so Brunshteyn was among 13 Hebrew Academy students and three others who had brit milah last year, said Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, the school’s dean. Although its teachers have stressed the ritual’s significance, this was the first time the school made such a concerted effort. About 90 per cent of the 180 students, from nursery school through Grade 12, are children of Russian emigres.

“We know that Jews in the Soviet Union did not have the opportunity to have circumcision, so we started a program where we teach the children that circumcision is a critical mitzvah. It’s something very important for a Jewish boy,” said Lipner, who, in 1969, founded the academy that has educated about 2,000 Russian Jews.

While adult circumcisions tend to proceed without complications, Brunshteyn and his 15-year-old friend, Anthony Goloub, who emigrated from St. Petersburg, encountered problems. In each case, a blood vessel was severed by accident, so they came back one at a time for corrective surgery.

“The rabbi who was doing the circumcisions flew in from New York and the airline lost his luggage, so he had to use somebody’s else’s tools,” said Brunshteyn, who missed playing hockey for a month and a half because of the mishap. “I had a lot of doubts during recovery time, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to think that way.” Once the pain passed, so did the regrets.

Susan Kreimer
 is a writer living in New York. She immigrated to Chicago from Odessa, Ukraine, at age 5. This article was previously printed in the Forward newspaper in New York.

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