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Soviet Jews Of All Ages Seek Circumcision

By Barbara Oka

Click here to see pictures of the event

Why does a Soviet Jew who knows no Hebrew, has never studied Torah and has had no exposure to his Jewish heritage undergo painful and traumatic surgery to enter into the covenant of Abraham? “They understand that they are Jews and they must
have it,” says Rabbi Hershel Okunov, Executive Director of F.R.E.E. an
organization devoted to Russian immigrants. “Without bris mila, they feel they are not complete Jews.”

Just recently, F.R.E.E. completed its 9000th bris. The recipient was an eight year old boy, Dmitry Livshits, who was accompanied by his mother, mohel Rabbi Avraham Cohn, and a special sandek for the occasion, Rabbi Chaim Gutnick, Chief Rabbi of Melbourne, Australia. Lying on a table in the operating room of Brooklyn Interfaith Hospital, Dmitry had a local anesthetic.

(Smaller children, who cannot tell the doctor when they are numb, must be totally anesthetized.) An attending. surgeon and nurse were on hand. Outside the operating room. cake and wine waited as Rabbi Gutnick said the traditional blessings. “I could feel my face turning white,” he said. afterwards.

The previous patient, a 29-year-old athlete robust constitution, fainted during the procedure from stress.

Undergoing bris mila at an advanced age is not easy. Some immigrants make the decision immediately upon their arrival in the U.S. Some wait two, three or even five years before going through with it.

F.R.E.E.’s success with bris mila for Russian Jews is due as much to the organization’s warmth and handholding as anything else.

One F.R.E.E. executive, Mordechai Goldin, is particularly adept at reassuring children. He keeps their spirits up with jokes

and stories as he shuttles them from their homes to preliminary examinations in doctors’ offices to the operating room.

Hershel Okunov, his brother Meir, or other F.R.E.E. officials accompany the men during all phases of the activity. They pick them up and take them for check-ups and blood tests. They obtain the results and schedule the operations. They are in the recovery room with the patients and follow up their healing process for weeks and months afterwards.

Patients have included, men up to 65 years of age.

F.R. E.E. is now performing 20 brisim a week. For those without health coverage, F.R.E.E. pays for all procedures. Costs can run $600 or more per person. F.R.E.E. must constantly raise money to support brisim.

Interestingly, a considerable amount of F.R.E.E.’s energy now goes into checking if candidates are really Jewish. Non-Jews pose as Jews in order to leave Russia more easily. Once here, they find that as Jews, they’re entitled to a host of benefits and U.S. refugee status. Surprisingly, they are willing to go as far as bris mila to gain entry into a Jewish way of life. “First, they hear circumcision is medically beneficialf,” explains Rabbi Okunov. “Then non-Jewish mothers want their sons to have a Jewish education, attend Jewish camps, and marry Jewish girls. And they are willing to do even a bris mila for these goals.”

Within the last year, Rabbi Okunov has had to become a detective to verify a candidate’s Jewish identity, making long distance phone calls back to Russia and as far as Australia. He has had tombstones checked, and a few times has had to pose as a relative looking for family members in order to obtain the information.

He has had to explain to non-Jews that bris mila is a covenant with G-d, and that it is not good to lie to the Almighty. If They want a circumcision, Rabbi Okunov recommends going to a surgeon. Further, Rabbi Okunov explains that the mohel is a religious man, and that it is a grave sin for him to make blessings that are not true.

F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) was the first organization to provide brisim for Russian Jews, and today it is the largest in helping Russians with this mitzvah. Before glasnost, bris mila was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Ninety percent of Jews arriving here did not have a bris. F.R.E.E. undertook negotiations with what was then Brooklyn Jewish Hospital (now Interfaith) to find a solution. Together with the board and staff of the hospital, F.R.E.E. developed operating room procedures which allow the mohel to perform the bris, with a urologist and surgeon present. Dr. Benjamin Pagovich, o.b.m., was the urologist at the hospital who worked with F.R.E.E. for over 18 years. A side benefit was the respect doctors developed for the mohel. The hospital currently uses a video of the mohel performing his specialty to teach circumcision to doctors using his methods.

Bris mila is one of many F.R.E.E. programs to help Russian Jews begin to live as Jews.

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