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The Kindest Cut of All

Tuesday, November 10, 1992
by Raphael Sugarman

 Click here to see pictures of the event

“This will just feel like a little mosquito bite,” says Abrom Romichon, double-edged scalpel in hand, as he prepares to circumcise young Boris Belfer. Belfer wears a wan grin, “I have never had a mosquito bite in that area,” he says. Belfer, 20, always knew that moving to America from Russia would mean new experiences. A second language. Freedom of expression. The challenge of life in New York City. A ritual circumcision.

More than 75,000 Russian Jews have moved to New York in the last 10 years–many of them settling in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach–with more than 65,000 of them having arrived since 1989 alone. And for many, undergoing a ritual circumcision, or “bris,” is not only a necessary rite of Judaism, but a celebration of religious freedom in the U.S. “Such a thing was not possible in our country,” says Aleksandra Belfer, mother of Boris and 10-year-old Nikolai. Religious rituals like circumcision were illegal in the old Soviet Union, and punishment could be severe.

Assisting Russian immigrants with circumcisions has long been the calling of a Brooklyn group called Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, or FREE. Founded in 1969 by Rabbi Hershel Okunov and his brother Meir, immigrants themselves, FREE has coordinated circumcisions for nearly 10,000 males. While at least half were between the ages of 10 and 20, many who have undergone the procedure were in their 30s and 40s and even older. “My rabbi told me that it might be dangerous for me to have this done at my age,” says 62-year-old Talman Kopelevitch. “But I was in the Russian Army and I was not scared. I feel much more clean physically and spiritually.”

The bris (which in Hebrew means “covenant”) is based on a passage from the biblical book of Genesis in which God commands Abraham — at the age of 99 — to remove his foreskin. Jews regard this as a symbol of the covenant between God and Abraham, and circumcise their sons, as commanded, on the eighth day after birth. It is a central ritual of Judaism.

Romicohn, the ritual surgeon or “mohel,” estimates that he performs about 14 circumcisions a week at Brooklyn’s Interfaith Hospital. He used to award each patient a silver cup, but stopped when his list of patients reached into the thousands. The mohel is assisted by a “sandek,” or godfather, who performs the liturgical part of the ceremony, offering wine. Nearby is Aaron Pasternak, the coordinator of FREE’s circumcision program, who was a chemist in Russia and chief of a military factory that built missiles. He has turned down lucrative job offers in the U.S. because, he says, “I believe in God and this is a better job for someone who believes in God.” Also near is Dr. Sung Kim, a urologist who supervises the procedure. Circumcising an adult is not terribly more complicated than an infant, he says, though an adult may require more stitches.

Boris Belfer’s circumcision takes only an instant. Boris–who now adopts the Hebrew name Berel, for “Bear” — looks down sheepishly as he is stitched and bandaged. “Mazel tov,” everyone cries as the godfather plants a kiss on his flushed cheek. “Before this I thought that I would never go to synagogue, that I was not worthy,” he said. “Now I can go.”

FREE, which is affiliated with the Lubavitcher Hasidic group, also helps newly arrived residents find housing and employment, runs an accredited high school and summer camp and organizes social and educational programs. For more information on FREE and its activities, call (718) 467-0860. Another Brooklyn group, Shoroshim, also arranges circumcisions; call (718) 692-0079.

[Similar assistance with ritual circumcision is available throughout the US.]

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