The Kindest Cut of All

Circumcision for all ages as Russian Jewish immigrants exercise
their rites

By:  Raphael Sugarman
From:  URBAN GAZETTE (Tuesday, November 10,1992)

"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 say.

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 Nikoli.  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

"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.

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