ties with their religion
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
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
"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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