The Kindest Cut of All
Tuesday, November 10, 1992
by Raphael Sugarman
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.
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
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)
[Similar assistance with ritual circumcision is available
throughout the US.]
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