In New Trend, Adult Emigres Seek Ritual Circumcision
the article in Forward
Two years before emigrating from Ekaterinburg, Russia,
in 1997, Leonid Marder and his wife, Tamara, began observing
the Sabbath. After arriving in America, the retired couple
gradually became more devout. But for some time, something
didn't feel quite right.
many Russian emigres who adopted Orthodox practices in America,
Marder had to take the next step in becoming a Jew. That
step was brit milah — ritual circumcision more commonly
known as a bris. On June 21, 2001 — at age 66 — he gave
a voluntary donation and seized the opportunity.
"It's better late than never," said Marder, a
former power engineering professor now living in Reisterstown,
Md., a Baltimore County suburb that has a heavy concentration
of Russian Jews.
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, a Lubavitcher-affiliated
organization that assists Russian immigrants with their
spiritual and material needs.
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 coordinate the circumcisions
of 13,000 Russian Jews, the oldest at 82. With private donations,
the group has been able to offer the service at no cost.
In Avigdor Roppoport's case, Okunov's organization, Free,
paid for a room in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Crown Heights, where
he stayed for three days after traveling by train from his
home in Rockville, Md., before Hanukkah 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 in Russian.
"I decided 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 coordinator
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 told the
Forward. "I was hesitant, of course. It's not an easy
decision. But something told me it was the right thing to
Brunshteyn, who is 19 and works as an office administrator
at the school, convinced his 9-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%
of the 180 students — from nursery school through 12th grade
— 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, Russia, 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 instead of
an expected week 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
Susan Kreimer is a writer living in New York. She immigrated
to Chicago from Odessa, Ukraine, at age 5.
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