Russian mohels on a mission want a brit for all Jewish males

MOSCOW — Yeshaya Shafit is a man with a mission.

Shafit, a Russian-born Orthodox Jew who emigrated to Israel in 1992, has returned to his native country with a goal of ensuring that all Russian Jewish males are circumcised.

"The Torah says that a Jewish soul can't enter the body if it's uncircumcised," he said.

He's got a lot of work ahead of him.

Until the Communist revolution of 1917, Jewish boys at the age of eight days here were circumcised, as they are around the world, to fulfill the commandment of brit milah found in the Book of Genesis.

But under the Soviet regime, this practice, like other Jewish, Christian or Muslim rituals, was an offense that might draw a visit from the secret police.

By World War II, the ritual was almost extinct. Only Jews in the predominantly Muslim regions of the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia remained faithful to the custom. Muslims also circumcise their male children.

Like the majority of Soviet Jews, Shafit grew up ignorant of Judaism.

In the early 1990s, driven by curiosity, he began to attend the synagogue in his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, which is located approximately 300 miles east of Moscow. The synagogue, long home to a factory, had just been reclaimed by the Lubavitch.

In 1992, Shafit, now a graduate of medical school and an observant Jew, left for Israel. Initially, he pursued a career in traumatology — a subdivision of surgery — but was persuaded to undertake the six-month training as a mohel.

Realizing that his services were needed in Russia, he returned to his native country in 1995. The 31-year-old is now in charge of the recently opened Brit Yosef Yitzhak circumcision center, which is located in Moscow's Chabad Lubavitch synagogue.

He is one of only three or four mohels in Russia.

Since he returned, Shafit has performed hundreds of circumcisions. He has been summoned as far east as Birobidzhan and as far south as Odessa, Ukraine.

A few weeks ago, he performed ceremonies in St. Petersburg, Astrakhan in southern Russia and Kharkov in eastern Ukraine, where he circumcised 14 teenagers in a Lubavitch-run summer camp.

Most of Shafit's patients have been children in summer camps or adults who have decided to emigrate to Israel.

Despite his efforts, however, few Jewish families choose to circumcise their newborn sons.

"People here are strongly prejudiced against circumcision," said Shafit.

"Even Jews — they might have heard that it's something Jews do, but they don't know it's the law."

Part of his job, therefore, is one of persuasion. Some people might require a lesson in the Torah.

Others are simply scared, he said, having been frightened by tales of mohels' shaky hands and dirty instruments.

Most circumcisions around the country are still performed in state-run hospitals or in homes, on simple tables "covered with bedsheets and blankets," Shafit added.

The operating room of the new Moscow center was designed especially for circumcisions. It is the only such facility in the former Soviet Union.

The center is co-sponsored by a Jerusalem-based Lubavitch affiliate that sends mohels to communities in both Israel and the Diaspora. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides about half of the center's funding.

There is also a mohel in St. Petersburg who was sent there by the Lubavitch, and other organizations occasionally sponsor mohels to visit smaller communities. For example, a mohel sent by the Agudath Israel World Organization to the city of Saratov circumcised 16 Jews there — from teenagers to pensioners.

One day recently in Moscow, 12-year-old Ilya looked a bit scared after the ritual was performed. But his parents, who plan to emigrate to Israel, smile proudly.

"Now, he's a `real' Jew," said Ilya's father of his son.