Burlingame man, five other adults get a free bris courtesy of Miami organization

Growing up in Soviet republic of Moldova, Alex Rabinovich knew he was Jewish, but something was missing. Or, more accurately, something wasn’t missing.

Last year, two decades after immigrating to the United States, Rabinovich chose to do what is usually the first mitzvah for any Jewish boy: a brit milah, or ritual circumcision.

“In the Soviet Union we didn’t have the opportunity,” said Rabinovich, a San Francisco plastic surgeon who lives in Burlingame. “I felt like I was not completely a part of the community. I didn’t have one of the essential things that defines Jewish men.”

At 35, Rabinovich was no 8-day-old baby. He needed a specialist to perform the surgery, so he turned to Brit Yosef Yitzchak, a Miami-based organization that arranges circumcisions for any Jew anywhere in the world, most often for adults.

Rabbi Aryeh Wuensch serves as BYY’s development director. He was in San Francisco on July 12 with BYY founder Rabbi Yaron Amit, who performed six adult circumcisions while in the Bay Area.

Rabbi Aryeh Wuensch

“Often when we’re doing the bris, it represents months of someone working to persuade this person to get it,” Wuensch said. “I got involved because I found it so inspiring.”

Wuensch rattled off some key BYY statistics: Since 1989, the organization has performed 46,000 circumcisions in 50 countries (many in the former Soviet Union and Israel); 69 mohels worldwide donate their services, and six work for BYY full time.

There’s one other important statistic: Zero. That’s how much BYY charges for a brit milah. The organization sustains itself through donations of cash, medical supplies and sterile operating rooms, such as Rabinovich’s. Its annual operating budget comes in at around $2 million.

“There’s an incredible need,” Wuensch said. “Hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide are in need of a bris. We’re by far the largest organization solely dedicated to getting this mitzvah done. There are not a lot of mohelim skilled in doing adults.”

Most of the BYY brisses are done in Russia, Ukraine and Israel. Wuensch has heard many stories of people who were adopted and later found out they were Jewish, or were drug users who converted when a rabbi reached out to them.

Though BYY’s founders and mohels are Orthodox, the organization will perform a brit milah for anyone, no matter the person’s degree of Jewish education or observance.

“I’m Orthodox, so there’s a compulsion to get a bris done,” noted Wuensch, who attained his ordination through Chabad. “But many of these people are not keeping Shabbos or keeping kosher.”

The Bay Area is a favorite region for BYY, with more than 40 circumcisions done locally in the last two years. Rabbi Gil Leeds, a Berkeley-based mohel, assists BYY frequently, including on this most recent swing.

He called BYY an “exceptional, selfless organization. They touch the entire globe, and they do it all for free. This is an organization that goes above and beyond for Jews.”

Leeds noted that a brit milah for an adult is not so different from that for a baby, usually minus the crowds and platters of lox. The blessings are the same. The biggest difference is the conscious choice.

“No one is there against their will,” Leeds said. “On the one hand, they really want to do the mitzvah. On the other hand, they wish it could have been done when they were 8 days old. It’s a little bittersweet.”

As for Rabinovich, he was so impressed with BYY’s professionalism, he has offered his own surgical offices to the organization when its mohels come back to the Bay Area.

“I think they do very good work,” he said. “As a surgeon I can say technically the mohel is very competent, his surgical skills are very good. I have a state of the art facility and I wanted to give them the opportunity to do [circumcisions] in the best setting they possibly can.”

With a ban on the procedure coming up on San Francisco’s fall ballot, Wuensch has strong opinions about the work of his organization. Dealing primarily with adult circumcisions, he knows what the mitzvah means to his clients.

“It’s not something they’re happy about,” he said of their having been deprived of the opportunity to have a brit milah earlier in life. “We’re living proof that these people would have greatly preferred it as an 8-day-old baby.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.