Like so many other Americans suffering in a struggling economy, Alexander and Marsha Tchernikov don’t have much extra cash to spare. Alexander has been out of a job for some time, and Marsha is only receiving 65 percent of her disability payments. So when baby Phillip Alexander was born on Jan. 25, the Chappaqua, N.Y., couple made the difficult decision to have his circumcision performed at the hospital instead of during a traditional Jewish ceremony called a bris performed on the eighth day of life by a trained mohel.

“I’m a practicing Jewish person,” says Marsha. “But I just couldn’t pull the money out. I had such guilt over not doing it, but we literally don’t have one hundred dollars to spare right now.”

The hospital circumcision was done within 24 hours of Phillip’s birth, and the matter was put to rest. Enter Rabbi Levi Heber, a Brooklyn mohel who’s on a mission to make the more than 5,000-year-old tradition accessible to Jews everywhere on the planet. His newly formed organization, the International Bris Association, aims to connect Jews to the essential expression of their identity, regardless of geographical, financial or knowledge-based restrictions.

When a friend of Marsha’s mother heard they hadn’t arranged a bris, she contacted her local Chabad rabbi in Long Island and eventually word reached Heber. In an unexpected turn of events, the Tchernikovs found themselves exactly eight days after their baby’s birth celebrating a traditional Jewish ceremony replete with food, guests and celebration, for absolutely no cost. Heber drove more than an hour from Brooklyn in an ice storm to perform the ceremony, which, because of the hospital procedure, involved little additional work.

“The whole thing was just amazing for us. We left with a very strong, good feeling,” says Marsha. “My husband is very cynical, and even he walked out saying he can’t believe they did that for us, that organizations like this exist. It’s needed, especially in these difficult times.”

Heber’s passion for this particular commandment was born in the former Soviet Union, where he ran summer camps for Jewish boys with little Jewish education. Most were uncircumcised and many wanted to have a bris.

Heber was inspired by a local Russian mohel and received his training and honed his skills back in the United States. To date, he’s performed thousands of circumcisions around the globe; he carries a piece of equipment priced at more than $6,000 to ensure that any latent jaundice in an infant is on its way out so that the procedure is done at an optimal time.

“Bris is one of the most essential commandments in Jewish life, but there’s a lack of knowledge out there,” says Heber, who hopes the International Bris Association will serve many purposes, including educating parents about the traditional Jewish procedure versus a hospital procedure.

He says not only is a hospital circumcision lacking the proper religious dimension expressed as a holy covenant, but the method itself is completely different, often utilizing clamps, which are forbidden in Jewish law. According to Heber, the hospital procedure is far more painful than the classic method used by a mohel.

“Many people live in locations without a qualified mohel, so they are not sure how to arrange the whole event,” adds the rabbi. “Call our organization, and we’ll send the closest qualified mohel and if need be, pay for everything, including transportation.”

Rabbi Levi Heber, left, founded the International Bris Association.
Rabbi Levi Heber, left, founded the International Bris Association.

Just two weeks ago, Rabbi Benyamin Bresinger of Chabad Lifeline in Montreal, Canada, was wondering how to persuade 24-year-old “Lori” and her non-Jewish boyfriend to give their new son a bris, when he chanced upon a mass email from Heber promoting the International Bris Association.

“It was Divine Providence,” says Bresinger, who runs the outpatient addiction help center with his wife Karen Bresinger.

“Lori” had run away from her traditional Jewish home and spent years roaming the country with gangs, addicted to crack cocaine. When she was referred to Chabad Lifeline years ago through a Montreal crisis hotline, she was in a severely abusive relationship, her life in shambles. With help from the center, she got clean and went back to school. After they had their baby, she and her boyfriend were undecided about whether to have him circumcised.

“When I told them about the timing of this email, they agreed it was Divine Providence, and decided to go ahead with it,” says Bresinger.

The International Bris Association located a local mohel and covered all costs.

“The mother of the baby was so grateful that everything was done quickly, smoothly and for free,” says Bresinger. “It reassured her that Jews are there for each other.”