It’s a quiet, no-frills operation. Many have never heard of it, but amid the hustle and bustle of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., a neighborhood heavily populated by émigrés from the former Soviet Union, 15,000 lives have been changed and countless future generations affected. F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), a Chabad-Lubavitch organization dedicated to assisting immigrants from the former Soviet Union as they integrate into American society, has circumcised 15,000 men and boys in the past 50 years.

The 15,000th brit milah (“circumcision”) was requested by Pavlo Mischenko, an immigrant from Ukraine now residing in Brighton Beach.

During the Communist era, Jewish boys were often left uncircumcised, an outcome of the Soviet war on Judaism. As they began trickling into the United States in the early 1970s, Chabad was at the forefront of providing them with material and spiritual assistance. Rabbi Mayer Okunov, today the chairman of F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), headquartered in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, recalls the beginnings of Chabad’s work with immigrants from the USSR in an interview with

In 1972, Okunov, a young Russian-born yeshivah student in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, began visiting newly arrived immigrants at their hotels. The hotel rooms were paid for by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as short-term accommodation until the immigrants found a permanent residence. Okunov and a team of fellow Russian-speaking students visited the hotels every evening, working to ensure that the children—robbed of their heritage and entirely ignorant of their faith—would receive a Jewish education in the free world.

Not long afterward, the Rebbe’s chief of staff, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, called in Okunov and his fellow volunteers to tell them it was time that Russian Jews had a permanent place to seek guidance and assistance and that the Rebbe’s secretariat would pay for a space. They did so immediately, and it became a fledgling yeshivah.

Okunov realized that most of their students weren’t circumcised, so they began speaking with their parents and arranging circumcisions. “Our first brit was a 10-year-old boy. The appointment at Maimonides Medical Center was for the next Thursday. We wrote to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe advised us that a brit [held after eight days old] should not be held on Thursday and that we should always do the brit without delay.”

Coordination With Local Hospitals

From then on, they made arrangements with the hospital to have their circumcisions prioritized. “We worked hard on it; we had interpreters come to the hospital and make the process easier.” It soon became a well-oiled operation with a team of circumcisers, led by the veteran mohel Rabbi Romi Cohn, a Holocaust survivor who passed away in 2020.

Cohn was known as a businessman, not a mohel, and Okunov first approached him asking him to sponsor several circumcision. “Sponsor them?” asked Cohn, “I’ll do them myself!” Many prominent mohels went on to study under Cohn through F.R.E.E’s circumcision program. “An adult brit takes an hour,” Okunov explains, “and we were doing seven a day. We had an operating theater for the day, and the hospital gave us whatever we needed. Romi was in real estate, but he would drop everything and cancel appointments to do our circumcisions.”

Over the five decades and 15,000 circumcisions he’s organized, several stand out in Okunov’s memory: “There was a young college student, about 19 years old. He insisted on having his brit done without anesthesia—he wanted to feel it. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured him, ‘You’ll feel it anyway.’ ”

Once, an elderly man called his office. ‘ “Rabbi, I want to die as a Jew,’ I thought he wanted to arrange a Jewish funeral or burial plot, but he wanted to be circumcised before he died.” The man wasn’t in the best of health, and his family objected to him having a brit. Undeterred, he left his house and called from a pay phone, asking the rabbi to perform the brit without anyone knowing about it.

Requests for utmost secrecy have other reasons, too. Okunov recalls the case of a fully observant adult who called, asking for a brit. “He had a beard and tzitzit, yet he wasn’t circumcised.” The fellow explained that as a young man, he’d become drawn to observance and slowly integrated into the observant community. Nobody at the synagogue ever asked if he was circumcised, and somehow he’d become so involved that it would be embarrassing at that point to admit he wasn’t circumcised. Okunov assured confidentiality, and the man was brought into the Covenant of Abraham without a soul finding out.

And the effort to provide circumcisions to Jews from the former Soviet Union has been taken up by Chabad centers around the world as well, with more than 6,000 having been performed in the Chicago area over the past 40 years.

Rabbi Romi Cohn, left, makes the blessing over wine at the brit milah of Amir Menin, seated, right
Rabbi Romi Cohn, left, makes the blessing over wine at the brit milah of Amir Menin, seated, right

Finding the Meaning of Brit

Kishinev-born Amir Menin was 44 when he decided to be circumcised in 2017 after being involved in a motor vehicle accident. He began to study Torah before being sent to prison.

Discovering the Rebbe’s letters on Torah and science led to his decision, he explains. “I am a mathematician and a physicist. I am a person of science and only the letters of the Rebbe could convince me to do that.”

Three months before his sentence began, he was circumcised with his observant former boss, the person who had introduced him to Torah, serving as the sandek—the one who holds the baby, or in the case of an adult, places their hands on their head during the procedure.

“My family were all atheists,” said Menin. They were communists. Having a brit absolutely changed my life; it took it in another direction. It gave it sense.”

Now out of prison, Menin is a stalwart at Okunov’s congregation, one of the many regulars who received their brit with his assistance, and that of his son, Rabbi David Okunov, who since 2004 has coordinated the circumcision program together with his father.

A Sense of Belonging

The younger Rabbi Okunov explains the need for congregations of Russian-speaking Jews, even when they speak fluent English. “They have a sense of belonging with their own people. Even if they came to America as young children, they’re often most comfortable in a setting with other Russian speakers.”

Today, in addition to their synagogue, the circumcision program is still in full swing. F.R.E.E.’s mohels travel around the United States and Canada, and F.R.E.E. pays for travel and accommodation for those able to make the trip to New York. Rabbi David Okunov shares that they are building a state-of-the-art circumcision clinic with a fully equipped operating theater to be staffed by a full-time urologist.

Nowadays, long after the fall of communism, Rabbi Mayer Okunov says that circumcision rates are rising among Jews of Soviet heritage. “There isn’t a constant stream of propaganda against it anymore. When we began, it was mainly children; the adults felt they’d missed the boat. But 20 years later, when their children are getting married, they come around and decide to finally get circumcised as well.”