Rabbi Jacob Shechet passed away this February 2nd. His name might not be one that you recognize, but he was instrumentally involved in one of the most exceptional stories in LA’s Jewish history. Rabbi Naftali Estulin, from the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program & Synagogue, has memories of Rabbi Shechet going back 40 years. In fact, he was the first person to give the young Rabbi Shechet, a new mohel at the time, a job. It turned out to be quite a job.
The 1970s was a booming time for the Russian Jewish population of Los Angeles. As wave after wave of Russian Jews arrived in LA, Rabbi Estulin worked hard to help them settle and provide them with whatever they needed. One of the things they needed was a summer camp, but the financial constraints facing new immigrants made this difficult, so in 1975, he started a camp for them.
With hundreds of participating kids, the camp was a success – but it presented a new problem. The boys coming out of Russia were uncircumcised; unsurprising, as circumcision had been made impossible in the USSR. But the fact that some of the boys were circumcised and most were not, had them wondering and Rabbi Estulin realized it was time to take action. This was the beginning of one of Chabad Russian’s most monumental undertakings: the Adult Circumcision Program.
“Adult” in this case meant anyone over infant – from toddlers to grandfathers. In fact, there were days when a grandfather, father, and son would all undergo circumcision on the same day. Initially, the mohel they worked with was Rabbi Isaac Weiss. However, an adult circumcision is more complex than that of an infant, especially when children are involved. Babies are easy to handle, and adults can understand and cope with the effects of the procedure, but children require sedation and that requires hospital involvement. It was around this time that Rabbi Estulin hired Rabbi Shechet, who introduced them to Dr. Barton Tanenbaum at Temple Hospital. There were 10 young boys in the first group; within three days they had completed 30 brissim. And that was just the beginning.
Even with the establishment of hospital support, the project was not running smoothly. Firstly, it cost $200 per child, and this was in the 1970s, when the Chabad Russian program was just getting started. “I didn’t have a penny,” recalls Rabbi Estulin, “but I said OK.” They began using the vans they already owned to take large groups of children and parents to hospitals throughout the area, 50 or 60 people at a time.
The hospital fees weren’t the only expenditure. Rabbi Estulin felt it was important that the boys were excited and happy about their connection to Judaism, so be bought each of them a present after their bris. We’re not talking stickers either. Initially the prize was a stereo which was expensive at the time, even when purchased wholesale, and then later a bicycle.
As the number of children requiring circumcision began to run out, the program transitioned again, this time from hospitals to doctors’ offices. Dr. Benzion Heyman offered his offices to them. “When someone opens a door for a Russian, he comes!” said Rabbi Estulin with a smile. They made so many brissim in those offices that there were days when they left no room for other patients. From there, they began moving the brissim back to the shul, except in special cases where they returned to Dr. Tanenbaum.
Over the course of 40 years, there have been around 10,000 brissim through this program. Numbers like that have a way of attracting attention, and people from all over the world have traveled to see such an amazing Kiddush Hashem.
Rabbi Shechet’s legacy wasn’t only about the numbers, but in the way he did his job. “He was devoted and honest; he cared about the kids,” explained Rabbi Estulin. “He used to go and check on every child and this was when he’d be making 26 or 30 circumcisions in three days. Day and night he was running to the kids. I used to pay him a salary, but he went beyond the salary. He loved and believed in his work. He visited the kids wherever they were, sometimes bringing presents to them. And he would fly anywhere a mohel was needed.”
These days, most of the circumcisions that Chabad Russian organizes are for infants, but the program is still ongoing for anyone who requests it. Meanwhile, 40 years of this program have racked up a huge debt that is still being paid off but Rabbi Estulin is undaunted. “The Midrash says that the angel of Yishmael complains that Israel belongs to them, because Yishmael was circumcised at 13 years, not 8 days… The Lubavitcher Rebbe said we fixed this already, because so many of these Russian Jews were three times, four times, FIVE times 13! I had someone circumcised at 78. I want to explain how important this was; it wasn’t just to do a mitzvah. This was something very special and significant for the freedom of the Jews and the freedom of the whole world.”