Recently at our Shabbat table, while playing Jewish geography, one of our guests said he remembered Rabbi Zalman Kazen, and was excited to learn he was my wife’s grandfather. He told us that in 1972, when he was 5 years old, his family immigrated to Cleveland from the former Soviet Union.
It was Kazen who arranged for him and his 17-year-old brother to have a bris. When we asked him who the mohel was, he could not remember. All he remembered was Kazen was at his side, but I believe I can guess who the mohel was.
1972 was the year a large influx of Russian Jews arrived in Cleveland. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Kazen established the Russian Immigrant Aid Society and over the years, provided hundreds of families with basic materials as well as Jewish needs. Being themselves Russian immigrants, they were able to gain the trust of the newcomers and help them with their first steps in Cleveland. Many Clevelanders helped with this organization, but a 33-year-old doctor named Henry Romberg stood out.
One of the Jewish rituals the immigrants were enthusiastic about, was, surprisingly enough, the bris. You see, in Russia, circumcision was not a common practice with the general public, and as a Jewish ritual, it was outlawed. As a result, most of the Jewish men, young and old, who arrived from the USSR were not circumcised.
At that time, Cleveland had quite a few mohels, but none of them was qualified to perform circumcision on older children and adults. Rabbi and Mrs. Kazen arranged trips to New York for those who wished to fulfill this mitzvah. The cost of the travel, hospital and lodging added up to a very expensive mitzvah.
Mrs. Kazen encouraged Romberg to become a mohel. After many hesitations, he turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, for guidance. The Rebbe encouraged him to learn this skill and become a certified mohel for adults and infants. He followed the Rebbe’s advice, became a dedicated mohel and was adamant about refusing compensation and doing it for the mitzvah.
But this was not his first encounter with the Rebbe. Just a short time before the Iron Curtain opened, Romberg and his wife, Ronnie, were at a crossroads. They were trying to decide whether to stay in Cleveland, move to another city in the United States where they could raise their children in a stronger Jewish environment or make aliyah to Israel.
As one who had a relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the couple traveled to New York for a private audience. The Rebbe listened to their question with all the pros and cons, and then recommended they stay in Cleveland. The Rebbe told them since they are reaching out and helping other Jews connect to their Jewish heritage, which is a most important mission, they should stay in Cleveland.
They wondered aloud if this type of work could not be done in Israel, too. The Rebbe indicated that in Israel there are plenty of Jewish opportunities, but in Cleveland, if you will not do it, who will?
They then asked, “Isn’t it a mitzvah to make aliyah to Israel?”
The Rebbe answered that their work in Cleveland is pikuach nefesh, saving lives (spiritually) and therefore it overrides almost every other mitzvah. When you touch a Jewish life in Cleveland, this will be their connection to Judaism, and one day, after growing up, they will raise a wonderful Jewish family thanks to your touch.
When asked about moving to another city in the states, the Rebbe’s reply was that in Cleveland, they are established and the community knows them, while in a new city, they would have to start all over again.
Over the course of the next 13 years, Romberg performed hundreds of brises and through this, impacted the lives of many Jewish families.
This Shabbat, June 16, we commemorate the 24th yahrtzeit of the Rebbe whose vision and inspiration helped shape the future of Jewish life all over the world, as well as right here in Cleveland.
Rabbi Zushe Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Solon Chabad.