Julia Moss with mohel Rabbi Shalom Denbo

Behind the bris: an interview with the mohel

As a 48-year-old father of seven, Rabbi Shalom Denbo isn’t your typical Orthodox rabbi. He zips through Southern California on a motorcycle with a medical bag in tow, performing brises on Jewish babies and making jokes about having six daughters.

“Now you know why I pray for mothers to have more boys.”


Jokes? Denbo has heard them all. Years ago, as part of a marketing campaign, he ran an ad in the Jewish Journal that read, “Tell me a mohel joke I haven’t heard, and you’ll get a bris for free.” There were no winners. Not even: “Do you work for tips?”

Born in New Jersey, trained in Israel and now living in Pico-Robertson, Denbo is the author of “7 Traits: How to Change Your World” and has traveled as far as Tahiti, performing more than 1,000 brises, the ceremonial circumcision covenant that connects Jewish boys to their heritage on the eighth day of life.

Jewish Journal: So, why do we do brises?

Rabbi Shalom Denbo: There are all kinds of nice esoteric explanations, but the main reason is that the Torah tells us to, just like Abraham gave his son Isaac on the eighth day of his life. That’s why we do it and, really, the father is supposed to do it, like Abraham did it to his son.


JJ: My husband does a lot of things for us, but …

SD: And I’m not sure he would accept the challenge, either. But really it’s supposed to be their mitzvah. I’m there as a proxy because most parents either don’t know how or would not want to do it, anyway.

JJ: Why the eighth day?

SD: The eighth day is considered above the physical. This world we live in is considered the physical. Everything in this world is seven — seven continents, seven seas, seven days of the week, seven days of creation. Eight is that one step beyond — the step into the spiritual realm. There are exceptions. Most common is if the baby is sick. The other is not so commonly known but if the baby was born via C-section; that does not get done on Shabbos or Yom Tov.

JJ: Did you grow up wanting to be a mohel?

SD: I grew up with the stereotypical Jewish parents telling me, “You’re either going to be a doctor, a lawyer or, at worst, an accountant.” I had no desire to be a doctor or a lawyer; I had a desire to be famous. I wanted to be an actor; I wanted to go into show business. The irony is I’m in Hollywood as a rabbi. When my father found out I was deciding to become a rabbi, he said, “Well, so you won’t be a doctor but maybe you’ll become a mohel.” I used to laugh at him but an opportunity, pun intended, fell in my lap. My father-in-law found out that I had this indirect connection to Reb Yossel, a famous Jerusalem mohel who is estimated to have done over 100,000 brises. My father-in-law insisted that I learn from him. I said to my father-in-law, “I’ll learn under one condition: that you understand that I have no intention of being a mohel.”

JJ: What was it like to learn from Reb Yossel?

SD: Learning from Reb Yossel was like learning guitar from Prince or Jimi Hendrix. He was an artist. He imbued his personality into the showmanship of it, into the actual technique.

JJ: Can you tell us about the first bris you performed?

SD: Reb Yossel did a lot of brises for recent immigrants for free. They didn’t know the famous Reb Yossel; they only knew that their doctor or their rabbi had arranged for him to do the bris and they wouldn’t have to pay. One time, we were going to perform a bris in a suburb outside of Jerusalem and there was clearly not going to be anyone there. As we were walking in, he turned to me and said, “You’re Reb Yossel.” I said, “What do you mean?” “You’re going to do the bris.” We walked in the apartment and there were only three people there besides the baby. I really thought he was kidding but when we walked in, he didn’t say a word. He just stood there. It was obvious that I needed to start speaking because it was an awkward silence. And so I did the bris. It was a fascinating experience, the most life-changing experience except maybe the birth of my daughter. I realized at that moment, “I want to be a mohel.”

JJ: What was so life-changing about it?

SD: Every mitzvah is supposed to be a powerful, life-changing experience. There is only one mitzvah that we do today that you actually see on a physical level: a bris, where the child is different physically than he was one second earlier. As a rabbi, I know that the mitzvah changes the baby forever and I was the instrument. And that was a moving experience for me.

JJ: What is it like to deal with the families?

SD: Everyone is nervous. Everyone is anxious. I always tell parents who are nervous and apprehensive that it would be more concerning if they weren’t because this is your baby and it doesn’t matter that this is a good thing for them; it’s still something scary. Interestingly enough, though, the more emotional of the two [parents] is usually the father. I have had more fathers cry at a bris, far more, than mothers.

JJ: How do people respond at a dinner party when you say you’re a mohel?

SD: I don’t know if it’s us or lawyers that get the brunt of more jokes. Immediately they start with the jokes.

JJ: Why do all mohels make jokes at brises?

SD: There does need to be an element of comedy. Not that it should be a roast. This is a tremendously holy mitzvah. You’re talking about a very delicate procedure, which is very primal to a man. There is definitely tension in the room. You don’t want it to be a tense experience; you want it to be a holy, meaningful experience.

JJ: What is the advantage of hiring a mohel?   

SD: A lot of people want a doctor, or they want it done in a hospital because they think that’s safer or better. They think they are getting someone that is an expert in circumcision, but the truth is that they’re not. [In a teaching hospital], most likely the person that is doing the circumcision is a resident or an intern and it might very well be their first circumcision. In a non-teaching hospital, people think that they are getting a urologist, but that’s not true, either. Most circumcisions in hospitals are done by O.B.s. — that’s not to say they are not proficient, but it is not their specialty. A mohel, this is our specialty. This is all we know.

JJ: How many times have you been peed on?

SD: Too many. Ask the other question.

JJ: How many times have you been pooped on?

SD: Also too many. Pee is actually more controllable —  you can point it away.

….That week when two Mohels cancelled on me

Having called Los Angeles home for my entire life, I figured I had seen it all from the Jewish community over my thirty-five years:  I davenned at its synagogues, married a girl I first met in youth group, regularly spend my lunchtime at the best delis in the city, and have even laid teffilin in front of my apartment in the Fairfax district.  But as I prepared for the real transition to life as a Jewish adult when my first child was born last month, nothing could have prepared me for what came next:  the mohel canceled on me.  Twice.

Such is the chronicle of the auspicious start of Isaac’s relationship with the Jewish people:  on his fifth day of life, the mohel (a Rabbi) called and cancelled because he had a different simcha to attend.  On his seventh day, the backup mohel (this one a urologist) sent a text at 5:00 pm on Thanksgiving, the night before the bris, to let us know that he had chosen to perform surgery instead of this mitzvah.  Rather than spending my time researching whether the Talmud allowed for any exceptions to the bris on the eighth day when the mohels cancel on such short notice, I scrambled and ultimately found a Moroccan Rabbi a few hours later who would fit us into his schedule. 

Struggling to derive some deeper meaning in this series of events, I ultimately settled on the obvious:  there are few places like Los Angeles where one can find a mohel with less than a day’s notice in the midst of a national holiday.  Only in America, only in 2015.

A few weeks after the miracle of the Thanksgiving Mohel we lit candles to celebrate the great miracle of Hanukkah. On the fourth night we heard a ruckus outside so my wife and I carried Isaac to the window at the front of our apartment to find the orthodox caravanning through my neighborhood.  First a convertible with some teenagers singing Ma-oz Tzur to the tune blasted from the speakers in the bed of the truck that followed, and then a minivan featuring a huge electric Hannukiah with the candles appropriately lit.  The caboose of this small train was another convertible, and one of the teenagers noticed that in the midst of my apartment building decked with Christmas lights we were standing next to the prominent Star of David in our window.  He pointed at us and shouted “Happy Hanukkah,” a special holiday greeting for my family.  I returned the salutation in kind, and thought “only in America, only in 2015.”

As the caravan drove away I bounced my child and reconsidered the thought.  These past few weeks were undoubtedly the most special of my life, but how much of these experiences are familiar tropes in the saga of Jewish life entitled Strangers in a Strange Land?  We are persecuted so we leave and head for a place where we find refuge, and in refuge there is some degree of acceptance as we assimilate a bit into a new culture, and we find comfort until the persecution begins again, when the greater generations of our people pack a bag and our traditions and head for relative safety.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

My grandparents and great grandparents were among these generations of Jews who were forced to find a better life elsewhere, and in retrospect they escaped serious consequences.  My son will be even further removed from this generation than me, his connection to it being his name and the second hand stories my wife and I can share with him.  In this great shtettle of Los Angeles, he will find those competing sentiments that have long characterized Jewish life around the globe:  the suspicion that comes with being a stranger in a strange land, and the hope that this time will be different, with the continued opportunity to contribute to this society.

We have a little while before we will truly begin to cultivate the Jewish and American aspects of my Isaac’s identity, but I have started the process by attempting to bless my child on the few Friday nights we have shared together.  Though my Hebrew is a bit suspect, I turn to page 311 of the siddur for the timeless blessings of Ephraim and Menasheh, yet I find myself sharing with him an addendum gathered from our people’s collective experience:  May you be a meaningful part of this great land you call home, and have the strength and courage to carry our customs and traditions wherever you need to take them.

Why I hired a Belgian butcher to circumcise my son

They warn you that parenting means doing a bunch of stuff you never imagined yourself doing.

I had always assumed this applied to saying to children things like, “You watch your tone of voice, young lady” or, “Let’s not eat things we find in our underwear.”

But in my case, the moment came before my son was even born, when I found myself begging a Belgian kosher slaughterer, or shochet, to come to the Netherlands and circumcise him.

In my native Israel or the United States, securing the services of a ritual circumciser, or mohel, is as easy as picking up the phone. But in the Netherlands, where Jews have lived since the 12th century, it can be an ordeal involving international travel, community politics, Holocaust-era trauma and unexpected objections by close family members.

Negotiating these hurdles helped me to fully understand the fears, long expressed by community leaders, that the dearth of religious services pose a long-term threat to communal survival. Indeed, the Conference of European Rabbis last month set up a think tank charged with bettering circumcision and kosher food services to small communities, calling the lack thereof “a major concern.”

On paper, I shouldn’t have had any problems. Circumcision, which was last outlawed here by the Nazis, is perfectly legal in the Netherlands, which has about 40,000 Jews. The country’s Orthodox Jewish communities keep a list of about five mohels, plus a number of Reform physicians who perform circumcisions for their congregants.

But in a country where 50 percent of Jews don’t circumcise their sons, the Reform physicians have much less practical experience with the body part in question. Unimpressed by fancy titles, my wife and I preferred a humble mohel with thousands of foreskins under his belt to a celebrated professor with many diplomas but far fewer penile notches on his.

That proved difficult to arrange. The Dutch one who came recommended had about 1,500 on his meter but had to be flown in at our expense from Israel, where he moved some years ago. So we widened the search to Belgium, where about half the country’s 40,000 Jews are Orthodox.

There we finally found our guy.

“He really knows his meat,” said one of the many people who recommended the shochet to us.

Widely considered one of the best mohels in the region, the shochet accepted in principle. But he needed special permission from the Dutch Jewish community for poaching on their turf — the result of recent “administrative problems” that arose just a few months ago.

“I need it because I don’t want to get in trouble with your people,” the shochet said.

Which is when I started begging.

Ultimately, the shochet agreed to circumcise our son if we cut through the red tape for him. I got on the phone, hoping train traffic would not be interrupted because of the current terrorist threat in Belgium.

The shochet, a hulking and patient rabbi from Antwerp, arrived on our doorstep on Sunday, a few days after the baby’s eighth day, when the ritual is traditionally performed. The bris went off without a hitch, but for a brief moment when the shochet held up the boy briskly to test his strength.

“He’s handling him like a chicken!” an aunt from Brussels exclaimed.

The search left me with many unanswered questions. How could Judaism’s initiation rite be such an ordeal in a country with a Jewish community that dates back more than 800 years? Are these difficulties the cause or the effect of the fact that only half of Dutch Jews circumcise their children, according to a 2009 survey?

Part of the complication, according to Bart Wallet, a historian from the University of Amsterdam who specializes in Dutch Jewry, is the system in which Jews pay annual membership fees (it can reach more than $1,000 per year) in exchange for religious services. Only 20 percent of Dutch Jews are paying members of a Dutch Jewish community, according to Wallet. With Dutch congregations straining to finance Jewish communal life here, there’s little reason to make it easy for people like me, who eschew membership and consume religious services a la carte.

But as with many things in Dutch Jewish life, ultimately it all goes back to the Holocaust. Prior to the war, the Netherlands had 140,000 Jews spread across the country and several traveling mohels servicing far-flung congregations, according to Wallet. After the war, in which 75 percent of Dutch Jews were murdered, the practice fell off.

“Jewish life, including circumcision, never fully restored here,” Wallet said. “Many Dutch Jews skipped the circumcision as a lesson from the past, when their relatives could be identified by taking off their underwear.”

For my Amsterdam-born wife, the Holocaust consideration is a distant second to her main issue with circumcision, namely that it involves causing pain for symbolic reasons. She regards it as a “necessary evil” — necessary only because of my insistence on it.

Some of our relatives here are less resigned. One called me to appeal our decision, citing the main argument used by the European liberals — that it supposedly violates children’s rights. This was the grounds on which a German court enacted a temporary ban on circumcision in 2012, which inspired similar moves in nearby countries. Since circumcision has no real medical benefits, my relative argued, it was not my decision to make.

At our son’s bris, Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs made a short speech in which he raised this argument in acknowledging what he called the “attack on circumcision” in Europe.

“You don’t ask the baby whether they want to be born, either, but we have them to continue our legacy,” Jacobs countered.

As for me, I told the relative (who himself was circumcised) that circumcision “comes down to tribalism.”

“I respect that,” he replied, “but can’t you just give him a T-shirt or something instead?”

In defense of Jewish circumcision

This past week, I was in Miami for the bris (or brit), the Jewish ritual circumcision, of my grandson. It’s a good time to offer a defense of the Jews’ most ancient ritual.

According to various reports, there are Jews — and not only Jews who have forsaken their Jewish identity — who oppose circumcising their sons. They are still a minority, but they are vocal and, I suspect, growing.

Their primary arguments are that circumcisions, whether for religious or medical reasons, are unnecessary; that they are a form of mutilation; and that the act inflicts serious pain on the 8-day-old for no good reason.

Let’s begin with the first objection. In fact, circumcision is both medically and religiously necessary. People are free to object to circumcision, whether performed by a mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser) or a physician. But they need to be honest with the facts.

“The scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in 2014. 

“The benefits of male circumcision have become more and more clear over the last 10 years,” added Dr. Aaron Tobian, a Johns Hopkins University researcher.

Circumcision is so medically beneficial that many African countries demand that their male citizens get circumcised. The reason is that, other than sexual abstention, circumcision is the best way to reduce the risk of contracting AIDS. And there are multiple other health benefits.

Personally, I would endorse the bris even if there were no medical benefits. I only cite these benefits to refute those who argue that circumcision is not beneficial, or is even harmful.

What matters to me are the religious benefits of giving one’s son a bris — or brit milah, “covenant of circumcision,” to give it its full name. They are, of course, not as objectively measurable as medical benefits, but they are even greater.

I found the circumcisions of my two sons and two grandsons more emotionally and spiritually moving than any other religious activity in my life. Here I was, in as dramatic a way as one could imagine, bringing my sons and grandsons into the Jewish people and into the Jewish covenant with God. I thought about how my father had done this to me, and his father to him, going back to Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago. I thought about all the Jews who, at the risk of their lives, brought their sons into the covenant during the many anti-Semitic periods in Jewish history.

As for “mutilation,” that is a complete misuse of the term. The term properly describes what is done in many Muslim societies to the genitalia of young girls. That is why it is called “female genital mutilation.” Its vile purpose is to deprive women of the ability to enjoy sexual intercourse. And its effects are prolonged excruciating pain and permanent physical disfigurement. To compare that to the removal of the foreskin is not only absurd, it trivializes the horror of female genital mutilation.

With regard to pain, of course the baby experiences pain. The question is how much and whether there is any lasting trauma.
The amount of pain is essentially impossible to judge for a number of reasons, however. One reason is that we can’t ask the baby: “What is your level of pain from 1 to 10?” Another is that many babies barely whimper during the brit. Virtually all cry far more loudly and for far more time when they have gas or are hungry — and neither condition is regarded as abnormally painful, let alone traumatic.

Nevertheless, the request of any parent who wants to have lidocaine injected into their baby’s foreskin to numb the pain should be honored. There is no halachic issue here; after all, adult men who undergo a brit can be fully anesthetized.

To assess whether one wants one’s son to undergo a brit milah, one has to recognize one of the most important laws of life: Everything has a price. There is a price paid for having a brit, and there is a price paid for not having one.

The price for having one is momentary pain in an infant. That’s it. The idea that a man pays some lasting price for not having his foreskin is refuted by the experience of virtually every circumcised male who has ever lived. I have only met one man in my life who was troubled about not having his foreskin. On my radio show, I once interviewed a spokesman for an anti-circumcision group based in — you’ll be shocked to learn — San Francisco. And I told him I thought he must be very bored to devote so much of his time to lamenting his lost foreskin.

As opposed to the minuscule price paid for having a brit, there is an enormous price paid for a Jew not having a brit. The advantages wildly outweigh the momentary pain. The brit uniquely strengthens a Jew’s religious identification, and the ceremony instills in the family and in the community present at the ceremony a profound identification with the nearly four millennia of the Jews’ world-changing history. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

U.S. intervenes in Europe’s circumcision wars

The Obama administration’s anti-Semitism monitor has added an issue to his office’s portfolio: defending circumcision in Europe.

Circumcision has become a top focus for Ira Forman, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. He has been using the pulpit his office provides to warn European governments that moves to ban ritual circumcision could lead to the demise of their countries’ Jewish communities.

“Because circumcision is essentially universal among Jews, this can shut down a community, especially a small vulnerable community,” Forman said.

No European country has outright banned the practice, but there is increasing pressure to do so, and some countries have imposed restrictions such as requiring medical supervision.

Forman is the State Department’s third anti-Semitism monitor. While he has maintained his predecessors’ focus on anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric worldwide, he said that protecting circumcision has become urgent because calls for bans are gaining legitimacy, particularly in Northern Europe.

In the past six months, Forman has raised the issue in meetings with ambassadors to Washington from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. He says he plans to raise it with envoys from other Northern European countries, where pressures to ban circumcision are most acute.

He also has asked the relevant desks at the State Department to have U.S. diplomats raise the issue in their meetings in their host countries.

Forman, who is Jewish, contrasted efforts to prohibit circumcision with bans on ritual animal slaughter — in place in some countries for decades — which at least have workarounds, for instance by importing frozen kosher meat.

“Circumcision, if you ban it, you have three choices: You do it underground illegally, you take a little 8-day-old baby across state lines — and if you have contiguous states [with bans], doing that becomes harder and harder — or three, you emigrate,” he said.

A comprehensive 2012 survey of European Jews by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found substantial majorities of Jews classifying a hypothetical ban on circumcision as a “big problem.”

“I will wait for the developments concerning a statutory regulation on the Brit Mila,” the survey quoted a German respondent as saying, using the Hebrew phrase for ritual circumcision. “This will be crucial for my decision on whether or not to leave Germany.”

Leaders of Jewish communities in countries that are contending with public pressure to ban the practice similarly warn that such a move could spur an exodus of Jews.

“I have said that a country which saved the Jews during the Second World War, if they would establish any law against circumcision, they would have done what Hitler wanted to do,” said Rabbi Bent Lexner, chief rabbi to Denmark’s Jewish community of 7,500.

European officials say their countries have instituted protections for circumcision in response to public pressures.

“A ban on circumcision is not in question for the Norwegian government,” Frode Overland Andersen, a spokesman for his country’s Foreign Ministry, told JTA. German and Danish officials have issued similar assurances.

Jewish communal officials appreciate the assurances that circumcision will not be banned. Nonetheless, Jewish communal officials warn that the danger of circumcision bans in Europe has not substantially diminished.

“The trend is really moving against us in one considerable way, and that’s in terms of general European public opinion in Northern and Western Europe, particularly Scandinavia,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs.

Calls to ban circumcision gained momentum after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution last October that called for a public debate on the “rights of children to protection against violations of their physical integrity.” It lumped male circumcision with female genital mutilation and corporal punishment.

The assembly, however, lacks power. In April, the council’s leadership advised members that male circumcision was “by no means comparable” to female genital mutilation and recommended against further attempts to target the practice.

Nonetheless, children’s ombudsmen in a number of Northern European countries have called in recent years for restrictions on the practice, as have medical professionals’ groups.

Jewish leaders say that as Northern Europe becomes increasingly secularized, its populace tends to place more value on freedom from religious coercion than on freedom to practice religion.

“These are post-religious and post-ritual countries,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Israel-based chief rabbi to Norway’s 800 Jews. “And the vast majority of the population don’t have a clue what ritual is. They see ritual in general as something which belongs to some dark evil — they have medieval conceptions [of rituals] which have nothing to do with modern society.”

In one way, some Scandinavian governments have nodded toward circumcision opponents by including in their laws requirements that circumcision take place under medical supervision. Norway’s parliament passed such a law last month. Norwegian Jewish leaders applauded the measure because it allowed the rite to be carried out under a physician’s supervision.

In Sweden, said Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the country’s 20,000-strong Jewish community, circumcision is permitted until two months, which effectively shuts out the Muslim community, in which boys are often circumcised as toddlers.

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe helps drive the anti-circumcision clamor, Jewish communal leaders say. If anything, sensitivities in Northern Europe about the 20th-century record on Jews are what has led governments to protect circumcision.

“One of the important parliamentarians told me it is convenient for us to put the Jews at the front of this issue,” Melchior said. “Because in the public in Norway still, it is much more difficult to go out against the Jews than the Muslims.”

Jewish officials said that anti-Semitism, while a concern in other areas, is not a factor in the debate, although Jewish stereotypes have emerged in its wake. When pro-circumcision activists in Germany cited American studies showing that the practice was practically harmless and had possible medical benefits, opponents suggested that American Jewish doctors had skewed the studies.

The key to preserving circumcision, according to Ervin Kohn, president of Norway’s Jewish community, is lobbying the political class, which is sensitive to international image.

“For most of the Norwegian people it is strange, so they believe all sorts of things and don’t know too much and are easily impressionable,” he said, regarding views on circumcision. “Those who know are the politicians — they made the right decision.”

Jewish communal leaders in the Scandinavian countries said that blunt intervention from abroad could backfire, noting the hackles that were raised when Israel’s government issued dire warnings against banning circumcision after last year’s Council of Europe vote.

However, they welcome Forman’s more subtle overtures, saying that the Obama administration’s signaling of its interest in ensuring a future for European Jewish communities has proven salutary.

“I’m still on a high from presenting President Obama to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah,” said Posner-Korosi, describing a visit to Stockholm last year during which Obama also honored Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who risked his life to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. “It conveyed such a strong message, not just about Raoul Wallenberg but about anti-Semitism, about recognizing minorities.”

Looking out for minorities is the point, Forman said.

“Our priority is to make sure these communities don’t go out of existence,” he said. “It would be a tragedy not just for the communities. It would be a tragedy for Europe, for these cultures.”

German lawmakers propose barring circumcision before age 14

Some 50 lawmakers in Germany have signed on to a proposal that would bar ritual circumcision for boys under the age of 14.

The lawmakers — from the left-wing Social Democratic, Left and Greens parties — are hoping to preempt a bill that would allow Jewish and Muslim parents to choose ritual circumcision for an infant son under strict regulations including medical training for the circumciser and the use of anesthesia. The bill allowing ritual circumcision, which is awaiting parliamentary approval, was submitted last month.

Under the new proposal, the non-medical circumcision of infants would be prohibited and the procedure would have to be carried out by a trained urologist or pediatric surgeon, according to German news reports. The legislators reportedly insist that the child himself should be able to decide whether or not to allow “such a serious interference with his bodily integrity.”

The proposal was submitted to the Parliament by three lawmakers.The new attempt  is expected to meet vigorous opposition in the Bundestag.

The current campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, which is led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a minor was criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom. 

Though the bill submitted in October introduces new restrictions on a ritual practiced without interruption for centuries in Germany, Jewish and Muslim groups have praised it as a way to protect their religious freedom against increasing onslaughts by opponents of circumcision. The new measure would undermine that security.

Jewish groups sue NYC over circumcision rule

Orthodox Jewish groups have sued New York City to block a required warning to parents of the dangers of a ritual in which the circumciser uses his mouth to draw blood from the baby's penis.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Federal District Court in Manhattan by the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, the International Bris Association and several individual circumcisers. It contends that the regulation, which conditions the ritual on parental consent, is unconstitutional and violates religious freedom by targeting a Jewish practice.

The rule, adopted unanimously by the New York City Board of Health last month, is aimed at reducing the risk that infants will contract herpes from the ancient ritual, known as metzitzah b'peh.

Using oral suction to take blood from the area of the circumcision wound is common in some of New York's ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

At least 11 boys contracted herpes from the practice between 2004 and 2011, according to city health officials. Two of them died from the disease and two others suffered brain damage, they said.

Under the rule, parents must sign a consent form that says the health department advises that “direct oral suction should not be performed” because of the risk of contracting herpes.

“It is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice,” City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said in a statement.

The lawsuit says the city's conclusion that the ritual increases the risk of herpes is based on a flawed analysis and is not statistically sound.

Germany’s Jews won’t be punished for circumcisions

Germany’s Jews and Muslims will not be punished for breaking the law if they carry out circumcisions on young boys, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said.

“For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Friday according to Reuters. “Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.”

Earlier this week Europe’s main Orthodox rabbinical body held an emergency meeting in Berlin after a Cologne court ruling that said the religious ritual could be considered a criminal act. Regardless, the rabbis urged Jews in Germany to uphold the commandment to circumcise newborn sons.

The decision came in the ruling in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision. The Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent. The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts.

In a press conference held Thursday at the Amano Hotel in central Berlin, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said his organization was ready to back Jews in challenging the May ruling by a Cologne district court, which Jewish groups see as symptomatic of a trend across Europe against some Jewish rituals.  Rabbi Goldschmidt did not give details about what actions his group could take.

The rabbinical conference also announced that it is joining with the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany to create an association of mohels, or ritual circumcisers, to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists

Goldschmidt, who is chief rabbi of Moscow, told JTA he didn’t think “that 70 years after the Holocaust a German court would put a parent or a mohel in jail for performing a Jewish religious commandment.”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has condemned the court’s decision and promised to work with German lawmakers to reverse the ruling. Muslim groups also have proposed bringing a test case to German courts.

Goldschmidt said his rabbinical group applauded the Central Council’s action and wanted to back it with moral and religious encouragement on a European level. He also said that the rabbinical conference had received assurances from Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, that the German government will work on legislation to rectify the legal situation.

Seibert, according to Reuters, said that Merkel’s office would continue to work to resolve the legal issues.

The German Medical Association has advised doctors to not perform circumcisions until the legal questions are resolved, according to Reuters.

German court ruling on circumcision riles Jewish community

Germany’s top Jewish leader called on the federal Parliament “to ensure religious freedom” following a Cologne court ruling that said circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm.

Though Monday’s decision by the District Court of Cologne does not outlaw circumcision, it is still “outrageous and insensitive,” Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Ritual circumcision by a medical doctor or a mohel with “medical competency” is “an integral part of the Jewish faith that has been practiced around the world for millennium,” he added. “This right is respected in every country of the world.”

The court ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

The decision involved the circumcision of a Muslim boy in Cologne. The parents took their 4-year-old to a hospital several days after his ritual circumcision in 2010 after they became concerned about bleeding from the incision.

According to reports, the bleeding was normal and quickly brought under control. However, local prosecutors filed suit against the doctor. A lower court ruled on behalf of religious freedom and the right of parents to decide.

On appeal, however, a higher court gave precedence to the right of the child to be protected from bodily harm and that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

The doctor was acquitted on all charges, but the ruling suggests that those performing circumcisions in the future could be committing a criminal offense, since the court holds the right of the child sacrosanct.

Berlin attorney Nathan Gelbart worries about the notion that “the parents have to accept that only the child can decide about his religion when he grows up, and that circumcision is a pre-decision” being forced on the child.

Other courts are not restricted by the decision of the Cologne court, one of 55 district courts. The ruling could be appealed to a higher court, and is not binding unless there is a decision by the High Court of Justice or High Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau who has argued for several years for a ban on involuntary circumcision, told JTA that he hoped the ruling would spark discussion in Germany about “what should be given more weight, religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated.”

In late 1999, Germany’s top court ruled in favor of religious freedom, protecting the right to Islamic ritual slaughter and, by association, kosher slaughter. The ruling came after an Islamic butcher challenged a 1995 German law banning the slaughter of animals without stunning them first, which is against the laws of kosher and halal.

Cost to keep circumcision off ballot: $100K

In the very public fight over a ballot measure aiming to ban circumcision of underage males in San Francisco, the Jewish-led coalition that succeeded in keeping the practice legal in the city spent more than six times what the ban’s proponents did.

The Committee Opposing Forced Male Circumcision, which backed the ballot measure that ultimately was forced to be withdrawn, spent $14,000 on their efforts, according to the most recent filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, covering political activity through the end of September.

The same filings show the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, the political action committee (PAC) quickly organized by the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to wage a fight against the ballot measure, spent nearly $99,000 on its efforts.

The sum is expected to rise, JCRC Associate Director Abby Michelson Porth said, because the PAC still must be officially terminated.

“The good news is it cost us a fraction of what it would have cost had the legal victory not occurred,” Porth said. A California Superior Court judge struck the measure from the ballot in July, saying it was preempted by an existing state law.

If that hadn’t happened, Porth said, the Jewish-led coalition would have had to run a full political campaign all the way up to the Nov. 8 election. “It would have cost upward of four times what we spent,” Porth said.

For their effort, the JCRC hired four separate political firms to run the campaign. Although the Ethics Commission filings included no mention of Morrison Foerster, a firm that worked pro bono on the legal challenge that successfully struck the measure from the ballot, they did reveal that early in the campaign, the JCRC-led coalition paid $36,000 to the polling firm Tulchin Research.

“We ran a political poll to gauge how San Francisco voters felt about this measure,” Porth said, “to understand what were the key messages and messengers that would influence San Francisco voters’ attitudes.”

The JCRC itself charged the PAC over $10,000 for employees’ salaries, including Porth, who spent time working to defeat the measure.

All donations of $100 or more made to a committee on either side of the ballot measure are listed in the documents obtained from the Ethics Commission. Supporters of the JCRC-led coalition were mostly individuals and organizations in the Bay Area; the largest individual contribution came in July from Roselyne Swig, a prominent Jewish San Francisco philanthropist, who donated $10,000. National Jewish groups helped as well, among them the Anti-Defamation League, which donated $25,000 to support beating back the ban.

The effort to ban circumcision, by contrast, appears in the Ethics Commission documents to have been mostly supported by in-kind, non-monetary contributions. Indeed, of the $14,000 spent by the Committee Opposing Forced Male Circumcision, $8,500 came from Richard Kurylo, who works in the operations unit of the San Francisco City Controller’s office, and his contributions are classified either as “Signature Gathering Expenses,” “Petition Circulators” or “photocopies/supplies.”

Many of the monetary donations to ban circumcision documented in the Ethics Commission filings came from prominent anti-circumcision activists. Kurylo personally gave $1,000; Lloyd Schofield, the ballot measure’s proponent, contributed $600; and Frank McGinness, the treasurer of the committee supporting the ballot measure, donated $1,600.

“It would’ve been nice to get more money to be able to do more,” Schofield said. “We did what we could with what we had.”

The very first itemized monetary donation to the campaign to ban circumcision in San Francisco was $150 from Matthew Hess, the San Diego-based anti-circumcision activist who authored the San Francisco ballot measure.

Hess contributed an additional $500 in March and was also the creator of the anti-circumcision comic book “Foreskin Man,” which was widely criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and others as anti-Semitic.

Jews shaken by strong East Coast earthquake

Jewish centers and synagogues were evacuated as a result of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that was felt throughout the East Coast, the Forward reports.

Staffers at synagogues in Washington D.C. and Richmond, Va., the city closest to the epicenter, tried to calm one another’s jittered nerves as they checked their buildings for structural damage.

“It felt like a herd of elephants was running back and forth while someone was jackhammering the building,” said Shoshana Danon, an administrator at Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue 14 blocks from the White House. “I’m going around to make sure the Sefer Torahs didn’t get damaged.”

At Adas Israel, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington, Executive Director Glenn Easton ordered the building evacuated after the quake ended. A lunch for seniors was stopped midway, and 100 people filed out of the building.

No one had yet arrived for a bris scheduled for later in the afternoon. “Fortunately, the bris hadn’t started yet,” said Easton. “That would not have been a good combination. We hope there aren’t any aftershocks,” he added.

Read more at forward.com.


Proposed circumcision ban not merely a parochial concern

Circumcision, or “brit milah,” has long been the stuff of cheap jokes and comedy. But in recent weeks, what used to be nothing more than harmless fare has taken on a much more serious tone. So-called “intactivists” on the fringe left of American politics have pushed the radical notion that infant circumcision is an act of genital mutilation, so unacceptable in fact that it ought to be illegal.

That such a notion should have garnered enough signatures to have qualified for a popular referendum in San Francisco (and potentially elsewhere) is deeply troubling. For even if, as expected, it will be defeated in the end -– like most such California ballots—that will offer scant comfort to the millions of Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who for good reasons circumcise their sons at birth. For to them – to us – it defies comprehension that in this land of liberty and justice for all, serious consideration can be given to outlawing the fundamental practice of Jews since the beginning of Jewish history.

We thought we had left such things far behind in our long journey through eras and lands of religious bigotry and cultural intolerance.

Proponents of the ballot argue that there is a state interest in opposing the consequences of circumcision. But to carry any weight, only state interests of the highest order and greatest clarity should be permitted to override religious liberty claims. And given the substantial medical evidence that circumcision has positive benefits, that standard cannot be met here.

The referendum has been couched as a vote on male genital mutilation. To frame our age-old practice as genital mutilation is manipulative and misleading, as it precludes any other interpretation of circumcision. To portray the issue, as the intactivists have, via a supposedly humorous cartoon featuring Foreskin Man battling Monster Mohel is worse than a bad joke. It is deeply offensive and beyond the pale of civilized discourse.

The concern, however, goes far beyond the right to circumcise Jewish or Muslim children.

Far more troubling and ominous is what would appear to be a gathering assault on the religious freedoms enjoyed by faith minorities in this land that so proudly celebrates the separation of church and state.

There are many examples: There are growing efforts to forbid adherence by Muslims to their Sharia law. Some hospitals and medical care facilities have adopted end-of-life policies that would violate the deeply held principles of minority faiths relating to life and death. Some corporate employment policies do not allow for “conscience clause exemptions” based on religious belief. There are ongoing challenges to accommodation of religious practices such as Sabbath eruv construction.

The list goes on.

Such crucial concerns should not be seen as merely the parochial concerns of some Jews. To the contrary, like the First Amendment that so critically ensured every citizen’s right to free exercise of religion, they reflect the long tradition of recognizing that the price of liberty, as Andrew Jackson said, is eternal vigilance. As long as the practices of any minority faith are threatened, we are all of us – religious or non-religious – at peril of the loss of our fragile freedoms in a world of increasing homogeneity and conformity.

And thus, to ignore or downplay the significance of anti-circumcision activist groups that would presume to oppose others’ faith or practices, no matter how frivolous or outlandish it might appear, would be not just folly but a clear and present danger to all of our freedoms. And thus the time to oppose them, in concert with all freedom-loving Americans, is now.

Rabbi Basil Herring is the executive vice president and Rabbi Joel Finkelstein is vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a Modern Orthodox association.

The great California foreskin fight of 2011

As luck would have it, the day local Jewish leaders gathered in Santa Monica to discuss the community’s response to a proposed ballot measure aimed at banning circumcision in that city was the very same day the proposition was rescinded by its proponent.

Twenty-five people came to the meeting at the Milken Family Foundation offices on Fourth Street on June 6, including high-ranking Jewish professionals, local rabbis of all stripes and other Jewish community leaders.

Catherine Schneider, senior vice president for community engagement at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who orchestrated the two-week-long effort to fight the proposed ballot initiative, said the prevailing atmosphere in the room that morning was of deep concern.

“People had very strong opinions of what this would mean for their communities,” Schneider said.

“One of the concerns that I had was that people not look at this and say, ‘Look what those nuts in Santa Monica are doing,’ ” said Richard Bloom, the city’s mayor, who attended the June 6 meeting. Bloom, who is Jewish, spoke first. He pledged his full support to fight against the measure.

Bloom’s other concern — one expressed by many others at the meeting — was that people might not take the situation seriously. An entire genre of Jewish humor focuses on ritual circumcisers, or mohelim. (Have you heard the one about the wallet? How about the one about the storefront with the clock in the window?)

But aside from writers of pun-filled newspaper headlines, nobody involved in this fight is joking.

A measure identical to the one submitted and quickly rescinded in Santa Monica is set to appear on the ballot in San Francisco in November 2011. If passed, the new law would make circumcision of a minor — for any reason other than a medical emergency — a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in county jail. The Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is currently leading a broad-based campaign against that proposition, which could cost as much as $500,000 — none of it tax-deductible. Last week, lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., independently announced that they would try to derail the ballot initiative by legislative means.

And, if you listen closely to the individuals on both sides of the Great Foreskin Fight of 2011, it becomes clear how committed they all are to their respective causes. Also apparent is just how complicated the debate around circumcision is — religiously, legally and, yes, medically.

Lawyers on both sides of the debate argue vociferously about what rights a parent should have vis-à-vis a child and whether cities should have any authority in matters of medical care. The foremost American medical authorities neither recommend routine infant circumcision nor explicitly discourage parents from circumcising their infant sons, leaving doctors and researchers to argue vehemently in favor and against the procedure and accuse one another of practicing junk science.

Meanwhile, mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers have been staking out opposing positions with equal passion. And while the overwhelming majority of religious leaders — particularly Jewish ones, but others as well — have spoken out against the proposed ban, a small band of Jews are working to make the decision not to circumcise one’s son into a legitimate Jewish choice.

Who are the intactivists?

Of the three anti-circumcision activists — intactivists, as many call themselves — who became the faces of the campaign to ban the practice in California cities, two are relative newcomers to the movement. But the fight over circumcision has been going on for decades, and the histories of all three can all quickly be traced back to the roots of the anti-circumcision movement, a small but vocal group that has never enjoyed as much attention as it is getting today.

Jena Troutman is the mother of two young sons who was behind the short-lived attempt to ban circumcision in Santa Monica. As an active member of the “natural birth community,” Troutman, who works as a midwife’s assistant and is a certified lactation educator and birth doula, is emblematic of a certain subgroup of the   intactivist movement.

Natural moms are, Troutman explained, the kind of moms who insist on delaying the cutting of a baby’s umbilical cord, to ensure that babies get as much of the placental blood as possible. These moms wear their babies and co-sleep with them. They oppose unnecessary Caesarean sections, prefer home births and are fierce advocates of breastfeeding. Some, Troutman said, question the need for and safety of vaccinations, and it’s no surprise, then, that they’d also be against circumcision.

“We call ourselves ‘lactavist intactivists,’ ” Troutman said. Troutman, who looks young for her 30-odd years and still has the voice of a much younger woman, is an unlikely candidate to spearhead a political campaign that was bound to be controversial.

“I was popular in high school,” Troutman said in an interview last week. “I’ve been popular my whole life. I don’t like it when people don’t like me.”

Troutman’s first exposure to intactivist ideas came in college. A women’s studies professor asked Troutman to explain why she thought circumcision shouldn’t be considered mutilation. “I said, it just isn’t; it’s just what’s done, and it’s not that bad,” Troutman recalled.

Troutman has come a long way since then, boasting a near-100 percent success rate in convincing her clients to keep their babies whole. In the last two years, Troutman has become much more active. In 2010, she founded wholebabyrevolution.com, a Web site for “parents still seeking answers to their circumcision questions.” She drew 30 people to a Genital Integrity Rally at Venice Beach in April as part of a nationwide campaign, and said she staged a few other protests outside local Santa Monica hospitals.

“I just can’t stand that I look over and see St. John’s and know that little babies are being cut in there,” Troutman said.

And so, in May, after hearing news of a toddler’s death following his circumcision in a New York City hospital, Troutman contacted Matthew Hess, the president of MGMBill.org.

Matthew Hess, an “intactivist” campaigning against circumcision, holds his foreskin restoration device. Photo by Will Parson

Hess, 42, lives in San Diego and has been a devoted intactivist for more than a decade. Hess, who isn’t Jewish, was circumcised as a baby in a hospital setting. Sometime in his late 20s, he began to notice a “slow, significant decline in sexual sensitivity.” He found his way to the Web sites of a few prominent intactivist groups, and was shocked by what he found.

“It showed what a normal foreskin looked like and the nerve endings that it contained,” Hess said. He found the photographs of particular interest. “It showed all kinds of circumcision damage. It showed what’s lost when you’re circumcised.”

Hess, who is married and has no children, used a “nonsurgical foreskin restoration” technique that entails pulling the remaining skin over the head of the penis and keeping it there, which, Hess said, can reverse the keratinization, or toughening, of the skin on the head of the penis. Hess said his sexual experience improved dramatically as a result. “It was night and day,” he said.

Radicalized by his own experience and frustrated by the rate at which routine circumcisions were still taking place in the United States, Hess became politically active.

In 2002, Hess went to a biennial symposium organized by the preeminent education organization in the intactivist movement, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC). The four-day event, which took place in April and was NOCIRC’s seventh such conference, featured speakers from all over the United States and Canada, as well as from Europe, Australia and Israel. In all, about 100 people attended, and Hess left feeling energized.

“What can I contribute?” Hess remembered thinking. “What’s not being done?”

The answer was the MGM Bill. The acronym stands for Male Genital Mutilation, and Hess, who is not a lawyer (he wouldn’t disclose his profession, saying only that he does not work in a field related to medicine, circumcision or religion), took the language of the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 and altered it to apply it to men. “It wasn’t like no one had ever thought of it before,” Hess said. “I was just the first one to do it.”

Indeed, when Congress was considering outlawing female genital mutilation, or FGM, some lawmakers had anticipated exactly this consequence. In an article dated Oct. 12, 1996, about the passage of the law prohibiting FGM, New York Times reporter Celia W. Dugger noted that the proponents of the law had some difficulty getting it through Congress, for two reasons. “Some members simply could not believe that the practice actually goes on,” Dugger wrote. “And some were worried that it would lead to proposals to abolish male circumcision.”

Hess purchased the domain name mgmbill.org on Nov. 21, 2003, and began soliciting comments on his modified version of the FGM law a few weeks later. Starting in 2004, and every year since, Hess and his network of volunteers have submitted copies of the MGM Bill to the president of the United States and to every member of the House and Senate. Hess and his partners across the country have also annually submitted state-specific bills to every lawmaker in their states.

In eight years, only one lawmaker, then Massachusetts state Sen. Michael W. Morrissey, has formally introduced the bill into a committee. It took three years, but on March 2, 2010, Hess and 16 other intactivists testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing before the Massachusetts Senate Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Three people testified against it, including one representative from Christians and Jews United for Israel. The committee rejected the bill and it expired at the end of the legislative term.

In 2011, the MGM Bill was again submitted to federal lawmakers as well as legislators in 14 different states. But in 2010, Hess had decided to try a new tactic: city-based ballot initiatives.

Lloyd Schofield, the proponent of the San Francisco ballot measure that could ban circumcision in the city, went to his first NOCIRC symposium in July 2010 in Berkeley. Hess was there, but Schofield doesn’t remember talking to him. “I think I just shook his hand,” Schofield said in a recent interview.

Schofield refuses to talk about himself much and wouldn’t even confirm the information he apparently gave to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter (who also found him somewhat reticent) in November 2010.

“So who is Schofield?” the Chronicle’s Heather Knight wrote. “He won’t say much other than that he’s a 58-year-old who used to work for a ‘major hotel chain.’ He lives with his partner near Buena Vista Park, and they have no children. His Facebook page notes he’s a fan of ‘The WHOLE Network,’ ‘Bring Back Saving Penises’ and ‘Catholics Against Circumcision.’ But don’t bother asking whether he had the procedure done himself.”

Schofield, who was raised Baptist, said he didn’t have to think much about circumcision. “I just knew this was wrong all my life,” he said.

Schofield said he thinks Marilyn Milos, the Bay Area founder of NOCIRC and the godmother of the intactivist movement, recommended him to be the San Francisco proponent for the MGM ballot initiative.

“I don’t think I was the first choice,” Schofield said, but he and Hess talked and e-mailed a few times, and eventually Schofield agreed to serve as proponent. Schofield didn’t do much of the collecting of signatures, and the first time he and Hess ever spoke to one another in person was on the morning of April 26, the day that they — along with Milos and others — delivered the more than 12,000 signatures that had been collected in support of the San Francisco circumcision ban to the office of the city’s department of elections. 

On May 18, 2011, San Francisco city officials announced that the ballot measure that Hess had written and that Schofield had put forward for San Francisco had qualified for inclusion on the November ballot.

The next day, in solidarity with Schofield, and in memory of Jamaal Coleson Jr., the toddler who died after being circumcised in New York, Troutman submitted her ballot initiative to the Santa Monica City Clerk.

“I think I talked to him once,” Troutman said of her contact with Hess. Hess modified the text of the ballot initiative to make it appropriate for the City of Santa Monica. All Troutman had to do was download the file.

“I printed out the papers,” Troutman said, and took them to City Hall. “It took me five minutes to submit.”

Coalition sues to keep circumcision ban off S.F. ballot

The Jewish-led coalition working to defeat a San Francisco ballot measure, which would ban circumcision for boys 18 and under, filed a lawsuit there on Wednesday morning asking the city to remove the proposition from the ballot entirely.

The ballot measure, which would make circumcision for any reason—including religious belief—a misdemeanor, was formally approved for inclusion on the November 2011 ballot by the San Francisco Department of Elections last month.

The suit was filed in California Superior Court on June 22 by a group of plaintiffs that included two Jewish community organizations, three local Jewish families, one Muslim family and two doctors. It is just the latest salvo in a multifront battle to defeat a ballot measure that many in the Jewish community say would interfere with their religious practice and their autonomy as parents.

“It’s taking away our rights to decide privately all the things we want for our children, whether it’s medically or religiously,” plaintiff Jenny Benjamin said in an interview.

Benjamin, a resident of San Francisco and mother of two young children, and her husband, Jeremy, both of whom are Jewish, were recruited by the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom to stand as plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit. That coalition, which is being led by Abby Michelson Porth of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, also arranged a press conference on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall at 11 a.m. on Wednesday to announce the filing.

The lawsuit cites a state law that denies California cities the power to “prohibit a healing arts professional licensed within the state … from engaging in any act or performing any procedure that falls within the professionally recognized scope of practice of that licensee.”

That law, together with a 1991 appellate court decision that affirmed a city’s right to deny initiatives a place on the ballot if the resulting laws cannot be enacted, forms the basis for plaintiffs’ lawsuit.

Michael Jacobs, a partner at the law firm Morrison and Foerster, is leading the case. “The law is clear,” Jacobs said in a statement released by the coalition. “It is misleading to San Francisco’s electorate to put an initiative on the ballot where they lack the power to enact it.

“By prevailing in this lawsuit,” Jacobs continued, “we will protect doctors against being charged with a misdemeanor for carrying out a routine and beneficial medical procedure. We will also protect parents’ choice to make medical decisions for their children. And we will protect faith communities against efforts to restrict religious freedom.”

Jacobs, the other plaintiffs and many opponents of the ballot measure speak frequently about the ways a citywide ban on circumcision would infringe upon religious freedom, but the legal precedent cited by Wednesday’s lawsuit comes from a section of the California Business and Professions Code having nothing to do with religion. Subsection 460 (b) was enacted by a 2009 law sponsored by the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) to stop cities from banning the declawing of cats.

The Paw Project, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit educational organization, inspired the City of West Hollywood to ban feline declawing in 2003.

When other California cities began considering legislation similar to West Hollywood’s in 2009, the CVMA made its legislative push, culminating in the passage of a law that stops cities from interfering with the work of any “healing arts professional licensed within the state.”

That language is broad enough to include veterinarians and doctors, said Sarah R. Wolk, a partner at the Glendale-based law firm WLF Lawyers. For Jewish ritual circumcisers, known as mohelim, the situation is less clear.

“Circumcisions performed by doctors or those licensed and regulated by Division 2 of the Business and Professions Code could probably not be banned,” Wolk wrote in an e-mail. “But, a ‘healing arts professional’ would not include circumcisions performed by non-professionals or professionals licensed by other private governing bodies, and would therefore not prohibit restrictions on such individuals.”

This new legal move is only the latest action in the widening fight to defeat the San Francisco ban. Last week, Rep. Brad Sherman and California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto announced plans to introduce legislation in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento that would prohibit cities from banning male circumcision nationwide and in California, respectively.

The goal of all of these efforts is to have the ballot initiative thrown out before it ever reaches the citizens of San Francisco. But David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc., said it wasn’t clear that such maneuvers were the way to go.

“It’s not clear what the most effective strategy is,” he said. “Dealing with it through legislation could be counterproductive—more discussion and debate over what should be a nonissue. It’s probably a very close call, assuming the legislation is effective.”

As of press time, neither piece of legislation had been formally introduced.

More discussion and debate is exactly what anti-circumcision activist—or “intactivist”—Jews are hoping for. Ronald Goldman, the founder of the Boston-based Jewish Circumcision Resource Center and the author of “Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective,” said he was frustrated that the media’s coverage of the progress of the ban in San Francisco did not say more about the medical claims in favor and against circumcision.

“The issue becomes should we have a law, or what should be done to stop a law,” Goldman said. “Where’s the discussion of the harm circumcision causes?”

Intactivists like Goldman contend that circumcision is “physically, sexually and psychologically harmful,” and they believe that Americans, Jews and the members of the American medical establishment are simply in denial about the damage circumcision can cause.

In the hopes of redirecting the conversation, Goldman and eight other Jewish intactivists from around the country released “A Message to Jewish Americans on Circumcision” on June 20.

Circumcision is widespread among Jews and is traditionally performed on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life; Goldman and his cosigners say that “a growing number of Jews in the U.S., South America, Europe, and Israel are making the decision not to circumcise their infants,” the statement read.

The statement also included a remark indirectly disavowing “Foreskin Man,” the comic book created one of the backers of San Francisco’s ballot initiative, Matthew Hess, which was roundly critiqued as anti-Semitic.

“Unfortunately, there may be statements and tactics by individuals opposed to circumcision that are insensitive and even offensive to many Jews,” the statement read. “We regret this and absolutely reject all statements or actions, often based on ignorance, that are disrespectful of any religion or ethnic group.”

When asked, Goldman said that remark was not just a rejection of “Foreskin Man,” but also of the entire effort to ban circumcision in San Francisco.

“The statement is intended to refer to any and everything that is insensitive or offensive to the Jewish community,” Goldman said.

Members of the coalition fighting against the San Francisco ballot measure regularly dispute intactivist claims that circumcision causes harm. Indeed, they attribute numerous health benefits to the practice.

“Circumcision is a medically safe practice,” plaintiff Brian McBeth, a doctor in the department of emergency medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, said in the statement released today. Circumcision is, McBeth continued, “endorsed by the World Health Organization and other major medical and public health institutions because of the scientifically proven health benefits, including the reduction of transmission of HIV, penile cancer, and urinary tract infections, as well as cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised.”

Winning the fight over the medical benefits that some attribute to circumcision will be vital to the success of the coalition’s lawsuit, in part because legal experts doubt the ballot measure could be challenged under the First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion.

“I think it’s an outrageous infringement on religious freedom, but I think it would be very hard to challenge under the First Amendment,” said Erwin Chemerinksy, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

This apparent paradox, Chemerinsky said, can be traced back to a 1990 Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which allowed states to restrict certain religious practices, provided that the laws they drafted were applicable to everyone and not motivated by the desire to interfere with religion.

Chemerinsky said the proposed ban on circumcision met both of those criteria.

“It would be hard to argue that the circumcision ban is motivated by the desire to interfere with religion,” Chemerinsky said. “That is clearly the effect, but it’s not its purpose. And it’s clearly of general applicability as well. It prohibits all parents—not just Jewish parents—from circumcising their sons.”

In foreskin fight, even terminology is being disputed

According to the proponent of a ballot initiative to prohibit the act of surgically removing a male baby’s foreskin, the term “circumcision” is nothing but a euphemism.

“Having your foreskin amputated is probably more like it,” said Jena Troutman, a doula and mother of two sons, who initiated the process of petitioning Santa Monica to include the initiative on a future ballot.

On May 19, Troutman filed a “Notice of Intent to Circulate Petition” with the Santa Monica City Clerk aimed to prohibit what she called “medically unnecessary genital cutting of male minors.”

That language is being rejected by city officials. The official title, which was prepared by Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, is “An Initiative Measure Amending the Municipal Code to Prohibit Circumcising a Male Under the Age of 18 Except in a Medical Emergency.”

To get the initiative onto the November 2012 ballot in Santa Monica, backers will need about 6,000 registered voters to sign a petition that includes that language. More than 12,000 people in San Francisco signed a petition that successfully put a measure aimed at prohibiting “male circumcision” on the November 2011 ballot.

The term “circumcision” was used on the San Francisco petition and will be included on the Santa Monica petition, in spite of each measure’s backers having initially referred to their initiatives as measures prohibiting “genital cutting of male minors.”

Already the language of the self-described “intactivists” has provoked strong reactions from Jewish community leaders. A coalition led by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council is working to defeat that city’s proposition at the ballot box. Because the measure has not yet qualified for inclusion on the Santa Monica ballot, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have been less vocal so far. At press time, a joint statement opposing the proposed measure was expected to be released in the coming days.

Jewish groups primarily are fighting the ballot measure on the basis that it infringes upon freedom of religion, however many are also accusing the measure’s backers of using misleading language.

“These people went out with a false approach, and they got this on the ballot by convincing people that they were signing something against genital mutilation, not something against religious circumcision,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, the national liaison from Chabad Lubavitch to Jewish Federations of North America.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gil Leeds, a rabbi and certified mohel (ritual circumciser), called the language of mutilation used by the proposal’s backers toxic and deceptive. “The Hebrew word for ritual circumcision, bris, literally means ‘a covenant,’ ” Leeds wrote. “It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago.”

The language of the San Francisco proposition and the proposed Santa Monica ballot measure originates with a San Diego-based group, MGMbill.org, which was initially intent on pursuing federal legislation prohibiting what it calls “male genital mutilation.” The language is based upon a similarly worded federal law, passed in 1997, that prohibits female genital mutilation.

Election law experts said that the actual language of the propositions that appear on each ballot could be contested. In both Santa Monica and San Francisco, city officials have to give “an objective title and summary” to the proposition, Colleen McAndrews, an election law attorney in Santa Monica, said.

“If they don’t like it, they have an opportunity to litigate it,” McAndrews said. “If the court deems it ‘false and misleading,’ the court can strike the words or rewrite them.”

It appears likely that the ballots, like the petitions, will use the word “circumcision” and not “genital mutilation” or “genital cutting.”

“American society has always regarded male and female circumcision very differently,” Howard Friedman, professor of law emeritus at University of Toledo and author of the Religion Clause blog, wrote in an e-mail. “It has generally been felt that government has a compelling interest in outlawing female circumcision because of the physical, psychological and health effects on girls. On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of male circumcision in the U.S. is not seen as giving the government a compelling interest in outlawing it,” Friedman wrote.

The medical benefits of circumcision — which are cited by opponents of a ban and disputed by backers — are sure to have an impact on the debate as it progresses.

The language used by each side is not likely to change anytime soon, however.

“There’s a baby male, and that baby male — either for medical ritual or religious ritual — is having its foreskin removed,” Suzanne Wertheim, a visiting lecturer at UCLA, said, illustrating what a neutral description of the act in question might look like.

But no matter what the courts or the voters decide, Wertheim, a linguistic anthropologist, said that people on each side of the argument are unlikely to start speaking neutrally.

“There are people who say that abortion should not be legal and should not be an option for women, and there are people who say that abortion should be legal and should be an option for women,” Wertheim said. “That is a neutral phrasing of those stances. But no one ever discusses abortion that way.”

Opinion: Circumcision wars in California

The attempt to make circumcision illegal, including those performed for religious reasons, is spreading beyond San Francisco, which aimed last week to become the first American municipality to ban the practice. Now, residents of Santa Monica have filed a petition indicating that they, too, intend to get a similar measure on the November ballot for their city. While these are the two most aggressive attempts to curtail the practice of circumcision, they represent an increasing trend away from the practice, or at least away from the presumption of its necessity.

Like most things associated with circumcision, it’s a very sensitive issue. In fact, as I write this, I know that whatever I commit to words here will be seen as brutal and/or betraying by many who read it.

Were I to begin with the fact that with the birth of each of our three daughters, I experienced not only profound joy but also a certain inchoate sense of relief at being spared the obligation to circumcise them eight days later, many readers would accuse me of betraying Jewish tradition for simply admitting my ambivalence. Were I to begin by saying that had we had sons, they would have been circumcised in full accordance with Jewish tradition, including the genuine celebration that accompanies the performance of this sometimes disturbing and deeply beautiful 3,500 year old tradition, I would be branded a barbarian by yet other readers.

Both propositions accurately reflect my feelings, and it is precisely that level of complexity that is rarely present in the ongoing debate about infant circumcision in America. Instead of admitting that the sensitivity of this issue is what makes it absurd to legislate and litigate, each side wraps itself in competing claims about the health, legality and morality of the issue in order to get others to see it its way.

In fairness, those opposed to circumcision are far more aggressive in the use of this approach, though I genuinely feel for people, especially Jews, who admit their ambivalence about circumcising their infant sons. Too often they are immediately lectured about the fact that if they do not do so, their kids will not be Jewish (not true), or that circumcision is clearly healthier and failing to circumcise their kids endangers them (a matter of debate, though most evidence still suggests that it is).

Meeting genuine questions with questionable assertions is hardly the way to go. There are many good reasons to circumcise our sons, but they are not strengthened by failing to seriously address the questions people have.

In fact, the intensity of the debate around circumcision, like so many issues in religion, is about much more than we let on. Anxiety about not circumcising, among Jews at least, is often about fear of assimilation as much as it is about the importance of one particular commandment. The same anxiety among non-Jews, for whom there is no such commandment, is often about the rights of parents to shape their children’s future. Those are big, important questions — ones that deserve to be discussed openly, not fought over by proxy.

On the other hand, there is something truly wrong with people attempting to strip parents of their rights as guardians and undermining the free exercise of religion. The legal experts will battle over that one, I am sure. But those seeking to ban circumcision don’t pursue banning other medical procedures that parents believe are right for their kids to have. This indicates that the fight about circumcision is really an expression of the opponents’ hostility to religion in general or to parents’ rights to make decisions that may shape their kids’ future identities.

It’s as if people fight about what to do with our kids, or, worse, what other people should do with their kids, because of what was done to us by our parents. That strikes me as a poor way to make decisions about parenting, public policy or the various spiritual paths we follow. 

Instead, I suggest that people focus on the hopes and aspirations they have for their own children, and pursue, as their consciences dictate, those practices they believe will aid in their attainment. Sometimes parents will get it right, sometimes not, but maximizing the freedom to give it their best shot – short of endangering the health or life of the kids involved — should remain, as it has for hundreds of years in this country, a sacred trust.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right,” and is the President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Jewish groups condemn effort to ban circumcision

San Francisco-area Jewish organizations condemned a proposed ballot measure to outlaw Jewish ritual circumcision in the city.

The Anti-Defamation League, the local Jewish Community Relations Council, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and the American Jewish Committee together issued a statement expressing “great concern” about the proposed measure, which would make the practice of brit milah, or ritual circumcision, on anyone under age 18 a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine.

“For thousands of years, Jews around the world have engaged in this important religious ritual, which is of fundamental importance in the Jewish tradition,” the statement said. “The organized Jewish community is deeply troubled by this initiative, which would interfere with the rights of parents to make religious decisions for their own families.”

San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield is spearheading the effort to collect enough signatures to get the anti-bris measure on the ballot next year. At least 7,100 signatures are needed to qualify. Schofield wants to ban the practice of male circumcision, including for Jewish religious purposes; female circumcision is already illegal. Likewise, Schofield argues, male circumcision on boys under the age of consent should be illegal, too.

“People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body,” Schofield said in a recent interview with CBS. “His body doesn’t belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents. It’s his decision.”

While the proposed measure has drawn international media attention, the Jewish agencies who condemned the effort said they believed any such measure would be defeated at the ballot box.

“San Francisco has a tradition of embracing the diversity and respecting the religious customs of its citizens,” the joint statement said. “We trust that the voters of San Francisco will see this proposed initiative as an affront to that tradition and to their freedom.”

The Mohel’s Wife

When I congratulated “Julie” at her son’s bris, I couldn’t believe that she looked better than I did at my wedding. Like most of the other women attending the ritual circumcision, we were amazed that anyone could be so put together eight days after giving birth. Trim and graceful with manicured nails and perfect make-up, Julie went out of her way to insist that I sample the blintz soufflé on the elaborate buffet table, making me highly doubtful that this could be the same woman who had just shared her horror story describing 30 hours of excruciating labor — and four of them were spent pushing!

Women like Julie shouldn’t shock me anymore but somehow they still do. As the wife of a mohel, I have seen them all. From moms who fit into their pre-pregnancy Size-6 suits to others who still generously fill their maternity clothes that make me wonder if they already had the baby, meeting new mothers is routine as grocery shopping.

Milah, Jewish ritual circumcision, permeates my home in uncanny ways. During dinner, it is our favorite conversation opener, and the autoclave my husband uses to sterilize his instruments has piqued the interests of many of our guests, wondering if we use it to sterilize our baby’s bottle nipples as well. While I am trying to watch my weight, my husband jumps at the opportunity to get ice cream at the local Carvel because his favorite surgical supply store is on the way.

One of the best perks of living with a resident mohel is when I accidentally cut myself in the kitchen and my husband runs for his gauze pads and polysporin. After all, healing a wound is his forte and bandages are his passion. I must be one of the only women in the world who has had avkas bris, a white powder manufactured in Jerusalem especially for mohels, sprinkled on her kitchen cut.

More than anything, as a mohel’s wife, I have gained a profound appreciation for the role of a new mom. I am always amazed that — eight days after giving birth to a boy, when she is sore from pushing, exasperated from a lack of sleep, nervous her newborn is not eating, irritated by her aching breasts, annoyed with the wobbly doughnut that has replaced her stomach and often recovering from routine surgical procedures, such as a C-section or an episiotomy (not to mention she’s post-partum and definitely hormonal) — a new mother is expected to entertain guests at her son’s bris when the last thing she wants to do is get dressed. No matter how sensitive the mohel is, a mom still emotionally raw from the experience of giving birth is pulled by polar opposites: the innate need to mother her baby and the social obligation of putting on a happy face while her son goes through minor surgery.

When I was pregnant with our first child, I wondered if I would be able to live up to the legacy so many amazing women have placed before me. I doubted I could be like Melissa who delivered twin boys (non-C-section) and showed up at her synagogue’s social hall eight days later as cool as Jackie O. in a mint-colored moiré. Or like Shira who, after greeting her guests, made sure the caterer wrapped up the extra food for a charity in order that none of it to go to waste. I definitely couldn’t follow in the footsteps of Dena who not only attended the early morning prayer services, but gave a 10-minute speech during the meal following the bris.

A month before my due date, my husband and I discussed the details of a bris just in case we were having a boy. Of course we knew which mohel to use, but other aspects require more planning. During our research, I found myself wishing I belonged to the group of Chasidic women where a new mother customarily stays at home while her son’s bris takes place in the synagogue. To be relieved of the pressure to entertain when all I would want to do is nest appealed to me as an unorthodox and refreshing idea. But what would the spirit of a bris be like without the mother in attendance? Without her smiling countenance and nervously clasped hands? Without her joyful tears and runny mascara?

Although we spent evenings contemplating the perfect bris, comparing small affairs with elaborate ones, making a guest list and then crossing out half the names only to realize it was still too large, we never found an ideal solution. In the beginning of our discussions, the idea of creating an environment where a new mother can feel comfortable attending — yet free of pressure to play the role of hostess — seemed attainable. But when my water broke two weeks early, I was disheartened that my image of a picture-perfect bris was still fingertips out of our reach.

So when I gave birth to a girl and blissfully didn’t leave my house for the first three weeks, I was grateful for the opportunity to bide my time, wondering if, perhaps with my next baby, I will be up to making a bris.

Felisa Billet is a freelance writer living in Forest Hills, N.Y.


I Do! — But Not to You

Ting, ting. A dinner spoon rapped on a glass at our table of single wedding guests.

"Let’s go around the table," another guest said, "and let everyone say a bit about himself."

One by one, my seatmates at Table No. 3 delivered an awkward Who-Am-I.

Another wedding, where I’m an FOB — Friend of the Bride — and not the groom.

In "My Best Friend’s Wedding," Cameron Diaz told Julia Roberts: "He’s got you on a pedestal and me in his arms."

During my early to mid-30s, a dozen years ago, I played Julia to a bevy of Camerons. I dated or befriended a parade of wounded birds who had lost their trust in men and looked to me to restore it.

My effect was magnetic: I either attracted them toward some new sap or repelled them into the arms of an old flame.

In turn, each platonic paramour gushed over our easy intimacy. "I never knew I could feel this open and comfortable with a man who isn’t gay!" Just what a stud would want to hear. Did I need a shot of testosterone? A swig of ginseng tea? One siren proposed I join her sometime for a nap. In her eyes and theirs, I was "sweet," or worse, "safe."

But I didn’t want to be safe. Safe guys finish last. I had learned that by dating Beth.

Prelude to a Bris

I was waiting for a bris to begin when I first set eyes on Beth Orr — forbidden fruit, a non-Jew. A voice whispered, "She may be the one; live dangerously."

It was her first bris and I offered to explain what was going on. After the ceremony I asked to see her again.

"But Paul, you can’t marry a shiksa," she said. "You said so yourself." What was I thinking?

Damage control. "Beth, If there’s a chance you’d adopt my way of life, call me." Her call never came.

One Saturday, I was shmoozing in my synagogue after the service when I ran into Beth. She was attending beginners’ service and planning to convert. There is a God.

"That’s great," I said nonchalantly. "Why don’t we talk about it over dinner?"

"I’m afraid I can’t," she said. "It could jeopardize my conversion."

Of course. "How long a wait are we talking about?"

"About seven months," she said.

I replied with the most romantic utterance I’ve ever spoken: "If Jacob could wait seven years for Rachel, I can wait seven months for you."

My honeyed words worked their devilish charm. Before long, Beth and I had shared two dinners and a movie. We could recite the names of each other’s various exes, in sequence.

At the end of Date No. 3, Beth took my hand. "Remember Misha? The tempestuous architect I was with for three years? We’re engaged. I guess you deserve the credit."

My Best Friends’ Weddings

In quick succession, Beth begot Gina (met Mr. Right after our second date), who begot Leah (accepted her best friend’s proposal after our third date), who begot Eleanor (became betrothed to her long-distance beau a week after we shared a private midnight swim), who begot Grace (who, six weeks into our "When Harry Met Sally" friendship, said "Yes" to her boyfriend of two years).

I made a career of attending my best friends’ weddings: serving as their wedding photographer, writing and performing songs for the happy couple, helping the bride load leftover braised chicken into my car to deliver — still warm — to a homeless shelter. All in a nuptials’ work.

Now, against all odds, it was Mimi’s (aka Miriam) turn. Mimi, with whom I’d shared marathon long-distance colloquies that touched our deepest chords. Mimi, who upon meeting me "knew" I was her intended. Mimi, who six months later met him.

Which is why I now sat among my fellow leftovers at Table No. 3 on Chicago’s North Side, staring down at a napkin to read, for the eighth time: "Wedding of Miriam B. and Levy S."

Ting, ting. The spoon woman was politely reminding me it was my turn to embarrass myself.

"I’m Paul Stregevsky. I’m a technical writer, I live in Atlanta and for two years I’ve been a friend of the bride."

A redhead quickly took her cigarette out of her mouth a stared. "Oh my God — you’re Paul! I’ve heard so much about you."