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.”

Ba-dum-bum.

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.

Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics conducting a brit in November. Photo by Lynn Abesera

Flying mohel goes above and beyond to offer his service


It’s not all that rare for apparent strangers to approach Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics on the street, in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport or even when he’s checking out cucumbers in the supermarket.

“Hey, I know you!” they will say. “You’re the mohel who did the brit for my son!” And, on occasion, a man might add: “And mine, as well!”

Lebovics usually will answer: “Yes, how are you, and how is your baby?” But there is a slim chance he remembers the man or his son. After all, Lebovics has performed more than 20,000 brit milahs during the almost 40 years he has provided the service.

Lebovics may just be the busiest and most-traveled mohel in California. Sometimes he is asked to perform two or three brits a day over a large region, with little time to spare in between. So you can understand why he has chosen the fastest means to get around — by airplane.

For 20 years Lebovics has been flying to remote areas of the state, relying on his friend and amateur pilot Yehuda (Yuda) Hagouel to get him there.

“We flew to small towns where there are no temples around, and if there is one, there is no mohel,” Lebovics said. “There are different reasons why [a Jewish couple] live in such small or remote areas. I remember getting to a small town in the San Joaquin Valley where there was only one Israeli guy. He was working there as a drip irrigation expert.”

Hagouel, a professional videographer who owns a single-engine Cessna 182 Skylane aircraft, added, “Many times we land and then we need to take a car and drive another half an hour to an hour to get to where the brit is going to take place. I’m always amazed to find people living in such remote areas, let alone Jews.”

The two had met during a brit Lebovics was performing and Hagouel was videotaping. When the rabbi found out the guy with the camera also had a pilot’s license, he immediately recruited him as his personal pilot.

They’ve had their share of adventures.

“One time, we were about to take off, and in the middle of the runway the motor started making funny noises and then completely died,” Lebovics said. “We were going to be late for the brit ceremony, so we quickly ran to the airport’s office and chartered a fancy helicopter with a pilot. I asked Yuda if he still wanted to come with me, and he did, so we flew off to San Diego. On the way back, I noticed it’s getting late. It was Friday and I needed to get home in time before the Shabbat. I live close to [CBS Television City in the Fairfax District], so I asked the pilot to do me a favor and drop me off on CBS’ roof so I could get home quickly. He asked permission to land and they granted it, and I was able to get home safely before the Shabbat entered. Then he continued to [Van Nuys Airport] and dropped off Yuda.”

Lebovics, originally from Connecticut, studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he learned shechitah (the ritual of kosher slaughtering) and how to perform a brit milah. Upon his return to the United States, he studied education at Trinity College in Connecticut, where he earned a master’s degree. He moved to Los Angeles and became a ninth-grade teacher at Valley Torah High School in Valley Village, where he also served as the first assistant administrator.

“I loved being a teacher but I noticed the need for a mohel in town,” he said. “There were hardly any mohels around, so I quit my teaching position and became a full-time mohel.”

That was almost 40 years ago.

One of the main concerns for parents of a baby boy, of course, is that something will go wrong during the brit. So they search for a mohel with a long history of performing successful circumcisions. Lebovics was able to build such a respected reputation, spread by word of mouth, that he said he never needed to advertise (although he now has a website at torahview.com).

Muslims also have sought his services, which he readily provides. “As long as it’s a religious ceremony, there is no problem for me to perform a circumcision,” Lebovics said.

At times, he performs the ritual in hospitals with adult clients.

“Those are men who have converted to Judaism and [also] many Russians who didn’t have brit milah as babies and now want to do it,” he said. “The oldest man I circumcised was a 76-year-old Russian. I first did the brit for his son who became ba’al teshuvah [a more religious Jew], and he told his dad, ‘You are a Jew and you will die as a Jew.’ And so the father, who was Jewish but never circumcised, came to me and said that he wants to be circumcised. It was very important for him to feel and become full Jewish.”

Lebovics has many children but declines to say how many. Among religious families, it’s believed to be bad luck to count the number of your children. None of his sons, by the way, has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Lebovics said he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “I am very busy, Baruch ha-Shem,” he said. “Sometimes more busy than others. … June through September used to be very busy months, but I don’t see it anymore. Now, the brits are scattered evenly throughout the year.”

He has performed brits for all types of Jewish families — secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox — but none moved him as much as an encounter he had with a Russian woman who had never met a rabbi before.

He tells the story:

“One day, I get this call from a Russian-Jewish woman who asked me to be the mohel in her son’s brit. The night before the brit, I called her and asked her to say the Shema Israel prayer over the baby’s crib. It’s a Jewish custom to say this prayer before the brit. She told me she has no idea how to say this prayer. She never heard it. So, I asked her to place the phone next to the baby’s crib and put me on speakerphone. I started reciting the prayer, and the woman started crying. It was such a deep cry, from the bottom of her soul. She was sobbing hard as I was reciting the Shema.

“The prayer awakened something in her — her Jewish soul — and if my entire career was for this one single night, it was well worth it.”

….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.

NYC officials, rabbis reach tentative deal on circumcision rite


A mohel who performs the controversial circumcision rite metzitzah b’peh would no longer have to obtain a signed consent in New York under a tentative agreement.

A coalition of rabbinic leaders and the city reportedly reached agreement on the rite, it was reported late Tuesday. The New York City Board of Health must approve the deal.

Health department regulations require the parents of a child to provide prior written consent for the practice, but the regulation has not been enforced.

Metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel sucks blood from the wound following circumcision, is a common traditional practice among many haredi Orthodox mohels. When performed directly with the mouth as opposed to through a sterile pipette, it has been directly linked to the transmission of the herpes virus.

Under the agreement, if an infant is found to have herpes associated with the ritual, the mohel will be tested for that strain of the virus, and if discovered to carry it will be  banned for life from performing the ritual.

“While the de Blasio administration continues to believe that MBP carries with it health risks, given the sacred nature of this ritual to the community, the administration is pursuing a policy centered around education of health risks by the health care community and respect for traditional practices by the religious community,” the Mayor’s Office said in a statement.

In August, a federal appeals court called for a review of the New York City law related to metzitzah b’peh, saying that under the federal guarantee of free exercise of religion, the law is subject to “strict scrutiny.”

The law was enacted in 2012 after at least 11 boys contracted herpes from metzitzah b’peh between 2004 and 2011. Two died and two suffered brain damage.

There were four cases of herpes allegedly contracted during metzitzah b’peh in 2014 and 17 since 2000, according to the health department.

For new dad, a stronger bond from circumcising son


Natan Zaidenweber thought the mohel was kidding. His wife, Linda Raab, thought it was some kind of religious formality and didn’t give it a second thought.

But the mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, was serious. Although most fathers demur when he invites them to perform the bris on their sons by clipping their foreskin, preferring to delegate the task to someone professionally trained in the procedure, Sherman finds that about 5 or 10 percent of dads agree to do the cut.

“It is the father’s mitzvah to actually perform the bris as Abraham did for his son, Isaac,” Sherman said. “Many fathers have told me what an incredible moment it was for them to do the actual bris and enter their sons into the covenant of Abraham.”

The Mill Valley, Calif., couple realized the cantor wasn’t joking only once the ceremony was underway. Sherman began with a naming ceremony for baby Jay Hilay and his twin sister, Sivan Rose. Then he again offered Zaidenweber the option of making the cut.

The new dad stepped forward, and as his startled wife screamed his name in a tone that she said was intended to say, “Are you crazy?” a friend reassured her it would be easy.

“I then took a deep breath, surrendered to the faith I had in Phil and motioned that they had my blessing to proceed,” Raab said.

Sherman set up what was needed, gave the baby some sugar water, put a clamp in place and offered Zaidenweber some direction. Making the cut, Zaidenweber said, was a powerful bonding experience.

“I’m glad I did,” he said. “I’m glad I have that connection with my son. Your love is equal for both [twins], but it’s special that we have that bond.”

For Raab, too, the experience was a positive one. Sherman had told the gathering that a baby’s cry during a bris is like the sound of the shofar opening the gates of heaven.

“I closed my eyes, heard Jay’s cry and actually was able to experience it as deeply spiritual and beautiful,” Raab said, noting her pride that her husband took on the role.

“He stepped up, fearlessly, with a faith in himself that I wouldn’t have had in myself,” she said. “I have since been aware of how much his modeling has helped me to muster more courage as I face the tasks of mothering.”

If the couple were to have another son, would Zaidenweber make the snip again? Yes, say both parents, without hesitation

Watch: ‘Mohels,’ an a capella take on Lorde’s ‘Royals’


Ever noticed how “mohels” rhymes with “royals”? Well the University of Maryland a capella group Kol Ish did, and thank goodness.

In their version of teen pop star Lorde’s “Royals,” retitled, yep, “Mohels,” the boys have a thing or two to say to those opposed to circumcision.

It’s pretty intense — think lines like “I’ve never left a forsekin on the flesh,” and “Don’t want to tell you what to do/so leave us be or we’ll cut you too” — but also sort of genius.

In fact, turn down the volume on those pretty voices and you might just be able to hear the Maccabeats kicking themselves for not coming up with it first. Although a rendition from those sweeties would have probably been a lot rosier and peppier, and performed in a video that did not contain handwritten messages like “It’s just the tip” and “cut and proud.”

Bonding at Baby U


For new parents, having their first child can be scary, stressful and utterly stupefying. 

Westside Jewish Community Center hopes it will be a little less so thanks to Jewish Baby University, a five-week class designed to prepare people for what parenthood is really like.

The program, which launched this spring and begins its second session July 28, is open to anyone expecting his or her first child. It incorporates Jewish themes and teaches parents how to plan, in both a practical and spiritual function, for their incoming son or daughter. 

“The class is attractive to people who have a Jewish background but need a reminder and to those who really don’t know where to start,” said Lauren Friedman, program coordinator of the Westside JCC. “This is their starting point into Jewish life.”

Jewish Baby University is based on existing programs at Jewish community centers in Phoenix and Denver and funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation. It’s taught by Rabbi Dalia Samansky, a mother of two from Woodland Hills, who focuses on pastoral work and assists with baby naming ceremonies in Los Angeles. 

“As a young mom, it’s a great class to teach,” she said. “[Being Jewish] and parenting are both such sacred journeys in and of themselves.”

Each class incorporates a new theme and features a guest speaker. In terms of Judaism itself, attendees learn about rituals surrounding childbirth, as well as how to create a Jewish home and find a Jewish community in Los Angeles. Although religious practices are discussed, the class is suitable for Jews from all different backgrounds, Friedman said. “It’s more cultural and traditional. We have couples from all the denominations, so we don’t want to impose anything on them.”

Expecting parents find out about financial planning, medical practices involved in pregnancy and birth, and how to adapt emotionally and mentally to being a parent. Speakers in the inaugural session included Dr. Andrew Shpall, a mohel; Yana Katzap-Nackman, a doula; Debra Markovic from JKidLA, a resource of Jewish educational opportunities from BJE-Builders of Jewish Education; and Dan Feinberg, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo Advisors.

Richard Weintraub, a psychologist, visited the class on the last day to talk about how parents can focus on the present and stay calm about the pregnancy. He described how babies, even before they are born, understand when their mothers are at peace or anxious. Weintraub also stressed the importance of physical contact between parents and children. 

For the first session of Jewish Baby University, which took place from April 14 to May 24 and ended with a Shabbat dinner, seven couples signed up. One of the students was Genevieve Goldstone, a Jew by Choice who said the class made her feel more secure about the prospect of raising a Jewish child. 

“The class validated my knowledge and allowed me and my husband to have some more directed conversations about our practice so that we could be more on the same page going into parenthood,” she said.

Beth Cohan, another participant, said the class was an opportunity to meet other couples who were having their first child. But it was more than that.

“[My husband and I] came from similar backgrounds, but we were interested in figuring out which traditions we’d like to bring into our home,” she said.

It’s especially important to decide upon these traditions before the baby is born, Samansky said, because “a lot of what you do in the beginning becomes habitual. Humans crave routine and normalcy, and to make something like this part of your life and to make decisions ahead of time makes it easier on the family.”

Jewish Baby University was designed by the Westside JCC not only to educate expecting parents, but to connect them and provide a social outlet. Because many of the couples are transplants to Los Angeles, they are still looking for a community and friends, Samansky said. 

Johanna Schmidt, who moved to Santa Monica with her husband shortly before joining the class, said, “One of our goals in taking the class was to meet other couples. We’ve done that, so we’re really happy.”

Now that the first session has ended, looking back, Friedman said that it was successful. “We’ve had such great response from the couples. We’re building something that will feed into all the other JCC programs.”

After reviewing evaluations from the initial group, Friedman and Samansky are going to change and update the course as needed. The next session also will be five weeks long and cost $200, just like the original. 

Other options for expecting Jewish parents do exist — Cedars-Sinai has single-day, three-hour workshops — but Friedman believes that the comprehensiveness of Jewish Baby University is “filling a really important void.”

How to become a Jew


1. ENROLL IN A CONVERSION PROGRAM

There are a variety of options for how to begin the process, but all involve study with a rabbi. Some people study with an individual rabbi for a period of time, and other people enroll in group classes designed especially for converts.

People find out about conversion classes in a number of ways: through the Internet, through family and friends, or by making an appointment to meet with a synagogue rabbi who recommends a program. Some students choose a particular religious movement’s program because that is the movement to which a Jewish partner’s family belongs, or perhaps the student is attracted to a particular rabbi or synagogue of that movement.

My program, Judaism by Choice, offers a Conservative curriculum, but which also welcomes other denominations; it includes 18 three-hour classes that cover such topics as Jewish history (biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, Holocaust, Israel/Zionism, American Judaism), Jewish holidays, Shabbat, kashrut, Jewish lifecycle (birth, marriage, death), theology, prayers, philosophy and rituals.

Students must also connect to a local synagogue and attend Shabbat services weekly, meet with the synagogue rabbi, observe Shabbat fully every week — including meals from Friday night to Saturday night — keep a level of kashrut (no pork, shellfish or mixing of meat and milk), learn to read Hebrew and have experiences in the Jewish community. Students must also attend our monthly Shabbat dinners and Shabbat morning learning services at Sinai Temple or Temple Beth Am and a Havdalah social evening at private homes.

When students in my program meet the conversion requirements, I give them a letter saying that they have completed all requirements in the Judaism by Choice program and are now eligible for conversion with either the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California (interdenominational). 

2. CIRCUMCISION

Men must undergo a ritual circumcision, or, if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit (symbolic circumcision), which is a procedure where the mohel draws a little bit of blood from the penis.

3. CONVERSION

Once the candidate has fulfilled all the requirements, he or she meets with a beit din — a rabbinical court. The rabbis ask about why the candidate wants to convert to Judaism, what observances he or she follows and his or her knowledge of Jewish holidays and Judaica. The candidate must also willingly give up any former religion. After 30 minutes of questioning, the candidate is told whether they have passed, and those who have are asked to read aloud the “Declaration of Faith,” affirming that he or she is ready to assume the obligations of Judaism.

The candidate then immerses in the spiritual waters of the mikveh, going fully under the water three times. For the first two immersions, he or she says blessings, and on the third immersion, recites the Shema, affirming the oneness of God. After fulfilling this, the candidate is officially a Jew.

For those who want to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), conversions are regulated by the Jewish Agency under the Law of Return, and all converts, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are accepted. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still regulates permission to marry within the Jewish state, and non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox converts are not accepted for that ritual, although many are. 

4. WELCOMING THE NEW JEW

After the conversion, some people celebrate at their synagogue, where the congregation welcomes them to the Jewish religion. The newly converted might be called for an aliyah (saying blessings over the Torah) during the Torah service, and a special blessing might be recited for them in front of the ark during a Shabbat service. We do this at our Judaism by Choice Shabbat morning service.

Our program also includes a special ceremony at a Shabbat dinner, or a Havdalah social evening, where we officially hand the new Jew by Choice a conversion certificate and publicly acknowledge that the person is now part of the Jewish People and Jewish community. Family and friends also come to share this happy occasion.

5. FOLLOWING THE CONVERSION

We hope the new Jew by Choice will be involved in the Jewish community, in addition to involvement in a synagogue. Our program also provides supplemental programs throughout the year specially geared to Jews by Choice. These have included a pre-High Holy Days spiritual retreat, a Sukkot wine-tasting party, Chanukah and Purim parties, a second-night Passover seder and an annual trip to Israel. 

 Just as the biblical Naomi was welcoming to Ruth, so should the Jewish community be welcoming to those who embrace Judaism. Jews by Choice are knowledgeable and observant Jews, and we should all celebrate the fact that they will help the Jewish religion and Jewish people to grow and survive.


Rabbi Neal Weinberg is rabbinic director and instructor of Judaism by Choice Inc.

German Parliament passes law guaranteeing legality of ritual circumcision


The German Parliament passed a law protecting the right of Jewish and Muslim parents to choose a ritual circumcision for their sons, after months of heated debate over efforts to ban the practice.

In all, 434 legislators voted Wednesday for the new law proposed by the federal government; there were 100 votes against, and 46 abstentions.

The decision was applauded by Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said in a statement that he was “pleased and relieved … The circumcision law finally brings legal security and hopefully brings this highly disastrous debate, which marked this past year, to an end.”

The new law, which introduces restrictions on the practice for the first time, requires that the procedure be carried out by a medically trained and certified practitioner such as a mohel, or ritual circumciser, or by a medical professional, and that anesthetic be used if needed. For a child over 6 months old, the procedure must be done in a hospital.

The campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, 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 Muslim minor was a 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.

Graumann said in his statement today that the law provided a sense of security that Jews and Muslims could continue to practice their faith in Germany. “In my view, the recent debate was also a tolerance test for our society. And I am very glad that we have passed the test.”

German Cabinet schedules circumcision amendment


Germany's Cabinet has scheduled a discussion on an amendment that would formally legalize ritual circumcision but place some restrictions on who could circumcise and how.

The discussion was set for Oct. 10, the German paper Die Welt reported. To become law, the amendment needs to pass a vote in the Bundestag.

Amendment 1631d to the law code on the rights of children was devised following a controversial ruling in May by a court in Cologne that said circumcision amounted to a criminal act.

If passed, the amendment would legalize religious circumcision of male minors when performed by a person who is medically qualified; with parental consent and under anaesthesia. Under the amendment, mohels, or Jewish ritual circumcisers, would be able to continue perform circumcisions if they obtain the relevant medical qualification.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has said in a statement that “it is especially welcome to hear that circumcision will not be regulated by criminal law but by family law.” He called the amendment “a step in the right direction.”

Representatives of the Green Party, the Social Democrats and the Left Party already have protested the new proposal, according to the German news agency DPA, calling it “alarming” that the protection of a child from bodily harm seems to have taken secondary importance.

German state of Berlin declares circumcision legal


The state of Berlin declared circumcision legal.

Berlin became the first of Germany's 16 states to declare the practice legal following a Cologne court ruling in June that non-medical circumcisions on children amounted to a criminal offense, according to the German news agency DPA. National legislation is pending to legalize circumcision.

The state of Berlin has authorized only doctors, and not mohels, to perform circumcisions; the national legislation could authorize mohels. The state also required that parents be informed of the procedure’s medical risks before consenting, and that doctors do everything possible during the procedure to reduce pain and limit bleeding.

June’s court ruling has led many doctors to stop performing circumcisions in order to avoid being prosecuted. Two rabbis have had complaints brought against them based on the ruling, though one complaint was dropped last week.

Israeli chief rabbi visits Berlin on circumcision issue


Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi said in Berlin that medical training for mohels, or ritual circumcisers, could resolve concerns in Germany regarding circumcision of male children.

In meetings Tuesday with government officials and Berlin’s Jewish community, Rabbi Yonah Metzger noted that mohels could be trained and certified by German doctors. But he emphasized that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has to make final decision on whether a mohel is up to par.

The suggestion echoes that of the Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis, which in July announced that Germany’s mainstream Orthodox rabbinical body, the ORD, would create an association of mohels to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists. This project already “is in the works,” Israel Meller, ORD administrator, told JTA Tuesday.

At issue is a ruling in May by a Cologne district court, which said that the circumcision of male infants may be done for only medical reasons. All other circumcisions of a minor would be considered inflicting bodily harm, according to the ruling. The case involved the circumcision of a Muslim boy, but affects both Jews and Muslims.

Although ritual circumcision remains legal, some hospitals have ceased offering the procedure while the debate rages. Meanwhile, mohels continue to perform ritual
circumcisions at private homes or synagogues, far from the public eye. Germany’s parliament has indicated it will step in with a law to protect ritual circumcision for Jews and Muslims.

Germany currently has an estimated 10 Jewish mohels, including women, who also are medical doctors specializing in urology. It is not clear whether they would receive the OK from a traditional rabbinate, however.

Jewish tradition requires that boys be circumcised on the 8th day after birth; postponement is possible in the case of illness.

Metzger addressed the Jewish community at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin on Monday, in a talk sponsored by the Jewish Community of Berlin, the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center of Berlin, several Chabad-related educational institutions in Berlin, Keren Hayesod and other local Jewish associations.

On Tuesday, the rabbi was accompanied by Berlin Chabad Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal in meetings with government officials. According to Die Welt newspaper, Metzger said that a proper brit milah does not cause suffering: “We give the infant a drop of sweet wine and then he falls asleep,” he said, adding that in the rare case of complications, doctors and not mohels are usually to blame.

German rabbi criminally charged for performing circumcisions


A rabbi in Bavaria has been slapped with criminal charges of committing bodily harm, in the first known case to arise from an anti-circumcision ruling in May.

The charge against Rabbi David Goldberg, who is a mohel, or ritual circumciser , means that the May decision in the state of Hesse has been applied in Bavaria, confirming the fears of Jewish leaders here that the local ruling would have a wider impact.

Goldberg, 64, a Jerusalem native living in Hof Saale in Bavaria, told JTA he had not yet received a notice from the court. He said he would decide what to do after he had seen it. The charge was confirmed to the main Jewish newspaper of Germany, the
Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung.

The rabbi also said he did not know what act the charges could refer to, since he has not performed any circumcisions recently in Germany. “Only abroad: in Budapest, in the Czech Republic, in Italy,” he said.

Still, the rabbi said no secular ruling would stop him from performing brit milah in the country. If a family in Germany came to him with a request to perform a circumcision, Goldberg said he would ask the Central Council of Jews in Germany what to do. “A few weeks ago, they said, ‘You can continue,’” he said.

Goldberg said regional journalists had informed him of the suit, saying it had been filed by a doctor in the state of Hessen who had gathered 600 signatures on an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that supported the anti-circumcision ruling. Merkel and the German parliament have said, however, that they intend to push for legislation to ensure that Jews and Muslims have the right to carry out the religious ritual.

The original ruling in May related to a Muslim family in Cologne whose son suffered complications after his circumcision. The court found that non-medical circumcision of a minor is a criminal act. Although the ruling was local, it has alarmed traditional Jews and Muslims across the country. Virtually all Jewish denominations have joined in condemning the ruling. This week, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yonah Metzger, was in Berlin for high level meetings on the issue.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence shows that Jewish ritual circumcisions continue to be performed in Germany despite the ruling’s chilling effect. Although several hospitals have declared moratoriums on the practice for now, brit milah is being performed in private homes and in synagogues.

The head of the Conference of European Rabbis, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, said of the lawsuit: “This latest development in Hof, Germany, is yet another grave affront to religious freedom and underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected.”

Report: N.Y. mohel apparently tested postive for herpes


A New York mohel tied to the death from herpes of one newborn and to three others who contracted the disease, apparently tested positive for herpes, The Jewish Week reported.

Yitzchok Fischer, who was ordered in 2007 to stop the circumcision ritual of metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel orally suctions blood from the circumcision wound, refused, however, to submit to a DNA test to determine if he is a match to the viruses found in the babies.

The Jewish Week reported April 6 that a copy of the 2007 New York State Health Department order obtained by the newspaper through a Freedom of Information Law request said that he tested positive for an infection that he was “capable of communicating to others.”

The order was redacted by the department to protect Fischer’s privacy, as required by law, and does not specifically mention herpes. But, according to reporter Hella Winston, “both the context of the order and the facts surrounding Fischer’s case strongly suggest that the infection for which, according to the order, he tested positive is herpes.”

The order also describes the investigation carried out by the city Health Department in the wake of three infections linked to Fischer in 2003 and 2004, The Jewish Week reported.

Several weeks ago, The Jewish Week obtained a tape recording indicating that Fischer may have continued to perform metzitzah b’peh after the order to desist was issued, according to the newspaper. When asked several weeks ago whether the state department of health would investigate Fischer in connection with a possible violation of the 2007 order, Mike Moran, a spokesman for the department, would not comment.

The New York City Health Department has issued a warning against the practice. Haredi leaders condemned the warning as an unnecessary and unwelcome government intrusion into their community’s religious practices.

Report: N.Y. mohel apparently tested positive for herpes


A New York mohel who performed the circumcision of one newborn who died of herpes and of three other infants who contracted the disease apparently tested positive for herpes, The New York Jewish Week reported.

Yitzchok Fischer, who was ordered in 2007 to stop the circumcision ritual of metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel orally suctions blood from the circumcision wound, refused, however, to submit to a DNA test to determine if he is a match to the viruses found in the babies.

The Jewish Week reported April 6 that a copy of the 2007 New York State Department of Health order obtained by the newspaper through a Freedom of Information Law request said that he tested positive for an infection that he was “capable of communicating to others.”

The department redacted the order to protect Fischer’s privacy, as required by law, and does not specifically mention herpes. But according to the newspaper, “both the context of the order and the facts surrounding Fischer’s case strongly suggest that the infection for which, according to the order, he tested positive is herpes.”

The order also describes the investigation carried out by the New York City Department of Health in the wake of three infections linked to Fischer in 2003 and 2004, The Jewish Week reported.

Several weeks ago, The Jewish Week wrote that it had obtained a tape recording indicating that Fischer may have continued to perform metzitzah b’peh after the order to desist was issued. Asked several weeks ago whether the state Department of Health would investigate Fischer in connection with a possible violation of the 2007 order, department spokesman Mike Moran would not comment.

The city health department has issued a warning against the practice. Haredi Orthodox leaders condemned the warning as an unnecessary and unwelcome government intrusion into their community’s religious practices.

Mohel performs 4,500th brit


A mohel in Ukraine performed his 4,500th ritual circumcision.

Rabbi Yaacov Gaissinovitch, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who also is a medical doctor, officiated at the landmark circumcision last week, the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk announced.

Gaissinovitch has served as a mohel for 13 years and often is required to travel throughout Ukraine and Moldova to perform a brit, according to Chabad.org. He sometimes performs five ritual circumcisions a day.

Chabad.org reported that Gaissonovitch once performed 22 in a day at a Jewish summer camp in Dnepropetrovsk—with parents’ permission.

“All the Jews of Dnepropetrovsk, as well as all the Jews of Ukraine … wish him and his wonderful wife, Lisa, a long life, success, good health, great joy from his family and his children, and the continual blessings of the Almighty,” read the statement.

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.”

Circumcision — the Ed Hardy way [VIDEO]


Adam Saaks doesn’t consider himself particularly religious, except when it comes to custom “cuTour,” his term for circumcising T-shirts. For Saaks, custom designing T-shirts by nipping and tucking the hems, cutting and lacing-up the sides, and netting and looping the front — using only scissors and tweezers — isn’t a mere fashion upgrade, but a religious experience.

Saaks is the exclusive T-shirt mohel (circumciser) for the fashion lines of French designer Christian Audigier. He specializes in Ed Hardy, the line incorporating designs of American tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy. The T-shirts are known for their colorful skulls, hearts, crossbones and flowers intertwined with messages like “Love Kills Slowly” and “Death or Glory.” They are a status symbol of “coolness” for young and old alike.

Saaks travels the world, making appearances at fashion shows, nightclubs and department stores, eight-inch chrome blades in hand, ready to transform — in a matter of minutes — already eye-catching, provocative T-shirts into sexualized form-fitted tops and dresses.

The final products might make the parents of any nice Jewish girl blush, even though Saaks counts among his devoted clients Jewish women — and their mothers.

“I went to Hebrew school on Saturday or Sunday — I don’t remember — and became a skateboarder and outcast,” Saaks said.

The Journal met with the 36-year-old artist at the flagship, multiroomed Christian Audigier store on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax avenues, a day before his trip to Egypt for the wedding of former Spice Girl Melanie Brown. Why not make a stop in Israel?

“I don’t have time,” he said, although it’s likely he’d be a big hit at the Ed Hardy store in Tel Aviv.

Saaks’ assimilation was preceded by that of his grandfather, who shortened the family name from “Isaaks” to “Saaks” when he came to America from Romania. The change was prophetic: Saaks’ girlfriend, a Croation-Swedish model, pointed out that sax means “scissors” in Swedish.

By the time his older siblings celebrated their bar mitzvahs, his parents grew less strict with tradition, not that he cared much.

Lately, though, he has developed a renewed Jewish pride, thanks in part to his belated bar mitzvah in Paris last year by a rabbi he met at a fashion showroom.

“This rabbi told me, ‘You weren’t bar mitzvahed? We’ll bar mitzvah you now!’ He put those straps on my arm and the box on my forehead, and I recited stuff.”

Normally he wears a Star of David consisting of a white gold chain, a white gold star and a charm of white platinum scissors studded with diamonds.

A wardrobe stylist for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles in 2001, Saaks said his talent was revealed to him at a trade show in Las Vegas in 2001. While he was helping a friend launch a T-shirt line, “one girl passing by wanted a shirt cut like something on the rack. I pulled her aside, did two cuts and drew a crowd of 50 people. They didn’t leave until I finished the shirt.”

Now he charges anywhere from $350 for a single brit milah (circumcision) to $5,000 for a booked event. His designs are sold off the rack at the Melrose store, but there is nothing like getting the T-shirt personally sliced on the wearer. All the wearer needs is a little faith.

Saaks’ promotional tours have surely helped the Ed Hardy line get more exposure (or shall we say, “overexposure”). Billboards dominate Los Angeles, celebrities prance around town wearing Audigier designs, but there may be another Jewish twist to Audigier’s success.

“We have mezuzahs all over the place. Christian has them on his house, on his office,” Saaks said, referring to the ritual boxes placed on doorposts of Jewish homes and businesses enclosing the sacred Jewish prayer to love God. “It’s not a Jewish-run company at all, but his mentors are pretty religious, people he grew up with, so they’re always guarding him.”

Indeed, all of the doors at the store had mezuzahs on them — but the cheap, uninspiring plastic variety the sofer (scribe) usually gives for free with the scroll. Audigier, with the help of Saaks and his Jewish friends, might want to think about a mezuzah line — minus the skulls and crossbones, but preserving the florals and the message, “love.”

This would certainly promote another mitzvah (commandment), in addition to circumcision — the Hardy way.

First Person – Snips and Snapshots


To snip or not to snip … that wasn’t the question. When my obstetrician asked me during my pregnancy what I planned to do about my son’s circumcision, he wasn’t referring to the health controversy that now seems as dated as whether to go Atkins or South Beach. Instead, he wanted to know whom I planned to entrust with this delicate task. I assumed it would be a mohel, but my doctor informed me that today’s parents have a wide array of options. I could also pick an obstetrician, a pediatrician, a pediatric urologist or the latest in full-service circumcision, the pediatric-urologist-turned-mohel.

I didn’t know what to do — and as a single mom, I didn’t have a husband around to offer some male input. It was almost like asking a father to have an informed opinion about his daughter’s bikini wax. Except that while a bad bikini wax might only ruin a spring break, my decision could affect my son’s sexuality for the rest of his life.

My obstetrician lobbied for the job, telling me that in more than 20 years, he only had to re-do one. The first time, he explained, he was so nervous, he barely took anything off and had to repeat the entire procedure from scratch. As frightening as this sounded, I felt reassured that he erred on the side of caution. I also liked that he had two decades of experience, but then I wondered: Has the technology changed? Maybe there was a new painless procedure, like the circumcision equivalent of LASIK? The more research I did, the more confused I got. There seemed to be heated debate about which type of anesthesia, antibiotic, and scalpel to use. Should I go with a guy who uses Elamax or kosher wine? Lidocaine or homeopathic ointments? The Mogen Shield or the Gomco clamp?

What I really wanted to see were before and after shots, the way surgeons whip out photos of boob jobs and Botox procedures. My friend Kim suggested that mohels compile photos of their work in a book titled, “Head Shots.” The closest I could come were testimonials on a Web site called eBris.com, home of pediatrician-turned-mohel Dr. Fred Kogen. There I found rave reviews from parents. A Mrs. Cohen, whose son is now in preschool, wrote: “I have had many, many occasions where I have had to change the diapers of other boys. I must tell you, our son has a perfect penis. Many of the other moms have commented to me how pretty Seth’s penis is compared to their sons.'” (Incidentally, for the rest of Seth Cohen’s life, everyone from future girlfriends to future employers can learn with a quick Google search that his mom thinks he has a “perfect penis.”)

Another parent wrote simply: “You have a great touch.” (The mohel with the great touch … hmm. It sounded a little Catholic church to me.)

Another parent wrote: “….Even our pediatrician said that you ‘did a fantastic job!’ We are attaching one of his photos, so you can see how much he has grown in just a few short weeks.”

I eagerly clicked on the photo. Incidentally, it was an actual head shot.

Aside from Kogen’s cheesy mass-market vibe (did I really want somebody with an 800 number cutting my son’s private parts?), I worried about the fact that Kogen claims to perform six to seven circumcisions each week. Would all of his work have the same cookie-cutter look, the way that girls who got nose jobs at my mostly Jewish high school and all went to the same brand name Beverly Hills surgeon now have exactly the same nose? Would my son’s girlfriends one day recognize a Kogen penis the way boys in my high school could identify a Glassman nose from across the cafeteria?

In the end, I decided to let my obstetrician do it. The fact that he forgot to circumcise Zach in the hospital and then went on vacation for a few days, gave me pause, but when his partner, who looks like he’s about 16 years old, offered to do it, I declined. If something went wrong, I didn’t want to have to explain to Zach that I let the junior guy in the practice slice and dice. Instead, my parents and I trekked over to my OB’s office for what I like to call an office bris.

For the next week, friends, family, and even colleagues called asking after my son’s genital region.

“I think it’s fine,” I’d say, and I’d report on the color of the scar tissue, the decreased use of gauze pads and the progression to a tub bath again.

Most important, Zach seemed pleased with the result. When I’d change his diaper and he’d pee against the wall, he’d laugh hysterically. Apparently, the pain was gone, and his equipment still worked right.

“Maybe that’s his testimonial,” my doctor chuckled at our next appointment.

“Yeah,” I replied, “Or maybe the joke is on us.”

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is the co-author of the forthcoming “I Love You, Nice to Meet You” (St. Martin’s Press). Her website is www.lorigottlieb.com.

 

Few Females Filling Mohel Role in U.S.


When Dr. Debra Weiss-Ishai watched her son’s brit milah two years ago, she thought to herself, I could do this better. Not just technically, although as a pediatrician she had done numerous medical circumcisions. She felt she could bring a warmth and spiritual beauty to the ritual in ways her old-school mohel, who she said “rushed through” the ceremony, did not.

Last April, Weiss-Ishai completed the Reform movement’s Berit Mila program, an intensive 35-hour certification course for physicians and nurse-midwives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She now has performed seven or eight Jewish ritual circumcisions in the San Francisco Bay area.

Weiss-Ishai spends hours preparing for each brit milah, working with the family to make sure the ceremony fits their needs, determining the level of Hebrew they want, incorporating friends and relatives and personalizing it with readings and poetry. Doing this work is her way of helping to ensure Jewish continuity, she said.

Weiss-Ishai is one of just a few female mohels in the United States. There are about 35 Reform female mohels and just four trained by the U.S. Conservative movement, as well as a handful who learned outside the United States.

It’s not surprising that throughout Jewish history mohels have been men. Circumcision is, after all, a guy thing. Beyond the obvious anatomical requirements, it’s something the Torah commands a father, not a mother, to do for his son on the eighth day of life.

What is surprising, however, is that while half of all new non-Orthodox rabbis and cantors in this country are women, few women are choosing to become mohels.

Yet unlike rabbis and cantors, there is no halachic prohibition against female mohels. Every Orthodox authority consulted for this story agreed on that point, although most asked not to be quoted. Jewish law states only that if a Jewish male is present, it’s preferable that he do the brit milah.

“It’s a custom, a strong custom, but there’s no law except that the mohel be Jewish,” said Rabbi Donni Aaron, director of the Reform Berit Mila program. “People assume it’s not according to halacha, but they just haven’t encountered it. Some people think it’s a man’s job, that it just feels weird” for a woman to do a brit milah.

Unlike physicians, mohels in the United States are not regulated, and technically, anyone can act as mohel if the parents trust him or her to perform the operation on their infant son. Traditionally, it’s been a profession passed on from father to son; even today, Orthodox and many Conservative mohels learn by apprenticing with a senior mohel, usually in Israel.

The Reform and Conservative movements set up their training programs because there were so few traditionally trained mohels available to serve the non-Orthodox community. The non-Orthodox movements, especially the Reform movement, needed their own mohels because Orthodox mohels generally are reluctant to circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother.

The Reform program, which has trained about 300 mohels since it began in 1984, and the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, which has trained about 75, both accept only physicians or nurse-midwives who already are experts in medical circumcision. The programs teach them the relevant halacha, rituals and textual background to perform a Jewish brit milah.

The training is similar, though Conservative mohels generally won’t circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother unless the parents intend to convert the child.

Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), said there was no problem admitting women to the Conservative program, which is run jointly by JTS and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“We considered it, we deliberated it and then we said, frankly it’s easier to train women for this role than to count them in the minyan,” Roth recalled. “We know it hasn’t been done historically, but there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t.”

The mohelot interviewed for this article said most clients choose them because of their reputation, not because they’re female.

“It works both ways,” said Ilene Gelbaum, a certified nurse-midwife in Anaheim, who became a mohel in 1986 and has since circumcised both her grandsons.

“Some people are pretty up front when they call,” she said. “They say they chose me because I’m female. And sometimes, you do what you think is a beautiful service and the grandfather comes up to you afterward and says you shouldn’t be doing it because you’re a woman.”

Dr. Lillian Schapiro said she “braced for a backlash” when the Atlanta Jewish Times ran a front-page story on her four years ago. It never came.

“There was one op-ed against me, but I didn’t feel personally attacked,” she said.

Gelbaum wasn’t as lucky. Beginning with a lecture she delivered in 1990 at the American College of Midwives conference in Atlanta, she’s been steadily targeted by the anti-circumcision movement. Protesters showed up at that first lecture bearing placards calling her a baby mutilator, she’s been vilified online and in print, and worst of all, she said, “They called my house, they talked to my children. They said, ‘Do you know what your mother does?'”

Gelbaum said she was targeted because she was so public. Although she’s now stopped lecturing about circumcision, she said it’s still not easy to talk about the campaign against her.

“I knew these people personally,” she said quietly. “And how much of it is anti-Semitism? Not only am I the vocal midwife, I’m the Jewish midwife.”

Female mohels said that as physicians, they feel comfortable doing circumcisions, and want to bring a Jewish aspect to what they already are doing.

Dr. April Rubin, an OB-GYN in Washington, had been doing circumcisions for more than 20 years when she became more observant. Two years ago, she completed the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, and has since done about 70 britei milah.

Some traditionally trained mohels look askance at these physician-mohels.

“They really don’t have a very solid background in the halacha,” said Rabbi Paul Silton, a Conservative rabbi in Albany, N.Y., who apprenticed with an Orthodox mohel in Jerusalem. “They’re physicians who want a sideline in brit milah, and I feel that’s unfortunate.”

The Conservative program requires applicants to be practicing members of Conservative congregations and ritually observant. The Reform program requires applicants to belong to any congregation, Reform or not, but makes no stipulations about ritual observance.

Some people choose a female mohel because of her gender, like Bay Area resident Nicole Sorger, who asked Weiss-Ishai to circumcise her son last November.

“The idea of having an old, bearded man was disconcerting, not being very religious,” Sorger said. Having Weiss-Ishai do the ceremony “broke up the idea of it being a male event, a patriarchal celebration. It made the ceremony so much more accessible to me.”

Dr. Laurie Radovsky, a Conservative mohel in St. Paul, Minn., circumcised her son 11 years ago in rural Wisconsin because no mohels lived nearby. Nine years later, she became a mohel herself.

Her male rabbi told her that women bring “a gentleness, a sensitivity” to the ceremony, but she said there are other advantages.

“With men, when you talk about circumcision, there’s an instinctive protecting of the genitals,” she said. “And as a mother, I can empathize with that mother’s feelings and tenderness toward that child. I can reassure her, perhaps more than a male mohel can.”

At the end of every brit milah, “sometimes surreptitiously,” Radovsky said she kisses the baby’s head to welcome him into the Jewish community.

“I really feel I can make a difference in the world,” she said.

 

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.

Â