January 22, 2019

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.”