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Female Mohels Add Warmth — and Controversy — to Old Tradition

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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 says “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 says.

“There are so many unaffiliated Jews in the Bay Area, and I may be the first Jewish professional they meet,” she says. “Their experience can make them want to participate more in the Jewish community, or it can really turn them off. If you’re not sensitive to that, you can turn someone away from raising their kids Jewish.”

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, though 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,” says Rabbi Donni Aaron, director of the Reform Berit Mila Program. “People assume it’s not according to halachah, 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 this country 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, needed their own mohels since 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 halachah, 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, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says 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 recalls. “We know it hasn’t been done historically, but there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t.”

Dr. Lillian Schapiro, an OB-GYN in Atlanta, decided to become a mohel nine years ago at the suggestion of one of her patients, a female rabbi. There were no Reform mohels in the Atlanta area, Schapiro says, and many Reform couples were having their sons circumcised in the hospital, with just a naming ceremony the following week.

“It wasn’t kosher,” she states.

Female mohels say 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 halachah; they’re physicians who want a sideline in brit milah, and I feel that’s unfortunate,” says Rabbi Paul Silton, a Conservative rabbi in Albany, N.Y., who apprenticed with an Orthodox mohel in Jerusalem.

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 admits. 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 says there are other advantages.

“First, I don’t have a penis,” she says. “With men, when you talk about circumcision, there’s an instinctive protecting of the genitals. I’m a little more thick-skinned. 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 says, 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 says.

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