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Interfaith Bris: Jewish Complications and Resources

Like many people, pregnancy got Jon and Louise* thinking about religion. Jon was born Jewish but was raised in a secular family. Louise, a non-Jew, suggested they take a basic Judaism course to learn more about their soon-to-be-born child's Jewish heritage. Although most of the people in the class were there for the purpose of converting, that wasn't part of Jon and Louise's agenda.

We went for knowledge," said Jon. But under the tutelage of a "wonderful" rabbi they quickly became so engaged with Judaism that they decided to keep a Jewish home and Louise wanted to convert. "We learned," said Jon, "that as long as the mother is Jewish before the baby is born, the child is Jewish. So we doubled up on classes and my wife converted."

Shortly before their due date, Jon contacted a mohel, or person who performs ritual circumcisions, in case their first born was a boy. During the course of the conversation, Jon told the mohel that Louise had undergone a Conservative conversion. There was an uncomfortable pause.

It was clear that as an Orthodox Jew he didn't consider my wife Jewish," said Jon. But Jon explained that they kept a Jewish house, that his wife considered herself Jewish, and that their children would be raised Jewish. The mohel agreed to perform the bris, or ritual circumcision.

Eight days after Adam was born, the family celebrated his bris. The mohel came with two other men, members of the beit din, or rabbinic court. After the ceremony the mohel gave Jon a certificate indicating that the bris was Adam's first step toward becoming a Jew.

"I don't know the effect of the certificate," said Jon, although he understands that it "means that this child isn't Jewish yet, but he's on the road."

Although Jon and Louise were not bothered by the certificate or its implications, Dr. Fred Kogen is.

"It's not a bris," Kogen says, "because it's being performed with a reservation. The mohel is saying, 'I am performing this bris in anticipation of a formal conversion.' "

Kogen, or Dr. Fred as he calls himself, is a new breed of mohel--Reform and Conservative Jewish doctors and nurse practitioners who are trained at Hebrew Union College or The Jewish Theological Seminary to perform brises. These mohelim and mohelot, males and females, perform traditional brises without reservations for interfaith couples as well as for families in which the mother went through a non-Orthodox conversion.

"An Orthodox mohel adhering to halacha (traditional Jewish laws) will not do a bris for an interfaith couple where the mother isn't Jewish," says Kogen. However, since Orthodox mohelim need to make a living, Kogen says some will agree to do a bris even though the mother, and therefore her baby, don't meet their own criteria. According to Kogen, in these instances a variety of things can happen. The mohel may include a blessing that the bris is being done "in anticipation of conversion." Or the attending members of the beit din perform a conversion on the infant. And on other occasions prayers are either modified or not said, so technically the bris isn't kosher, according to Jewish law.

For many years, interfaith couples had no options because all mohelim were Orthodox men. If an interfaith family came to them (Orthodox mohelim), the family would be rejected." says Dr. Mark Rubenstein a retired pediatrician who lives in Walnut Creek, California and is also trained as a Reform mohel. Rubenstein estimates that 75% of the brises he performs are for interfaith families. He took the HUC course in 1990. "It was a wonderful program. There were twenty-four hours of class work, which was primarily to give the spiritual, historical and religious significance of the brit milah (circumcision). It was not intended to be surgical training. It was assumed we already knew that."

Doctors and nurse practitioners learn how to do circumcisions during their medical training, but Orthodox mohelim usually are not medical doctors. The training of Orthodox mohelim, which only takes place in Israel, is limited to performing ritual circumcisions.

But seeing a need for Reform and Conservative mohelim and mohelot, in 1984 HUC began training Jewish doctors and nurse practitioners to perform brises. Kogen took the course in 1985. Seven years ago he gave up his medical practice to be a full-time mohel. Although based in Southern California, he travels around the country and, on occasion the world, to perform brises and estimates that he had done 4,000 circumcisions. He feels that he is performing a valuable service because he is available at all times and is willing to travel. The majority of mohelim and mohelot are located in New York and California, making it difficult for families in the rest of the country to find someone to officiate at a bris.

"It's more complicated than you think," says Kogen of performing brises. The parents are handing the mohel the most important thing in the world to them and asking him or her to perform an operation. "They want it done as quickly and painlessly as possible and, at the same time, to make sure everyone feels comfortable," explains Kogen who, unlike Orthodox mohelim uses a topical anesthetic. Given all these factors, he is amazed at how casually many parents go about hiring a mohel, without asking basic questions like how many circumcisions he or she has performed. His web site, www.briss.com, explains the procedure, tells families what they have to do to prepare for a bris and also suggests questions to ask a potential mohel.

For the interfaith family there is the added factor of making sure that the non-Jewish family members are included, and that they understand and appreciate the significance of the ceremony. For many, this is their first introduction to Judaism. (For some suggestions on including the non-Jewish family, see Anita Diamant's The New Jewish Baby Book.)

The Resource Directory published by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Penninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties and the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California includes a listing of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform mohelim and mohelot.

In a few days Jon and Louise will have another baby. They don't know whether it will be a boy or a girl and they have Dr. Fred on call, just in case. Although Jon raves about their family's first bris and would not hesitate to recommend the Orthodox mohel who officiated, this time they decided to go with a Reform one.


* For reasons of privacy the parents requested that their names be changed.

Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Rabbinic court involved in matters of Jewish law, including conversion and traditional divorce procedures. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern Calif.

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