Interfaith Families for Whom I Have Performed a Brit Milah

By Mark Rubenstein


Interfaith couples can now turn to a Reform mohel, ritual circumciser, to celebrate their child’s brit milah, ritual circumcision, or brit bat chaim, ritual naming for females. Because Reform Judaism validates patrilineal and matrilineal descent equally, the religious background of the mother is not an issue.

In preparing for a brit milah I send the parents a ceremony outline which includes all the standard prayers plus a rather large number of optional readings gathered from great variety of sources. I strongly advise–almost to the point of insistence–that the parents assign readings to family members and friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I then bring enough copies for all who attend. After one such ceremony, the teary-eyed Catholic father of the infant’s mother came up to me saying, “Thank you for allowing me to participate. I was quite apprehensive about this event, but it’s really not so much about a circumcision as it is welcoming the child into the community.” These are the moments that I cherish.

Certainly no two families are alike, whether there is intermarriage or not. In my view, the ceremony should as much as possible reflect the philosophy and tastes of the parents and should be sensitive to the feelings of the non-Jews who have agreed to participate so that they feel welcome and included.

I recall that during my training by the Reform movement to serve as a mohel, which would certify me to perform the religious part of the ceremony (as a physician I had been doing the circumcision part for decades), the rabbi leading the session posed the following question: “What will you do if the couple calling you says that they would like to have a brit for their son, but that they intend to have him baptized at a later date?”

My approach is usually to only perform the brit milah for those boys whose parents have chosen to raise him as a Jew. Nevertheless, I must admit to an occasional exception. A gentleman telephoned me saying that he was the fourth of four sons born to completely non-observant Jewish parents and that his parents and all siblings were deceased. He was married to an Asian Catholic woman, had a newborn son, and wanted a brit milah for him. When I asked him how he intended to raise his son, he responded that he would like to think that he could expose him to the beauties of both religions but that he was determined to learn more about Judaism for his own sake. I told him that I felt it was a mistake to expect a child to choose his own religion and that such a situation more often than not is merely confusing for the child. He asked if that meant that I would not perform the ceremony. In my experience, trying to raise a child with two religious backgrounds is often the result of familial pressures. However, I felt that this man was in search of a Jewish identity which had not previously been present in his life. I agreed to perform the brit milah. At his home, I saw a picture of him and his wife under a chuppah, Jewish wedding canopy, him with tallit, or prayer shawl, and kippah, or head covering. He told me that both a rabbi and a priest had performed his wedding. He and his wife were exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to welcome their child into the klal Yisrael, Jewish people, and in fact called me when their second son was born.

On another occasion I received a brit milah request from a man I’ll call Juan who had a Latino surname. He said that he was Jewish, his wife was not and that they intended to raise the boy as a Jew. We arranged to do the ceremony at his parents’ home at his request. His parents, who spoke excellent English with a pronounced South American accent, were extremely welcoming and gracious.

I told Juan that I was curious about his Latino surname to which he responded that his parents were from South America. Further, three years previously, he and his younger brother had gone there to gather genealogic data from their maternal grandmother. During the ensuing discussion, “Grandma” mentioned that her family had been Marranos, secret or Crypto-Jews. Juan turned to his mother and asked why she had never told him this, to which she replied that this was news to her as well. She said that she had always felt that her family was separate and different from the neighboring families, but that she had no idea that they had a Jewish background. As a result of this encounter, Juan and his brother decided that if Grandma was Jewish, then it followed that their mother and they were Jewish. His brother promptly went off to Israel where he stayed on a kibbutz for six months to learn more and both brothers began to practice Judaism.

At the end of the ceremony during which Juan’s mother held the baby acting as sandek–the person, traditionally a grandparent, who holds the baby for the bris–as I was chanting the priestly benediction in Hebrew while the assembled responded in English, I noticed that Juan’s father was responding in Spanish. Later, while we were having a glass of wine and a nosh, I asked him what he does for a living. He responded, “I’m a minister of the Gospel. I’ve had a Latino congregation here for the past thirty years.” This couple was totally supportive of their sons’ decision to fully embrace their Jewish heritage. Talk about interfaith!


About Mark Rubenstein

Mark Rubenstein is a sixty-eight-year-old retired pediatrician, married to Dr. Yvonne LaLanne, a retired chiropractor. He is the father of four and grandfather of two--for one of whom he performed a brit milah and for the other a brit bat chaim.