Photo: Noah Manheimer
I don’t know how we found the mohel (ritual circumciser) who circumcised our oldest son 38 years ago, but the most memorable thing about him was his trembling hand. As he lowered his knife, I thought my physician father-in-law would faint. Suddenly, the mohel’s hand became sure and steady, my father-in-law looked with a smile, and everyone exhaled.
My wife met the mohel who performed the b’rit milah (the covenant of circumcision, sometimes called a bris) on our second son when he presented her with his card in the maternity ward of the hospital. He turned out to be the stand-up-comic kind of mohel. His Catskill humor shtick managed to reduce the anxiety level in the room but made a sideshow of the main event.
In those days, we didn’t inquire in advance about the religious beliefs, surgical methods, or even the fees of thesemohalim; nor did we inform them about our own predilections. Most of the practitioners in our neighborhood were Orthodox men with Yiddish accents, and we didn’t think we had much of a say.
Flash forward to the start of 2015, when my daughter Mimi and her husband Wes were expecting their first child, a son. Their first thought was to have the bris in a hospital or doctor’s office on the eighth day, and they invited me to recite the appropriate blessings for a kosher b’rit milah.
I consulted Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, director of the Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism, which since 1984 has trained and certified more than 300 licensed physicians and nurse midwives as officiants of this ancient Jewish rite.
Rabbi Adler advised against the hospital or doctor’s office option. “Hospitals,” she said, “are designed to be antiseptic, an atmosphere that diminishes the warmth and specialness that mohalim bring to this communal rite.”
“And today,” she pointed out, “it is easier than ever before to find a mohel or mohelet (female mohel) whose values and philosophy reflect those of the couple both ritually and medically.
The first step is to check out this “Find a Mohel/et” directory of Reform mohalim in your area. Next, look at their online information and call with any questions or concerns you might have, such as:
- Will you be available around the time the baby is due?
- How do we determine the eighth day in terms of Jewish law?
- Do you use anesthesia? If so, which one and why?
- Do you give different family members roles in the ceremony? If so, what are they?
- Is the entire circumcision done for all to witness, or is a preliminary stage done privately?
- What preparations do we need to make before and after the b’rit milah?
A month before her due date, Mimi contacted several mohalim on beritmila.org and felt an immediate affinity for Lucy Eisenstein Waldman, a mohelet and mother of four sons, who explained the what would happen during the process both spiritually and medically. And, coincidentally, Lucy had received her midwife training with the practice that would be delivering Mimi’s child.
On the day of my grandson Edwin’s birth, my son-in-law phoned Lucy to set the time of the ceremony, which was to be held in the family’s Brooklyn apartment.
“Eight days later,” Wes said, “Lucy did an admirable job of seamlessly juggling the spiritual and medical elements of the brit milah — and during it all while keeping the baby calm. She also made the ceremony understandable to our non-Jewish friends in the room and included our long-distance family watching via FaceTime. Most significantly, the ceremony affirmed our son’s identify as a Jew and his commitment to Judaism in the presence of his community, even though he doesn’t know it yet.”
Finding the right mohel is a lot easier today than it was in my generation.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s Editor-at-Large
One of a handful of mohelets learned the trade after negative experiences with her own sons’ circumcisions.
Every January, newspapers fill with photos of the first babies of the secular year. Now Lucy Waldman — one of a handful of mohelets, or female mohels — in the United States, is running a baby contest for the Jewish New Year.
Waldman, who also works as a nurse midwife and childbirth educator, was certified as a mohelet in 2010 through a program of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2010. In her first annual “New Year, New Baby Contest,” (the first baby born in 5774 will win a $100 gift card for Diapers.com and be featured on Mama Mohel, Waldman’s blog.
With four sons, Waldman, 43, has been both a consumer and provider of circumcision service: in fact, negative experiences with her older sons’ brisses spurred her to learn the trade herself.
The Jewish Week spoke with Waldman, who lives in Short Hills, N.J. and works throughout the New York area, by phone this week. The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Jewish Week: What was your experience like with your sons’ mohels?
Waldman: My first son was with an Orthodox mohel who actually used a glass pipette and did metzitzah [a controversial ritual in which the mohel sucks the blood from the penis]. As a certified nurse-midwife, I’d been doing circumcisions in the hospital for years, so I stood over this mohel to watch, and I was horrified. What I was concerned about, and went to an urologist to confirm, was that he had taken off too much. The bleeding was immense and the healing was concerning. For someone who does circumcisions and had a pretty good handle on what to expect during the ceremony, it was, from my perspective, so over-the-top upsetting. … Then, with my twins, the [Conservative] rabbi was an hour and 45 minutes late, and was quite rude. Again, one of my sons needed an urologist to correct the circumcision. For the fourth son, I used a Conservative rabbi referred by my rabbi [Steven Bayar at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn]. He said, “He’s not particularly pleasant or kind, but he does a good circumcision.” After that, Rabbi Bayar said, “Go get certified, we need you!”
If you are Conservative, why did you get certified through the Reform movement?
Another midwife who’s also a mohelet recommended this program, and I did it with my rabbi’s blessing. It was a four-day intensive study of the halacha [Jewish law] of brit milah, studying from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. just of Torah study: what’s OK and what’s not OK. It was wonderful. I went to a Schechter [Conservative day] school [The Brandeis School in Lawrence, L.I.] as a girl, so I’d studied Torah before, but studying as an adult was magnificent … As a mohelet, I don’t just serve Reform Jews; I work with everybody but the Orthodox, and even with some Orthodox. I always say, “Make sure your family is OK with this. Once a bris got cancelled, because one of the grandmothers couldn’t handle [having a female mohel]. But I’ve done many ceremonies where there were Orthodox guests, and they always have something lovely to say, which is nice.
Is there any halachic prohibition against women serving as mohels?
When I first start exploring this seriously, I Googled and found a JTA article from the 1990s about whether or not mohelot were halachically correct. Here’s the neat thing: Tziporah [Moses’ wife] in the Bible set a precedent by doing her sons’ circumcision with the flint. If you go to the Gemara, it will say a woman is OK, but only if there are no men available … In the JTA article, it said a number of Orthodox rabbis interviewed said it was OK within halacha [for women to be mohelot], but what’s interesting is they all refused to have their names mentioned.
How does your experience as a mother affect your work?
I know what a new mother is experiencing, and my priority is to keep the baby safe, do a quality circumcision and make sure everyone in the family is comfortable, Mom and Dad especially. We have a number of discussions before the bris, but when I walk into the bris room, the first thing I do is take Mom, Dad and baby into a separate room and have a quiet moment, get them in tune with what’s next. When parents say they’re scared, I say that’s understandable. My goal is for the parents to feel the beauty of the welcome ceremony. It’s a sacred event. I love when the mom or dad says, “I felt it.” That’s when I know I’m OK.
A lot of liberal and secular Jews are opting not to have a brit milah nowadays or even a circumcision, with some feeling it is cruel or barbaric. Have you encountered families in which one parent doesn’t want to circumcise the child, and how do you deal with that?
I won’t do Brit Shalom — that’s what they call a bris without circumcision … There are a lot of families that call and want me to do a circumcision but “without all those blessings and prayers and stuff.” I tell them I’m happy to do a secular circumcision for you, but that’s not a bris, they’re not synonymous. … Generally after a conversation, most families I speak with feel more comfortable. I say that everyone needs to be on board, and if they’re not, that needs to be worked out ahead of time.
What’s the case you make for families that are on the fence about whether or not to have a bris?
There’s such a clear benefit from circumcision regarding [mitigating] the risk of HPV and HIV, both of which can be life threatening, and we all want to protect our children. But when asked, I’ll tell people what I feel, but it’s a personal decision and I’m not the spokesperson for circumcision, although I do believe in it. There are lots of good and very valid [medical] reasons to do circumcision, but the reason we’re in this room is for this special ceremony, this welcome after the eighth day, which we do because we were asked to do it, because it was put forth in the first book of the Bible.
I know a lot of your clients are interfaith families. Will you do a bris if the father is Jewish, but the mother is not?
Because I was certified by the Reform movement, I definitely accept patrilineal descent. However, I have to make sure the mom who is not Jewish is board with raising the baby in Judaism … What’s neat is that it’s often a spiritual experience for the gentiles at the bris, as well as the Jews. One grandma said after a bris, “I’m not Jewish, but I felt the beauty.”
You’re a midwife and a mohelet. Have you ever done a bris for a baby you delivered?
I’ve definitely circumcised babies I’ve delivered in the hospital, but I haven’t performed a bris for a baby I delivered. A number who I’ve done childbirth education for, but I have not caught a baby and then eight days later done a brit milah.
Your mohelet practice, Birth to Bris (http://www.birthtobris.com/), includes childbirth education and brit milah, but not childbirth itself. Why?
I work part-time at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, but mostly doing prenatal care with their Medicaid patients. Bris and childbirth education is more schedulable than birthing, so for me, as a parent of four children working around soccer games and baseball games, it’s a little easier. It’s still hard, since people can’t plan more than eight days in advance, but it mostly works out. I also have an au pair and a very good husband.
What’s the best part about your job?
What I love is that there’s so much good will in the room. Everyone is there in support and with love and good wishes, everyone is happy, joyful and is feeling tremendous amounts of love. I love knowing the baby is going to be OK. I love working with young families. The first couple of weeks after birth a mother is almost in a hallucinatory state from hormones and sleep deprivation, and I love being able to be there for them.
Class of ’91 | If you want something done right, do it yourself. Lucy Eisenstein Waldman Nu’91, a nurse midwife,took that saying to heart by becoming one of a handful of female mohels (someone who performs Jewish ritual circumcisions) in the United States.
When she was eight months pregnant with her fourth son, she mentioned offhandedly to her new rabbi in Millburn, New Jersey, that she wished she herself could perform her son’s circumcision at his bris eight days after his birth. “That way,” she recalls saying, “I could be sure he’d be all right.”
Waldman, after all, was a practicing midwife who regularly performed male circumcisions. Even as a nursing undergraduate at Penn, she found herself leaning toward direct patient care, and she went on to earn her master’s in nurse midwifery at Columbia. (She has been on the staff of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan since 1995.)
But when standing over the mohel who performed her first son’s bris, she was unpleasantly surprised by the amount of bleeding. When her twin sons had their brises two years later, the (different) mohel also proved unsatisfactory. Enough, Waldman thought, was enough.
Waldman’s rabbi recommended a mohel-certification program for health-care professionals already competent in circumcision. Becoming a mohel requires an intensive program of religious study, even for medical professionals.
Waldman attended such a course through the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Brit Mila program in Los Angeles, passing an exam that enabled her to become certified as a mohel.
Waldman now performs brit mila (Hebrew for the bris ceremony) between three and eight times a month, and describes it as having become her “passion.” Her practice is called Birth to Bris (birthtobris.com), and she often works with interfaith and same-sex couples, making a particular effort to be inclusive on all levels.
“It is important that both parents are in agreement about wanting brit mila, and also that both parents and their families and friends feel welcomed and understand what, exactly, we are celebrating,” Waldman says. “For goodness sake, we are celebrating a new life, along with 6,000 years of tradition!”
Waldman also brings her own experience as a mother of four boys to bear.
“When I do brit mila, I bring my own experiences with brit mila and try to do the complete opposite,” Waldman laughs, recalling her dissatisfaction with her own children’s experiences. “Instead of rushing out of the house, I stay to help the parents change baby’s first diaper— that’s scary stuff! Instead of insisting on my own ceremonial details, I ask the family what they want to bring to their baby’s ceremony—is it a prayer, reading, or special kiddush cup?” Waldman also makes sure to do follow-up visits with the baby (and his often overtired parents), with what she calls a “woman’s touch.”
“I’ve gotten wonderful responses, even though I’m in a traditionally male role,” Waldman says.
Women cannot be certified as mohels in the Orthodox movement, but they can in Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative circles. There is an ongoing debate among the Orthodox as to whether women can perform the sacred rite, though the reluctance to accept them in that capacity is based more on tradition than on halacha (Jewish law). While many people are still more accustomed to the idea of male mohels, female mohels, or mohelets, are gaining adherents among new parents.
Though there are no precise numbers available, there are probably fewer than 50 female mohels in the US. Reform Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, who runs the HUC program, says that her program has never not certified women as mohels. Conservative Rabbi Leonard Scharzer, a physician who serves as associate director for bioethics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, estimates that a third of the trainees in JTS’s certification program for mohels in recent years have been women.
“It’s very important these days surrounding the ritual of brit mila that parents feel empowered in the decision-making,” Scharzer says. “Some parents may feel more comfortable having a woman [as a mohel], and that option should be open to them.”
And Waldman loves being a mohel.
“First, you will never find as much love and support as there is in a room filled with family and friends sharing the joy and celebration of a new life,” she says. “Next, I love hearing, ‘What? It’s finished? But the baby didn’t cry!’ And I love the relief that floods the room, when I show this newly circumcised boy to his mother, father, or grandparents for inspection, just after the deed. But what I like most is when a new mom will tell me that she was indeed able to appreciate the ceremony and day in a spiritual way—because she felt certain her baby would be well taken care of.”
—Jordana Horn Gordon C’95 L’99
New Jersey Jewish News
by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer
July 21, 2010
Mother of four performs brit mila with ‘warmth’
When Lara Allen-Brett and her husband, Matthew Brett, of Short Hills were awaiting the birth of their third child, a son, in February and began planning the bris, they knew they wanted a mohel who was more than simply competent in the technical aspects of the ritual circumcision (though that, of course, was also essential). “We wanted someone warm, someone we could relate to,” said Allen-Brett.
The mohel who performed their first son’s bris, she said, was somewhat cold and difficult to relate to.
So this time, they chose Lucy Waldman, who, they said, was just what they were looking for.
Waldman, a Short Hills resident and practicing certified nurse-midwife for 15 years, received mohelet certification in February. (While technically she is a “mohelet,” she prefers the more familiar “mohel.”) With four sons of her own, ranging in age from four to eight, she herself had had less than satisfactory experiences with three different mohalim. With the first two — the second and third boys are twins — there were competency issues, she said. The last one “was competent but he had no kindness. He was rude, brusque, not really compassionate. This is a very rough time for a mom, and to acknowledge that is very important. If we are going to keep this sacred tradition going, we need better options.”
As a mohel, Waldman said, “I have compassion as a woman and as a mother.”
She also has plenty of professional experience performing medical circumcisions. She’s been on the staff at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York since 1995. “I’ve been doing circumcisions all these years. Every Monday all the babies that need circumcisions are done by me.”
Waldman went through the intensive training program offered by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and followed up with several weeks of learning with her own rabbi, Steven Bayar, at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.
Waldman, Allen-Brett said, helped make Max’s bris “a serene experience — she had a calming presence…. As a mommy, she knows what a bris is like. She knew what to say to make me feel calm. I felt really connected spiritually.”
Allen-Brett felt her choice was beshert, meant to be — the two had met years earlier in Manhattan, when she took Waldman’s childbirth class in preparation for delivering her first child, a daughter now seven years old.
Raised in a Conservative congregation in Lawrence, NY, Waldman, who attended day school, views becoming a mohel as a “fusion” of her faith and her professional experience. “Being Jewish is a cornerstone of who I am as a person. Becoming a mohel is obvious; it makes such good sense. It’s a perfect match for me given that I’m also a midwife.”
There are surprisingly few women among mohalim serving throughout the United States. There is nothing halachically impermissible about it, but many Orthodox communities retain the custom of using men. Among liberal movements, the 2010 directory of the National Organization of American Mohalim of the Reform movement lists only 26 women out of 121 affiliated mohalim. (These include a handful of nurse-midwives, as well as Dr. Susan Roth Pitman, who has an OB/GYN practice in West Orange.) The Conservative movement, through its Brit Kodesh program, has trained approximately 90 mohalim, including 10 women, according to the Rabbinical Assembly’s Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman.
So far, Waldman has performed just the one brit mila, an experience that, she said, “was marvelous. It was a really special first bris.”
The only thing she would change? “I’d wear a bobby pin in my kipa next time.” When she was wrapping up the baby after the circumcision, her purple suede kipa flipped off her head. “I said, ‘Whoops!’ It’s not something people want to hear at a bris.”
The Item of Millburn and Short Hills
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Resident becomes a rarity in religious field
BY KATIE PANICALI
Township resident Lucy Waldman has been a practicing nurse-midwife since 1995. This past February, she added another credential to her name: Certified Mohel.
In the Jewish religion, a mohel performs circumcision. Traditionally, mohelim are men. Waldman explained that although they do exist, mohelot (the plural of the female “mohelet”) are rare.
Waldman’s experiences with her four young sons prompted her to take the path to becoming a mohel and providing the support that a family should have.
“I saw a need in the community,” said Waldman. Having performed newborn circumcision as part of her medical practice, she felt that she could provide a good bedside manner and calming presence for families whose religion dictates that the procedure be performed at home.
The idea first occurred to Waldman 15 years ago when she met a fellow certified midwife in California, who was also a mohel. Waldman ran her thoughts past Orthodox family members.
“They were dismissive and downright negative,” said Waldman. “They said ‘no one would use you.'” She forgot about it.
When Waldman recently picked up the path she laid aside all those years ago, she found support in what she thought was a surprising place. “I had strong encouragement from a male rabbi,” she said. Rabbi Stephen Bayar of Temple B’nai Israel made himself available to Waldman during her journey, offering help and clarification.
“It’s very rare,” said Bayar. “I don’t know of any other woman practitioner in the area.”
Waldman was certified in the Reform Movement, and Bayar was able to answer her questions about the Conservative Movement. “It’s like any woman trying to break into a male-dominated profession,” he added. “She’s a very strong and directed woman – and it takes a very strong and directed woman to do it.”
Waldman said Bayar was there for her during her final report exam at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
“I got word of passing the exam in February,” she said, which was good news, since someone was already hoping to use her at the end of the month.
She’s found herself doing more secular work than religious so far, noting that her certification as a mohel seems to make people more comfortable. Medical professionals are also apt to refer people to her.
As for her family members, Waldman had tentatively revealed her plans to become a mohel to them again, before she left for California. “Their attitudes had changed over the years” she said. “They were supportive!” When asked what she attributed the change of heart to, she suggested emphatically, “Women are closer than ever to being accepted in the Orthodox community.”