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 said "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 said.
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, although 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," said Rabbi Donni Aaron, director of the Reform Berit Mila program. "People assume it's not according to halacha, 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 the United States 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 movement, needed their own mohels because 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 halacha, 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, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), said 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 recalled. "We know it hasn't been done historically, but there's no earthly reason why we shouldn't."
The mohelot interviewed for this article said most clients choose them because of their reputation, not because they're female.
"It works both ways," said Ilene Gelbaum, a certified nurse-midwife in Anaheim, who became a mohel in 1986 and has since circumcised both her grandsons.
"Some people are pretty up front when they call," she said. "They say they chose me because I'm female. And sometimes, you do what you think is a beautiful service and the grandfather comes up to you afterward and says you shouldn't be doing it because you're a woman."
Dr. Lillian Schapiro said she "braced for a backlash" when the Atlanta Jewish Times ran a front-page story on her four years ago. It never came.
"There was one op-ed against me, but I didn't feel personally attacked," she said.
Gelbaum wasn't as lucky. Beginning with a lecture she delivered in 1990 at the American College of Midwives conference in Atlanta, she's been steadily targeted by the anti-circumcision movement. Protesters showed up at that first lecture bearing placards calling her a baby mutilator, she's been vilified online and in print, and worst of all, she said, "They called my house, they talked to my children. They said, 'Do you know what your mother does?'"
Gelbaum said she was targeted because she was so public. Although she's now stopped lecturing about circumcision, she said it's still not easy to talk about the campaign against her.
"I knew these people personally," she said quietly. "And how much of it is anti-Semitism? Not only am I the vocal midwife, I'm the Jewish midwife."
Female mohels said 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 halacha," said Rabbi Paul Silton, a Conservative rabbi in Albany, N.Y., who apprenticed with an Orthodox mohel in Jerusalem. "They're physicians who want a sideline in brit milah, and I feel that's unfortunate."
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 said. 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 said there are other advantages.
"With men, when you talk about circumcision, there's an instinctive protecting of the genitals," she said. "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 said 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 said.