Meet The Mohelim
These six Detroiters talk about performing the mitzvah of brit milah.
It’s a boy!
Once you catch your breath and notify your families, who ya gonna call? Probably the mhel, the person responsible for conducting the ritual circumcision ceremony.
The brit milah (literally “covenant of circumcision,” commonly called “bris” by ashkenazi Jews) is probably the oldest custom in Judaism and the most universally practiced.
In the Book og Genesis, God tels Abraham to circumcise himself, his sons and all the males in his household, the first commandment given specifically to Jews.
Since then, Jewish baby boys have been circumcised at the age of 8 days, health permitting, as a mark of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Detroit is fortunate to have six practicing mohelim as well as some who perform the rite only for their own family members and close friends.
The group includes a cantor, three rabbi/educators and two physicians, representing the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions.
Cantor Sam Greenbaum
Samuel Greenbaum of West Bloomfield, cantor emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, is the dean of the Detroit mohelim. He estimates he’s performed more than 12,000 circumcisions over 47 years.
Greenbaum became a mohel shortly before he graduated from the Cantor’s Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 1967.
“One of my teachers encouraged the students to study brit milah because we could be going to an area where there were no mohelim,” he said. And, he added, it’s a good way to get close to families.
Greenbaum studied with Harry Bronstein, one of the busiest mohelim in New York. “He was a master at what he did,” he said.
Greenbaum accompanied Bronstein as he trained medical residents to do circumcisions and also studied the Jewish law of brit milah.
One of his first brits was that of his son, Alex, who was born shortly after the Greenbaums moved to Portland, Ore., for the cantor’s first full-time job.
A few decades later, he did the brit for his oldest grandchild, Justin, now 17, just before Alex and his wife, Amy, were ordained as rabbis at JTS.
He’s done many more brits for the sons of babies he has circumcised, and is looking forward to doing his first third-generation brit.
The Rabbis Cohen: Avraham and Ezra
Detroit has father-and-son mohelim, both rabbi/educators who live and work in Southfield.
Being a mohel is a great profession. The pay’s not so hot, but you get a lot of tips.
That’s one of the few mohel jokes we can print in a family newspaper.
“At every bris, some uncle will tell me one of three mohel jokes and is always convinced I’d never heard it before. I defy anyone to bring a new joke,” said Adam Cooper.
His favorite is probably the one about a newborn talking to his older brother. The infant remarks that there are a lot of people coming to the house. The older one says it’s for the bris, and he remembers his own bris. The baby asks if it hurt. The older one says, “I couldn’t walk for a year!”
Cantor Greenbaum tells that one, too, and also likes to note that a physician may carry a black bag but a mohel carries a bris-kit.
Rabbi Ezra Cohen’s favorite mohel joke is actually a true story. His grandfather was a rabbi/mohel in Rochester, N.Y., and one day he was stopped for speeding. The officer asked him the name of his congregation and then asked him if he knew a certain woman. The rabbi did. She was the officer’s mother. “I did your bris!” said the rabbi. “I can’t give my mohel a ticket,” said the cop, and let him off. ■
Avraham (Avi) Cohen, 62, became a mohel in 1980, following in the footsteps of his own father, who taught him the laws and customs.
During a six-month stay in Israel as a young father of two girls, the oldest of his nine children, he was ordained as a rabbi, studied scribal arts and learned to do brit milah from Rabbi Yosef Dovid Weisberg, a well-known Jerusalem mohel.
“It was very intensive,” he said. The students did eight to 12 cicumcisions every day. “We saw all kinds of unusual and difficult cases. By the time I came back to Detroit, I was completely proficient.”
He’s done thousands of brits since then.
His first brit as a mohel was for the son of longtime friend, Rabbi E.B. “Bunny” Freedman.
“It was very gratifying that he asked me. I can’t say I wasn’t nervous; your heart is always thumping. But I felt very good about it,” he said.
Shortly afterward, his son Ezra was born. Rabbi Avraham performed his brit and soon after, the brit of his wife’s cousin’s son. “By that point, people in the community were comfortable seeing me do the bris,” he said.
Rabbi Avraham works for Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s Partners in Torah, leading the popular Tuesday night one-on-one study program.
One of his most memorable brits was in Azerbaijan, south of Russia. A mother and grandmother asked him to circumcise a 1-year-old boy. The father, who was not Jewish, was not too keen on the idea so they did it semi-secretly.
Ezra Cohen, 33, did his first brit for his son, Avraham, who will be 8 in August. He was living in Israel at the time, but his father was at his side. He hadn’t yet had any formal training, though he’d been accompanying and assisting his father for years.
When he was young, his father referred to him and his brothers as “MMITs” — miniature mohelim in training, said Rabbi Ezra. Three of the boys did become mohelim; the others are in Long Branch, N.J. and Israel.
“Of course, I was nervous,” Ezra said, recalling the event, “but I was also excited. Having my father next to me was a very comforting thing.”
When he returned to Detroit from Israel shortly after his son was born, he started going to every brit his father did. He regards the brit for his second son, Shlomo, in January 2009 as “the bris where I became a mohel.”
Rabbi Ezra now has seven children, including three boys.
“I feel my training was the best it could be. My teacher watched every one of the first 30 or so brissim I did. It was continuous training,” he said.
In addition to being a mohel, Rabbi Ezra teaches seventh grade at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.
Rabbi Ezra and Rabbi Avraham still attend each other’s brits when they can and cover for each other when one is unable to do a requested brit or make a follow-up visit.
Like Rabbi Ezra Cohen, Rabbi Yosef Weingarden followed his physician father as a mohel. Dr. Saul Weingarden has been a mohel for 36 years, though he now performs brits only for family members and friends.
“My father was my primary teacher and still attends most of my brissim,”said Weingarden, 34, of Southfield.
He also studied with a number of mohelim while he was learning in New York and, in 2009, he did an intensive three-week apprenticeship in London with a rabbi. In addition to studying the laws of brit milah, he did three or four circumcisions every day in hospitals, under close supervision.
Who takes part in the ceremony?
There are several ceremonial roles in the brit milah: the kvatter and kvatterin, usually translated as godparents, bring the baby to the mohel. The sandek, a position of high honor, traditionally holds the baby in his lap during the circumcision. If the parents or the sandek are nervous about this, the sandek can stand next to the mohel and hold the baby’s hand.
What else is involved?
The brit milah ceremony includes several blessings about the ritual itself and the wish: “Even as this child has entered into the covenant so may he enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy and good deeds.” The baby’s Hebrew name is formally announced after the circumcision. The ceremony is followed by a festive meal.
Is anesthesia used?
Most Orthodox mohelim do not use anesthetics, although there’s no religious prohibition against doing so. Rabbi Avraham Cohen feels injecting anesthetic is more painful than the snip; not only is it an injection, but the solution can burn before it numbs. Craig Singer uses lidocaine buffered with bicarbonate to eliminate the burning sensation.
How long does it take?
The brit milah ceremony takes about 15 or 20 minutes. The actual snip takes about 20 seconds.
What about women?
There’s no religious prohibition against a woman serving as a mohelet, but the only women now practicing have been trained in programs sponsored by the Conservative and Reform movements.
What about adults who need a brit?
Men who are not circumcised and who convert to Judaism must undergo surgery by a urologist. None of the Detroit mohelim is qualified to do the surgery on an adult, but they will handle the related ritual aspects of the brit. For a convert who was circumcised as an infant, the mohel will take a symbolic drop of blood (hatafat dam) from the tip of the penis to make the previous circumcision kosher.
What happens to the foreskins?
Most of the local mohelim feel Jewish law requires the foreskins to be buried in earth. The Rabbis Cohen use a flowerpot. Sam Greenbaum buries them in his flowerbed. Craig Singer buries them next to a tree. Some families like to bury the foreskin themselves and plant a tree in the same spot.
Adam Cooper tells parents that the foreskin is perceived as an imperfection, placed there to give parents the opportunity to remove it and, in so doing, act as God’s partner in the work of perfecting the world. So unless they request the foreskin to bury, he says, he disposes of it as medical waste.
The services of a mohel in Detroit will cost about $300 to $350. The Orthodox mohelim do not charge a fee because performing a brit is a mitzvah, a commandment. But they will happily accept gifts from parents who have the means to make one. The gifts can range from a few dollars to $1,000, but average $300 to $350.
When he returned from London, a friend called and said, “I had a baby boy, and you have your first job,” Weingarden said. “I was nervous, but I felt if I were not nervous there was something wrong. It gets easier every time, but you still need to concentrate.”
Now he does several brits a month, fitting them in around his position as director of development and teacher at the Mesivta of West Bloomfield, an Orthodox boys’ high school.
He’s proudest of the brit he did on his own son, Yehoshua, (born in July 2013), with his father and grandfather looking on: four generations sharing the oldest Jewish tradition.
Dr. Adam Cooper
Obstetrician/gynecologist Adam Cooper, 52, of West Bloomfield was looking for a way to combine his medical training with his commitment to Reform Judaism. Becoming a mohel seemed the perfect choice.
He was living in Florida and enrolled in a 12-week course through the Reform movement, which started certifying physicians as mohelim in 1984. He was the first Reform mohel in South Florida, something so novel that first brit was covered by the Miami Herald.
Because he’d already done so many non-religious circumcisions he wasn’t concerned about the snip, he said. “I was more nervous about pronouncing everyone’s names correctly.”
(Cooper was also the first Reform mohel in Detroit when he moved here in 1998, and was the subject of a feature story in the Jewish News on May 29, 1998.)
Cooper, who is on the staff at Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, has done as many as three brits in a day, including a set of triplets.
He often brings his guitar with him to accompany himself as he sings parts of the brit milah ceremony.
For one memorable brit, he traveled to Paradise Island in the Bahamas, home to about 40 Jewish families. The family asked him to bring along bagels, lox and other Jewish foods unavailable there.
He also remembers the brit for a baby named Dylan. An aunt and uncle printed T-shirts for the family that said “Dylan’s Mommy,” “Dylan’s Grandpa,” “Dylan’s Cousin” and so on.
“I jokingly mentioned during the ceremony that I felt a bit left out,” he said. “Three years later they called me to perform their next son’s bris and, upon arrival, they presented me with a T-shirt that said ‘Noah’s Mohel.’”
Dr. Craig Singer
Craig Singer of Bloomfield Hills became interested in brit milah during his medical residency in pediatrics.
“I had a mentor who was a pediatrician and a mohel. I think somehow he planted the seed,” he said. “After my son was born and after watching his bris, the idea of becoming a mohel became a dream of mine.”
His son, who has two younger sisters, is now 15.
Singer, 44, became certified as a mohel in 2001 through a correspondence course run by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. He was sponsored by Rabbi David Castiglione, who at that time was at Temple Beth El.
“Over the course of seven months we studied together, researched texts and debated issues of philosophical and theological content,” he said. He read every Talmud reference to “brit” or “circumcision,” along with the rabbinic interpretations. In addition to traditional Jewish texts, he studied the Reform responsa and texts dealing with Jewish identity. He also studied with Rabbi Alon Tolwin at the Orthodox Aish HaTorah.
He learned the medical aspects by working with 20 physicians at William Beaumont Hospital and a physician in Vancouver, B.C.
He estimates he’s done more than a thousand brits and at least another thousand non-ritual circumcisions.
After seven years in pediatrics, Singer trained in dermatology, and now works fulltime as a dermatologist with Northwest Dermatology Group in Southfield. ■