The secret life of mohels makes for a bris read.
Ancient and modern, ceremonial and medical, commandment and simcha: a bris is all of those things and involves just as many emotions for the baby boy’s family. Who are the mohelim to whom these rituals are entrusted? Why did they choose to become mohelim? How did they learn to perform circumcisions?
For Joel Shoulson, being a mohel is a family tradition. Shoulson is an eighth-generation mohel; the line traces through his father, Morris, who was born in Jerusalem. By 1933, Morris Shoulson was the official mohel at Philadelphia’s Jewish Hospital, which is now Albert Einstein Medical Center. Joel Shoulson spent many of his formative years accompanying his father to brit milah throughout the Northeast. By the time he was a teenager, Shoulson knew that he wanted to become a mohel. He got surgical training at Einstein and religious training from his father, then was certified by the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis. In 1951, at the age of 16, Shoulson performed his first circumcision. He has now performed more than 40,000.
While the brit milah’s rituals are ancient, some things about the ceremony have changed. Technically, different anesthetics are used, as is the Mogen Shield, a protective device that Morris Shoulson co-created. Joel Shoulson says that other differences mirror changes in the practice of Judaism.
“It used to be that the mohel would walk in, perform the rituals and it was done without explanation,” Shoulson says. “That’s how that generation handled things. No one questioned rabbis or doctors. There’s nothing exactly wrong with doing that, but I think it prevents the family from understanding the bris and appreciating the custom.”
Shoulson became a pioneer in finding ways to educate people about the meaning of brit milah so that they could experience it as Jews and parents. To pass on that new paradigm, Shoulson taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and throughout the country. That new approach is what Cantor Howard Glantz learned.
Now at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Glantz was serving as cantor to a New York synagogue and singing at a bris when he was approached by Dr. Jacob Shragowitz. “He said, ‘My father was the shamas here and he was the mohel,’ ” Glantz explains. “He told me, ‘That extra income sent me to medical school. If you want to become a mohel, I will train you to do the circumcision to repay the favor so that the community has another mohel.’ ”
Glantz spent three years training with Shragowitz at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and received additional religious training at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In 1991, Glantz became a mohel certified in Conservative Jewish practices. Shragowitz attended the first bris he performed. “It was a full circle moment for both of us,” Glantz says. “Although we kidded around that he was just checking to make sure that I didn’t have a nervous hand.”
While Shoulson followed in his ancestors’ footsteps and Glantz followed a religious path to becoming a mohel, Dr. David Rawdin’s course was medical. He is a pediatrician specializing in newborns. Since 2005, Rawdin has worked in the neonatal department at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, serving as assistant director of the newborn nursery and as a faculty member of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at CHOP that Rawdin saw a need for medically expert circumcisions and got additional training on how to perform them on infants.
“Once I learned how to do that, I saw becoming a mohel as the perfect combination of my Judaism and medical training,” Rawdin says. “It seemed like a natural fusion for me, and that families in the community would benefit from having a doctor perform brit milah.”
Rawdin is a member of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood and pursued his mohel training through the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. After four years, Rawdin earned his certification and began performing brit milah in 2005. “I wear two yarmulkes, so to speak,” says Rawdin. “I’m a doctor and a mohel; the one has helped me be better at the other.”
In addition to the medical and religious aspect of brit milah, there is a quasi-psychological component. The mohelim are not just dealing with a newborn baby — they are also dealing with his parents. How do the mohelim handle a typically exhausted father and a postpartum, sometimes anxious mother?
“I’m a pediatrician who specializes in newborns, so I deal with new parents all the time,” Rawdin says. “For a bris, I establish a relationship with the parents well before I walk in the door for the ceremony. Sometimes, if people know that they are having a boy, we talk weeks before the delivery.”
“A good percentage of people now do their mohel shopping well before the baby is born,” Glantz says. “We very often have more than eight days to build our relationship and to plan the bris, so it’s not a rush of activity right after the birth. I ask them about which family members will be there, who they want to honor and how. The most important thing is for the parents to have all of the information they need so that they are able to relax and enjoy the bris.”
Rawdin agrees. “The more information people have, the more comfortable and less anxious they are, and the more they get out of the ceremony.”
To further that goal, Shoulson built an information-rich website (www.moheljoel.com). “I also remind parents that no one ever remembers their own bris,” he adds. “As for the adults and other children in attendance, things have changed in that regard. Now, the first thing I do is say that no one has to stay and watch who doesn’t wish to do so. It’s not a spectator sport. There is no photography of the baby during the procedure. Also, no one has to hold the baby down and restrain him. This creates a different atmosphere.
“What I realized decades ago,” Shoulson explains, “is that the family got upset because they thought that the baby was in pain, which is a natural, psychological reaction. But we have worked to make brit milah happy occasions, and I believe that they are.”
“They are less psychologically emotional and more religiously emotional,” Rawdin says. “I mean, parents are emotional anyway, because they just had a baby. But at the brit milah, their son is becoming a Jew. Some parents, and almost always first-time parents and grandparents, become very emotional in very beautiful ways.”
As for why they go through such rigorous training, Shoulson puts it simply. “I’m in one of the most enviable positions any Jew could be in,” he says. “I’m at the center of a celebration of the birth of a new baby and I perform the mitzvah of welcoming a new member of the Jewish community.”
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Special Sections. This article originally appeared in "Simchas," a Jewish Exponent special section.