Interfaith partners find meaning in brit milah ritual

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Kathleen Paget didn't know what to expect at her son Adam's brit milah. Raised Italian Catholic, Paget harbored no preconceived ideas about the ritual that accompanies circumcision. She didn't know what it involved or how her family would feel about it.

"Part of me wanted to have him circumcised in the hospital," Paget says. Eight days didn't give her much time to plan an at-home gathering.

"I didn't want to do it, and I was hoping my husband would forget about it."

But Elliot Paget wanted the ceremony. "He pretty much said, 'We're going to do it,' and it was important to him, so I wasn't going to make a big deal out of it," she says.

In mid-July the Pagets, who live in Alameda, asked Walnut Creek mohel Dr. Mark Rubenstein, who is also a pediatrician, to lead the brit milah. In front of a small interdenominational gathering of family and friends Rubenstein introduced himself, and explained the history and significance of the ceremony.

A lot of the ritual was in English, some in Hebrew, and many of the guests participated.

"Whether you were Jewish or non-Jewish, it was understandable and meaningful, and I was very pleased," Elliot Paget remembers. Kathleen Paget says she found the experience surprisingly positive and believes her son felt no pain. The actual circumcision occupied only about 30 seconds of a 40-minute ceremony.

Her relatives also found the event informative.

"There were all these nice wishes for my son," Kathleen Paget says. "It was a nice way of saying, `Welcome.'"

The brit milah "kind of secures me," Elliot Paget says. "It ensures that my son is Jewish and gets the right start."

Seventy-five percent of the ceremonies Rubenstein performs are for sons of interfaith couples. But he says not all are motivated by the same reason. Some have a brit because a relative is pressuring them to do it, he notes.

"Others show a genuine interest in the ceremony."

With roots in Genesis, the brit milah recalls God's covenant with Abraham. As a sign of his obedience to God, Abraham agreed to circumcise himself. God rewarded him, and Abraham agreed to circumcise his sons to continue the covenant. The ritual has endured through the millennia, and continued even during the pogroms and the Holocaust.

Traditionally, the brit is performed on the eighth day after birth in front of a minyan of 10 men, but Reform Jews do not hold with the all-male rule. Technically, the baby's father is supposed to perform the circumcision, but most ask a qualified mohel to step in. Orthodox mohelim are required to use a special double-edged knife. But mohelim in the Reform movement — who are frequently physicians — choose from an array of techniques and tools, says Dr. Jing Piser, a Piedmont-based mohel and plastic surgeon.

Piser and her husband, Dr. Joel Piser, also a mohel, performed their son's brit milah themselves.

"The main significance was that we able to do this to the letter of the Torah," says Jing Piser, who is a Jew-by-choice. "We were able to do our own son."

While some mohelim will not perform a brit on the son of an interfaith couple, a number of Conservative and Reform ones will, on condition that the parents make a commitment to their child's Jewish education.

Reform mohelim ask prospective clients to maintain that "you're going to give your son some Jewish education — not the only education, but that he will have some Jewishness about him," Piser says. She and Rubenstein occasionally turn some couples down.

One of these "wanted to have a brit milah but not within the realms of Jewishness, and we declined," Piser says. But Kathleen Paget, though she has no plans for converting to Judaism, takes an active role in at Alameda's Temple Israel, where the Pagets are members. Ten-year-old daughter, Laura, is a student in the religious school.

Four years ago, Rubenstein performed a brit milah on Max Savage, the son of Lafayette cardiologist Dr. Walter Savage.

Savage is not Jewish and has not converted, but he enjoyed a close relationship with Jews when growing up in Westchester, N.Y. Savage, whose wife is Jewish, says they did not debate whether or not to hold the ceremony.

"My wife assumed we would have the brit," Savage says. For him as a non-Jew, the most significant part of the event was that his parents gave it their blessing by contributing a hand-embroidered white baptismal gown that had been used in the family since the 1920s. The Savages wrapped Max in the gown for the brit milah.

"Now that's tradition," says Rubenstein. "I don't care whose tradition."