Doctors make house calls as non-Orthodox mohelim

Dr. Fred Kogen is a new breed of mohel.

Mohelim such as Kogen perform traditional britot — without reservation — for interfaith couples, as well as families in which the mother went through a non-Orthodox conversion.

"An Orthodox mohel adhering to the laws of halachah will not do a bris for an interfaith couple where the mother isn't Jewish," said Kogen, a Reform mohel who does numerous britot in the Bay Area.

For many years, interfaith couples had nowhere to turn if they wanted a ritual circumcision because all mohelim were Orthodox men.

"If an interfaith family came to them, they would be rejected." said Dr. Mark Rubenstein, a retired pediatrician who lives in Walnut Creek and is also trained as a Reform mohel.

Rubenstein estimates that 75 percent of the britot he performs are for interfaith families.

Doctors and nurse practitioners learn how to do circumcisions during their medical training. But now, they can get additional training at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles or the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Kogen took the HUC course in 1985, a year after it was first offered. He gave up his medical practice to be a full-time mohel seven years ago. He estimates that he has performed about 4,000 circumcisions.

Although based in Southern California, he travels to the Bay Area regularly, recently conducting ceremonies in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Available and willing to travel, he performed britot last year in locales as varied as Hong Kong and Idaho Falls.

Rubenstein took the HUC course in1990. "It was a wonderful program. There were 24 hours of classwork, which was primarily to give the spiritual, historical and religious significance of the brit milah," Rubenstein said. "It was not intended to be surgical training. It was assumed we already knew that."

Not that the surgical part is a piece of cake.

"It's more complicated than you think," Kogen said. "You're performing an operation in front of a group of people. Some people are terrified of blood."

Kogen uses a topical anesthetic. But he still has to deal with antsy parents just about every time. "They want it done as quickly and painlessly as possible and, at the same time, to make sure everyone feels comfortable," Kogen explained.

Given all these factors, Kogen is amazed at how casually many parents go about hiring a mohel, without asking basic questions like how many circumcisions he or she has performed.

Kogen's Web site — — explains the procedure, tells families what they have to do to prepare for a brit and also suggests questions to ask a potential mohel.

For the interfaith family, there is the added factor of making sure that the non-Jewish family members are included, and understand and appreciate the significance of the ceremony.

The mohel has one other function: to be an entertainer.

"You have to be an engaging and charming individual and quickly establish a rapport with the family and their guests who don't know you," Kogen said. "You have to calm everyone down because they're nervous. Find out who all the family members are and make sure names are pronounced correctly."

The Resource guide, published annually by the Jewish Bulletin and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, includes a listing of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform mohelim.

Some Orthodox mohelim, since they need to make a living, will agree to do a brit even though the mother, and therefore her baby, doesn't meet the Orthodox criteria for being Jewish, Kogen said. In these instances, he added, a variety of things can happen.

The mohel may include a blessing that the brit is being done "in anticipation of a conversion." Or the attending members of the beit din (religious court) may perform a conversion on the infant. On other occasions, prayers are either modified or not said — so, technically, the brit isn't Orthodox.

One interfaith couple had a lot of trouble finding a mohel.

The parents-to-be, who didn't want their names used, contacted a mohel shortly before the due date in case their child was a boy.

During the course of the conversation, the Jewish-by-birth father told the mohel his wife had undergone a Conservative conversion. There was an uncomfortable pause.

"It was clear that as an Orthodox Jew he didn't consider my wife Jewish," the father said. But he explained that they kept a Jewish home, that his wife considered herself Jewish and that their children would be raised Jewish. The mohel agreed to perform the brit.

Eight days after the boy was born, the family celebrated his brit. The mohel came with two other men, members of the beit din. After the ceremony the mohel gave the parents a certificate indicating that the brit was their baby's first step toward becoming a Jew.

"I don't know the effect of the certificate," said the father, although he was led to understand that it "means that this child isn't Jewish yet but he's on the road."

In the next few weeks, the couple is expecting another baby. They don't know if it will be a boy or a girl — but Kogen is on call just in case. Although the father raves about the first brit and would not hesitate to recommend the Orthodox mohel who officiated, this time they decided to go with a Reform mohel.

"I didn't feel I should have to be in the position of explaining to another mohel that my wife is Jewish," he said.