Outcry against push to ban circumcisions in S.F.

Anyone worried that a proposed ban on circumcisions in San Francisco would upend Jewish life in the city should heed the words of Tina Kimmel. She thinks the measure would fail.

Rabbi Moshe Trager

And she’s working hard to put it on the ballot in November 2011.

“It’s not likely to pass,” said the Oakland resident and 20-year veteran of the so-called “intactivist” movement. “We know that. Part of the reason we do this is to get the word out that people have an option.”

Of course, should the measure qualify for the ballot and then get voter approval, San Franciscans would no longer have the option to circumcise their children in their own city, not even for religious purposes.

With the proposed ban drawing international headlines and even a barb from comedian Lewis Black on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” last week four Bay Area Jewish organizations publicly condemned the effort.

The Anti-Defamation League, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and the American Jewish Committee issued a joint statement expressing “great concern” about the proposed measure, which would make any foreskin cutting a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and jail time for up to a year.

The statement defended circumcision on religious grounds, stating, “For thousands of years, Jews around the world have engaged in this important religious ritual, which is of fundamental importance in the Jewish tradition. The organized Jewish community is deeply troubled by this initiative, which would interfere with the rights of parents to make religious decisions for their own families.”

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom weighed in as well, telling the San Francisco Examiner, “Why do something that makes us look like we are completely out of touch?”

Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows the incidence of circumcision in the United States is dropping, from 64 percent of male newborns in 1995 to 56 percent in 2006. In the western United States, the number of parents opting against circumcision is even more pronounced: In 2006, fewer than 34 percent of newborns were circumcised, according to the NCHS.

That’s good news to Lloyd Schofield, who spearheaded the initiative. He and his colleagues are just now beginning to collect signatures. At least 7,100 are needed by April 26, 2011 to qualify the proposed measure for next November’s ballot.

Schofield, a San Francisco resident, has argued that since female circumcision is illegal, male circumcision should be as well. “We feel baby boys deserve the same protection that baby girls enjoy,” he told KGO talk show host Ronn Owens on Nov. 12. “This is not just a citywide movement, it’s an international movement.”

Schofield last week agreed to speak with j. for this story, but as of press time, he had not made himself available for an interview.

Predictably, Bay Area mohels and others in the Jewish community are not thrilled with the notion of a circumcision ban, in San Francisco or anywhere.

“Of all the terrible things in this world, from homelessness to unemployment to disease, you’re going to focus your attention on this evil business of circumcision?” asked rabbi and mohel Moshe Trager of San Jose. “It doesn’t concern me if non-Jewish people don’t want to be circumcised. That’s totally fine. But don’t take my religious freedom away.”

Abby Michaelson Porth, who serves as associate director of the JCRC, said her organization will team with other religious, ethnic, medical and parental rights groups to fight the measure if it makes it onto the ballot.

“It seeks to prohibit people of faith from practicing their religion,” she said. “It seeks to disrupt the right of parents to chose religious tradition for their children, and it seeks to interrupt an American tradition of freedom of religion from government intrusion.”

Porth then added, “Would the proponents of this seek a ban on the piercing of a Latina child’s ear? Would they ban Catholic and Protestant parents from sending their children to church for religious training on Sunday mornings? Would they have the government intrude upon their spiritual traditions and rituals in their families, and their choices?”

Kimmel, who supports the ban, counters that the rights of children to be free of harm trump parental rights.

“Prince v. Massachusetts said parents’ religious freedom did not extend to harming their children,” Kimmel noted, citing a 1944 Supreme Court case that ruled parental authority is not absolute and can be restricted if doing so is in the best interests of the child.

Kimmel, 62, has two grown children and two grandchildren. She always thought circumcision was “an awful thing,” but didn’t become involved in the anti-circumcision movement until 1991, after her kids were grown.

At the same time, she found herself drawn to her Jewish roots, and became active with liberal Jewish congregations such as Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley and Kehilla Community Synagogue, now in Piedmont. But she found herself rebuffed, even ostracized, when fellow congregants learned of her “intactivism.”

Kimmel pressed forward, working with groups such as the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers and Intact America, manning information booths at baby fairs and participating in protests at medical conferences.

Why does she care so much about this issue?

“It’s the amputation part that is unique,” she said. “It isn’t just a flap of skin. It’s very [sexually] important. [Men] will never get back that feeling.”

As for the notion of criminalizing one of Judaism’s central rituals, Kimmel firmly believes it’s time for a change.

“I miss Judaism, but I left because of this issue,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of Jews against circumcision have left. We’re not anti-Semitic. We’re protecting Jewish boys, too. I hope there’s a Judaism that would survive [no circumcision].”

As an alternative to brit milah, Kimmel says Jews in the intactivist movement promote brit shalom, a no-cutting ceremony for 8-day-old Jewish boys.

Even the JCRC’s Porth believes that’s fine for any Jewish family that wants it. However, she added, “That is very different from presenting a ban.”

Meanwhile, mohels like Trager remain unfazed by the proposed ban.

“I am incredibly proud to stand in front of a new Jewish couple who had a baby boy,” he said. “Maybe they are intermarried, with barely a recognition of anything Jewish, but they know they want to have a bris. Somewhere deep inside the Jewish psyche there is this sense that this is the right thing to do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.