For families choosing not to circumcise, a sea change

It’s a minor edit, and unless you were looking for it, you probably wouldn’t notice. But a change in wording on Temple Sinai’s Lifecycle Rituals web page represents a definite shift in openness regarding Jewish families who opt out of circumcision.

Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Oakland with 976 member households, already welcomes such families. Like other progressive Bay Area synagogues, the congregation makes inclusion a priority, welcoming multiracial Jews, Jews with disabilities, Jews of all sexual orientations and interfaith families. Temple Sinai also works to include Jews who are making a variety of ritual choices — among them, not circumcising.

Many other synagogues also accept noncircumcising families, as I’ve written about in J. Yet congregations’ websites generally paint a “circumcision for boys, naming ceremony for girls” picture, avoiding mention of Jewish families who are now deciding against circumcision.

Why is that omission a problem? Because noncircumcising families may glean from it that there’s no place for them in mainstream Judaism. It’s not the case — and Temple Sinai is openly saying so.

“We include and embrace families whether or not they decide to circumcise,” said Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, adding that the choice to opt out isn’t the eyebrow-raiser it once was. “This is such a highly charged issue for many parents, we realized it warranted specific mention.”

The lifecycles page now includes the phrase “there are also ceremonies for families choosing not to circumcise” — a public acknowledgment of shifting attitudes about a ritual that was once considered foundational.

Sue Bojdak, Temple Sinai’s director of education, said she sometimes needs to quell the concerns of new parents about whether their noncircumcised sons will feel welcome. “It’s nice to be able to tell these parents, we not only welcome you but we welcome you openly,” Bojdak said.

But why would parents call attention to a boy’s circumcision status? Isn’t that a private matter? Well, yes — but that doesn’t mean they should need to be secretive or apologetic about their choice. For example, noncircumcising parents may feel some trepidation about diaper changes or toilet supervision in Jewish preschool. Some may decide to forgo Jewish programming and affiliation instead of having to explain themselves.

“Families shouldn’t feel they have to hide, or take the don’t-ask-don’t-tell route,” said Anat Shenker, the mother of two sons who are not circumcised. “It’s not nice to feel like you’ve done something wrong or cagey — like you’re trying to pull a fast one.”

Shenker added, “Circumcision is the last holdout in terms of [synagogues’] walking the diversity talk.” She said she and her husband joined Temple Sinai largely because of its unreserved welcome of her family.

Billie Mandel, a newcomer to Temple Sinai, also appreciates the inclusive attitude there. “It has been a comfort and a relief for me and my family to feel welcomed at Temple Sinai,” she said, “because of, and not in spite of, our alternative choices — including the decision not to circumcise our little son.”

Often, Jewish and interfaith families who opt out of circumcision either forgo a ceremony or discover “Celebrants of Brit Shalom,” a web page listing rabbis, cantors and lay leaders willing to offer ceremonies to noncircumcising families on a freelance basis. The page has grown to include more than 200 such officiants — 131 of whom are rabbis.

If a family contacts a synagogue instead for a ceremony, they’re undoubtedly more likely to develop a relationship with that institution, and Jewish community in general, over the long haul. Temple Sinai is wise to recognize this.

It’s better for synagogues to welcome noncircumcising families quietly than not to welcome them at all. But Jewish parents need to know that opting out of circumcision isn’t a deal-breaker. When congregations send an overt message of inclusion to these families, more will affiliate. The Jewish world will benefit.

Lisa Braver Moss lives in Piedmont. Her forthcoming “Celebrating Brit Shalom” is a book of ceremonies and music for Jewish families who decide not to