Beis Moshiach Magazine
In recent years, Jews in New York had to contend with a new blood libel in a modern guise, in which the New York City Board of Health required parents to sign a legal consent form before their infant could have metzitza b’peh (oral suction) at a bris. * The influential Board of Health was on one side, facing a lone Chabad Chassid, a mohel by profession, on the other side. He was able to galvanize religious Jewry in New York to fight a battle that seemed hopeless. * On September 9 of this year, the NYC Board of Health rescinded that requirement. Beis Moshiach met with mohel, R’ Levi Heber, who told us about the miraculous battle that he fought and won. * A behind the scenes look at the news.
If you’ve paid some attention to the news lately, you’ve heard about the legal battle for the halachic observance of bris mila, one of the most fundamental mitzvos in the Torah. Even those who heard something about the matter are not quite informed about one of the most critical battles for the preservation of Judaism.
No, this did not occur in the Soviet Union or in communist China, but in New York, where over a million Jews live.
What really happened in this fateful battle, only small parts of which were presented in the media? Who was the man who fought the Board of Health which has plenty of money at its disposal? Who managed to achieve the unbelievable and unite, for perhaps the first time in history, Chabad, Satmar, and Agudath Israel of America?
All he had was his (mila) knife and lots of determination to preserve bris mila as it is meant to be done. I am talking about Rabbi Levi Heber of Crown Heights.
In a long and fascinating discussion, he told us the details of the discussions and meetings that took place with government agencies and various Orthodox groups.
R’ Heber’s awareness of the mitzva and its implications began twenty-five years ago, in 5750, when he went to Russia as a counselor in a camp. There he saw how far Russian Jews had veered from their roots after seventy years of oppression. Nearly all the children (and their parents) were uncircumcised.
“We discovered that in addition to all the other mivtzaim, we had to do ‘mivtza bris mila,’” says R’ Heber.
“When we spoke to the children about the importance of a bris, most of them still did not know about Judaism and what being a Jew means. Even so, they wanted to do this mitzva despite their natural fear. It was real mesirus nefesh.”
At first, the mohel, R’ Avrohom Genin, was brought to the camp along with a doctor who was not experienced in this area. Despite the pain involved, the children all agreed to undergo a bris.
“At the time, I decided that I had to get involved so that the following year I would not have to ask the children for such a level of mesirus nefesh. It isn’t necessary, because it is possible to mitigate the pain. In the US I bought the necessary equipment, anesthesia and other things that helped make the procedure less painful.”
In the meantime, R’ Heber studied mila and acquired the necessary expertise. He bought mila tools and began circumcising adults. Initially, he worked under the supervision and on site oversight of expert mohelim.
“My main teacher was R’ Avrohom Cohen who circumcised adults, from whom I received ordination as an expert mohel. He went through the Holocaust and has no children. Brissin were his life and he did this holy work without remuneration.”
When R’ Heber began working in this field he also began to observe the deeper soul component.
“I came to feel that this is a mitzva unlike other mitzvos. Each time, it is moving to see the mesirus nefesh of parents, even those who are not religiously observant. When it comes to the mitzva of mila, they do it, even though they are unwilling to do any other mitzva. You cannot help but feel there is something deep in the soul here.”
R’ Heber also notices deep changes that take place in those who are circumcised. Some of them start expanding their relationship with G-d and often, their families do too. For R’ Heber, it has become a mivtza like any of the ten mivtzaim.
“There are brochures for the ten mivtzaim, t’fillin, mezuza, etc. but there is nothing for bris mila. People have many questions about bris mila but they don’t have anybody to ask.”
R’ Heber decided that along with his work as a mohel, he would do some publicity and marketing. He also started connecting mohelim and shluchim across America to have brissin done.
“It often happens that because of performing a bris, a relationship develops with the local shliach or with the local community.”
As a Lubavitcher Chassid, R’ Heber shows up to every bris with a pair of t’fillin and offers to put them on the participants. He also brings mezuzos. If the bris is on Shabbos, he comes with candles (before Shabbos) for the lady of the house. In his experience, when people are in “mitzva mode,” they are willing to accept other mitzvos too. Often, people are performing their first mitzva ever and they are moved. He has seen plenty of tears on the part of those being circumcised or their families who put t’fillin on for the first time.
The bris ceremony tears down barriers.
“I remember once being in the Carolinas and I put t’fillin on with the grandfather of the one having the bris and he began to cry. He told me that he had not cried since the Yom Kippur War. He was a tough fellow and some of his friends were there, but after putting on the t’fillin he became a different person.”
R’ Heber has many other stories and examples:
“I once went to get a baby ready for a bris and I immediately felt the tension in the room. The father was Israeli and the mother was American. The father said that he heard from his father that you could only give the honor to someone religiously observant, while the mother insisted that her father, who was not yet religious, be the sandek.
“I had to make peace between them before the bris. I said that yes, a sandek needed to be religiously observant, but that I had just put t’fillin on with the grandfather and therefore, he was religiously observant. As to what would be tomorrow and what was yesterday? That did not matter. Now he was religious for he had put on t’fillin.
“I’ve been away from home on Shabbos and Yom Tov in order to perform brissin. Families saw that I was willing to give up spending the holiday with my family so that they could do the mitzva in a timely manner and this made an impact on them. I often experience such stories. Through the bris, you can lead the families to doing other mitzvos.”
When R’ Heber saw how you could leverage a bris into getting a family more involved in mitzva observance, he started an organization which connects the families of those circumcised with shluchim near them. He has produced a brochure which explains the laws and customs of a bris mila and has a website called circumcision.net which covers all aspects of bris mila, customs during pregnancy and birth, the shalom zachor, choosing a name (with a list of names and their significance), prayers and hymns for a bris, insights and stories.
Often, when a bris is needed but the person does not have the funds to pay for it, R’ Heber finds a sandek who is willing to pay for the various expenses.