Mohel makers

Conservative movement to certify mohels through Brit Kodesh program

After 10-year hiatus, revived training initiative will teach a new cohort of medical professionals how to perform brit milah this fall

The Rabbinical Assembly and Jewish Theological Seminary are again teaming up to train medical professionals to perform brit milah and simchat bat ceremonies – not how to perform the circumcision for the former, but how to do all of the accompanying liturgy and practices in accordance with the Conservative movement’s sensitivities and interpretations of halacha, or Jewish law, the organizations announced last week.

“We are training people how to handle ceremonies for same-sex couples, for intermarried couples, how to perform simchat bat ceremonies for boy-girl twins or multiples,” said the organizer, Rabbi Ilana Garber.

This year’s training session for the program, which is called Brit Kodesh, meaning holy covenant, is scheduled for this November in Los Angeles. Eight people are already signed up, including two from Brazil. “People will be coming in from all over for the program,” Garber said. “We are hoping that more people come. The more the merrier, but it is definitely happening.”

For the first time, Brit Kodesh will present graduates with a certificate, attesting to their knowledge of “the halacha and ritual of brit milah,” Garber said. She stressed that this is not “medical certification.” So long as they maintain their “medical license, malpractice insurance, and continued religious practice,” the graduates will also be listed in the Conservative movement’s database of mohalim and mohalot (male and female mohels).

The basics of the halacha that are taught in the program are essentially no different than those taught to Orthodox mohels – “the bris itself is the same bris,” Garber said – though she stressed that it absolutely does not teach the practice of metzitza b’peh, or orally drawing blood from the incision, as is still practiced, in certain ways, by some Orthodox practitioners. What sets Brit Kodesh apart is its focus on inclusivity and consideration for the entire family. The mothers, in particular, are invited to participate, which they often aren’t in Orthodox-run ceremonies, Garber said.

The participants must already know how to perform a circumcision. According to Garber, the participants are often urologists, obstetricians or general surgeons who have performed circumcisions before in a medical setting and are looking to be able to perform them in a spiritual, religious setting as well.

In order to qualify for the course, which costs $4,800, applicants must be sponsored by a Rabbinical Assembly rabbi and affirm that they follow halacha as it relates to things like Shabbat observance and kashrut. If they do not already know how to read Hebrew, they must learn to do so before the course.

“This is a course of Jewish liturgy, law, ritual, theology and more. This is a sacred calling, a holy task… We take our Conservative/Masorti movement standards seriously… and trust you will as well,” the Rabbinical Assembly wrote in the application.

The program began more than 30 years ago. At the time, Rabbi Joel Roth, who started the program and continues to lead it, said the initiative was meant to make the Conservative movement more independent and self-reliant. The Brit Kodesh program also offered one of the few ways that women could be trained to become a mohelet, that is a female mohel. This year, Roth will be joined in leading the program by Rabbi Dr. Leonard Sharzer, the associate director for bioethics of the Finkelstein Institute of Religious and Social Studies at JTS.

After running the program regularly for some 20 years, Brit Kodesh sessions went on a more than 10-year hiatus from 2011 to 2022. Seven people took part in the program last October, one of them from Sweden.

“This is a part of their Jewish journey,” Garber said. “We had one woman last year who told me that this was a huge step for her. She offered to teach in her shul what she’d learned. She’s getting more involved and more committed as a Conservative Jew as a result of this.”