Reflections on Being a Conservative/Masorti Mohel in Melbourne

by Dr. David Ungar

I have been the mohel for the non-Orthodox Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia, for the last five years. Being trained as a mohel and serving the community has made me more sensitive to the challenges faced by non-Orthodox families and converts, and deepened my own commitment to my shul.

Although I grew up in the Orthodox community in Melbourne and my parents were founding members of one of the largest Orthodox synagogues, where I had my bar mitzvah and wedding, I have been a member of Kehilat Nitzan, Melbourne’s only Masorti/Conservative synagogue, for 18 years, since its founding. The Melbourne Jewish community is sharply divided between the Orthodox community, (which has about 20 synagogues, a rabbinical college and council, and a beth din) and the non-Orthodox community, which consists mostly of Progressive (Reform) synagogues and Kehilat Nitzan.

When I decided to become a mohel for our community, I asked to meet the chairman of the Council of Orthodox Synagogues, a rabbi with whom I had had shiurim many years before at the Yeshivah Kollel. I was worried that serving in the non-Orthodox community could result in some sort of personal retribution. The Rabbi said to me, totally seriously, “We don’t want to know what goes on outside our community.” At a personal level, I was relieved by his comment, but on reflection, I was, and still am, saddened by his lack of interest, both then and ongoing, in intra-movement relationships.

 

One of the main reasons I undertook the training to become a mohel was my increasing understanding of the difficulties facing women who converted to Judaism in our Conservative congregation. Because their conversion was not recognised by the Orthodox Beth Din, Orthodox mohelim refused to perform a brit milah. They were told that the mohel would perform a circumcision without brachot, because their baby was not Jewish. As I got to know these Jews By Choice and appreciated their commitment to Judaism and community, I decided that they needed to be treated better.

My other great joy has been helping adult men convert to Judaism by performing the htafat dam brit. While this is a brief, non-technical, procedure I like to show my respect for the solemnity of this moment in their spiritual journey. I add a short ceremony to the procedure and I think this has been appreciated.

For my training, I went to Vancouver, Canada, to learn the surgical technique with Dr Neil Pollock. His technique is quick, safe and gives very good results. I learned the halachah with Rabbi Gary Atkins, in the state of Connecticut in the US, who offers a ritual training program for physicians to become mohelim. He also showed me how to conduct the ceremony if no rabbi was available. His approach to the ceremony of a brit milah was to be as inclusive as possible within the boundaries of Conservative halachah, and at all times to be respectful to the parents.

I have tried to follow his principle of “opening the door to Judaism and encouraging learning about our religion and tradition.“ I have met many mixed-faith couples who want to maintain some connection with Judaism. I hope I have been able to make them feel included in some way and leave them open to the possibility of greater involvement on Judaism in the future.

A few of our congregants volunteer to help refugee families. I have performed circumcisions for quite a few of their babies, although not in my role as a mohel.  These Muslim families are aware of my Jewish background, as they are aware of the volunteers’ Jewishness, and appreciate the care, understanding, and support from our community.

Finally, I have noticed that in taking on the role of mohel I have moved from being a regular shul attendee, happy to merely enjoy the service, to a more involved, active participant, taking responsibility for delivering parts of the service.

In summary, being able to perform a brit milah has enabled me to share an intensely emotional mitzvah and simcha with families from many backgrounds. I have enjoyed the challenge of enhancing understanding of Judaism and drawing people together, and hopefully strengthened our community.