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mohelsBy MYRON LOVE

Brit Milah is a central tenet of Judaism – and our community’s mohels take their responsibility very seriously.


“I went to Talmud Torah and Joseph Wolinsky, so I knew the importance of brises,” says Dr. Matthew Lazar, a pediatrician and now Winnipeg’s senior mohel in terms of years of experience. “Doing brises is a way that I can give back to my community.”
Lazar has been doing brises since 1982. He appreciates the rabbis (Altein, Green and Lander) and doctors - Richard Boroditsky, Nathan Wiseman, Aubie Diamond (who is now a full time mohel in Toronto) and, especially Errol Billinkoff - for their mentoring and guidance. “Without their help, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he says.
He also credits the late Shlomo Benarroch, who taught him some of the techniques.
For most of his career as a mohel, Lazar shared the duties with Errol Billinkoff. Billinkoff retired from performing brit milahs a couple of years ago. That was about the same time that family physician Dr. Alex Singer and Chabad Rabbi Boruch Heidingsfeld took up the tools of the trade.
“I learned to do circumcisions as part of my medical training,” Singer says. “I had done some circumcisions as part of my practice. Matt suggested that I consider doing brises. I had to retrain as the technique for doing kosher brises is somewhat different than regular circumcisions.”
Lazar notes that throughout most of his career performing brit milah, he was accompanied by a rabbi who recited the prayers. Two years ago, though, he, Singer and Heidingsfeld enrolled in a program at a seminary where they were taught the religious aspects of the mitzvah so that they no longer require rabbis to attend brises with them.
Singer adds that there are two other young doctors in Winnipeg in training to perform brit milahs. That would be Steven Smith (of the Jewish Smiths) and Michael Coodin.
Last year, Lazar reports, he performed 45 brit milahs while Singer did between 15 and 20. Lazar notes that performing brit milah over the years has given him a yardstick for measuring demographic and social changes in our community.
“When I started doing this 22 years ago,” he says, “in 70% of the families, both parents were Jewish. In 20% of cases, the mother was Jewish. In 10%, only the father was Jewish. Now in about 60% of the families, both parents are Jewish, in 32% the mother is Jewish and in just 8%, the father is Jewish.”
He also notes that about half the brit milah that are being performed in our community these days are for families recently arrived from Israel. “We are doing a lot more brises in areas such as St. Vital, Transcona and Charleswood than in the North End or River Heights,” he adds. “For newcomers, the mohel may be their first interaction with our Jewish community. I always encourage people to get involved in the community.”
The mohels are also involved in the conversion process. For circumcised males converting to Judaism, a symbolic pinprick is required, Lazar notes. Full circumcision is required for uncircumcised converts.
“I am called upon maybe four or five times a year in cases of conversion,” he says.
There is some disagreement out there as to how much blood needs to be shed during the performance of a brit milah for the procedure to be considered kosher. “Halachically,” Singer says, “one drop of blood is the minimum requirement.
“Another halachic rule is the admonition against causing unnecessary pain. For babies, we use a proper, local anesthetic.”
Lazar notes that there has long been debate within the medical community about the health benefits of circumcision. “In recent years, the medical view of circumcision is that it may be done for personal, religious or cultural reasons,” he says. (Circumcision is common among the Filipino community, for example.) More recent studies have demonstrated that circumcision may help reduce the risk of transmission of AIDS and HIV infections.”
He adds that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now encouraging the procedure for all baby boys but that the Canadian Pediatric Society’s position remains unchanged.
Both Singer and Lazar view the performance of brit milahs as not only an obligation, but also a joy. “It is especially enjoyable when you have a personal connection,” Lazar says. “The first time I did one for someone I knew, I was more nervous but now I really enjoy doing this for people I know.”
Singer notes that he recently performed a brit milah for a family from Israel that was originally from Ukraine. “It was lovely,” he says. “It is enjoyable being able to meet people outside of my usual social circles”.