By Debbie Maimon
Jewish heroes in our day often seem in short supply. That is not because they don’t exist, but because the nature of a true Jewish hero is that he or she is publicity-shy. Often, we can only identify these noble individuals in hindsight. This is true of a number of people who played pivotal roles in the ten-year saga surrounding metzitzah b’peh.
Much has been written in these pages about the odyssey of the bris milah/metzitzah b’peh lawsuit and how it was finally resolved this month with New York City agreeing to permanently drop the “parental consent” law.
Last week’s Editor’s View traced the remarkable convergence of seemingly natural events that produced this extraordinary legal and spiritual victory. The article stripped aside the veil of randomness, exposing the spine-tingling orchestration from Above that arranged for court battles on behalf of bris milah to be fought on Chanukah and won on Shushan Purim.
Before the profound wonder of it all dissipates in the frenzied run-up to Pesach, why not study this beautiful mosaic a bit further to uncover the unsung heroes in this long-running drama? Who are the “Nachshon ben Aminodovs” in this story who ventured up to their necks in dangerous waters before the waters miraculously parted?
Some of them worked tirelessly from behind the scenes and prefer to remain in the shadows. Others are skilled at downplaying their role and giving credit to others. Yet, we have so much to learn from these individuals, and we hope they won’t mind if we shine a bit of light on at least some of their inspiring deeds.
It Began as an Attack on a Single Mohel
As many are aware, the bris milah lawsuit began after the city’s ten-year campaign against metzitzah b’peh culminated in 2012 with the passing of an amendment that in effect forbade the ritual except in cases where a mohel obtained written parental consent. The regulation obligated the parents to acknowledge that metzitzah b’peh could kill their baby.
Rejecting overtures by Orthodox leaders to negotiate an alternative to the unprecedented government regulation of bris milah, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg taunted the religious community by announcing to the media that he wasn’t afraid to face down “thousands of hostile, screaming men in black hats.”
Gedolei Torah viewed his move to encroach on a religious practice as a dangerous precedent that had to be fought. Years before, they had discerned in the city’s persecution of one particular mohel an ominous precursor of a broader agenda against not only metzitzah b’pehi, but bris milah itself. With the passing of the consent law that imposed government regulation on bris milah, those fears were being borne out.
The struggle to keep bris milah inviolate meant bucking a powerful political establishment and facing down harassment and retaliatory action. Those who dared act knew it would be costly and that it would demand sacrifice and moral courage. And they soon learned that they would get no thanks for it from a largely uninformed public who greeted their actions with apathy, even ridicule. These fascinating modern-day Nachshons rose to the challenge nonetheless.
One of the foremost of this group, Mr. Yerachmiel Simins, had been active for years in combating anti-metzitzah b’peh efforts and in counseling, pro-bono, mohalim who were being watched and investigated by the DOH.
His passion for the cause grew out of a meeting with gedolei Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel many years earlier, following the above-mentioned libel against an individual mohel for practicing metzitzah b’peh, and confusion among community leaders about how best to respond.
During the course of several meetings with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l and other gedolei Yisroel, Simins and other askonim were charged with doing their utmost to prevent government tampering with bris milah on any level, Simins told this writer in an interview.
The determination to execute this mandate drove him to try to unite vastly disparate segments of the Orthodox community to form a solid coalition. The task demanded infinite patience and rare diplomacy skills in explaining the mission’s urgency and overcoming divisiveness. It needed a liaison who all parties felt they could fully trust. It was a process fraught with setbacks. Some parties refused to join a legal battle they felt they could not win. Others felt that suing the government would boomerang on the Jewish community.
In the end, love and devotion for one of the Torah’s foremost mitzvos prevailed on all fronts. In a show of unprecedented unity, all segments of the Orthodox community-Litvishe, Chaidishe, Ahkenazi, Sefardi-pulled together to file a lawsuit protesting New York City’s campaign to regulate bris milah.
Shortly afterward, an historic asifa was held with the participation of rabbonim, mohalim and esteemed speakers from Flatbush, Boro Park, Monroe, Lakewood, Nitra, and Rockland County. All affirmed the frum community’s united stance and encouraged mohalim subjected to government harassment to continue their sacred work.
"The Emperor Has No Clothes"
Dr. Dan Berman, chief of infectious diseases at New York-Westchester Square Hospital in the Bronx, enlightened participants at the asifa with little known medical facts surrounding metzitzah b’peh. He told the assembly that the DOH’s claims about the so-called dangers of metzitzah b’peh to newborns are wholly unsupported by science.
“There isn’t a shred of conclusive evidence to support the allegations,” he informed a surprised audience.
It was one thing for people to hear this message from rabbonim. To hear from a prominent member of the medical establishment that celebrated heads of medical institutions were passing off flawed studies as scientific fact was astounding.
Dr. Berman had conducted his own research into how HSV-1 was transmitted in New York City’s most publicized cases. In addition to studying the city’s reports and allegations, he went so far as to meet with the mohel in question to learn firsthand from him the precise facts surrounding the case.
Mrs. Fischer, the mohel’s wife, vividly recalls that meeting. In an interview with this writer, she searched for words to describe the quest for the truth that played out in her living room ten years ago as medical expert and celebrated mohel opened up to each other.
“He came with an open mind and for a couple of hours went over all the angles with my husband. He listened. He probed,” she recalled. “He then shared with us his belief that the city was on the wrong track.”
Dr. Berman eventually broke ranks with the medical establishment, who were marching in lockstep with the DOH. He went on to author articles in which he exposed the lack of scientific foundation to the allegations against metzitzah b’peh. He called on the medical establishment to employ DNA analysis – universally considered the most precise method of tracing disease transmission – to discover the true carriers of HSV-1 in the cases under investigation.
“The established method in medical science of proving the transmission of virus has been through DNA analysis,” he wrote in a rebuttal of a widely-quoted article in Pediatrics that linked HSV-1 in infants to the practice of metzitzah b’peh. “There is no such evidence in this report.
“There are thousands and thousands of babies upon whom metzitzah b’peh was done and there is not one case in history where there has been a DNA link between the mohel and the baby,” he noted. “If such a danger existed, given that people are looking to prove that it does indeed exist, such a connection should have been established by now, at least in one case.
“There is absolutely no data to establish such a connection,” he concluded.
For a long time, Dr. Berman stood alone as the one medical expert who was willing to challenge the flawed science put out by the Center for Disease Control on the subject of metzitzah b’peh. Much later, the CDC’s report was set aside by a judge as unreliable. In the interim, Dr. Berman suffered professional isolation and opprobrium from colleagues for speaking the truth.
More Unsung Heroes
Three courageous mohalim had set aside their apprehensions and agreed to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit alongside the organizational plaintiffs who included Satmar, Agudath Israel and Lubavitch. Some may question how much courage that actually took, not aware of the retaliation these mohalim anticipated in the growing climate of hostility toward mohalim who performed metzitzah b’peh.
Soley to protect a time-hallowed ritual that for many is intrinsic to bris milah, these individuals were willing to make themselves targets. That meant knowingly exposing themselves and their families to government scrutiny, intimidation and harassment. Subsequent actions by the city bore out their fears.
For starters, as the parties in the lawsuit entered the discovery phase, the city demanded from the mohalim their income tax returns, as well as all documentation of all monies received by them in the performance of their profession.
The requests for private information were massive and overreaching and included information protected by attorney-client privilege. They also included records of all meetings, written notes and communications the mohalim had with one another on the subject of the consent law.
The intimidation didn’t stop there. The city also demanded records of all communications the plaintiffs had with specific medical experts and consultants on the subject of the anti-metzitzah b’peh regulation. They even targeted communications the plaintiffs had with the press, specifically this writer, seeking written and electronic records of all communications between us about the consent law.
At the time, the Yated was the only Orthodox English-language paper standing up for the rights of mohalim to practice metzitzah b’peh and exposing the city’s attacks on the practice as a witch hunt. Its editor understood that the city’s outlandish demands to see the private communications between Yated writers and the plaintiffs were aimed at silencing him.
Instead of backing down, Rabbi Lipschutz authored an editorial criticizing these aggressive tactics.
“We have heard about journalists being sent to jail for refusing to disclose their news sources to the government,” he wrote. “Little did we ever imagine that we would feel the sting of government harassment for doing nothing more than taking a principled stand in support of our belief that the city’s consent law violates key constitutional rights. The city’s aggressive tactics do it no honor.”
The editorial went on to rally religious Jews everywhere to support the bris milah lawsuit. “The many individuals who have given their financial and emotional support to the cause of keeping bris milah free of government tampering are to be envied for the zechuyos that will surely stand by them and their loved ones.”
“The Yated fought from the very outset to protect mohalim and bris milah,” Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, the first mohel to be targeted by the DOH, told the Yated. “Rabbi Lipschutz stuck his neck out from the beginning, going back ten years ago. He jeopardized his parnossah, he risked his reputation, but he never wavered.”
This was at a time when the smear campaign was in full throttle, with talk show hosts and media pundits demonizing metzitzah b’peh as a terrible scourge to society. In the face of the continuing libel flooding the airways and print media, the onslaught gained rapid ground.
The crusade picked up considerable momentum when a rabbi seized the limelight by circulating his own slurs against metzitzah b’peh. This individual helped inflame the City’s opposition to the practice in 2005. He went so far as to flaunt in a class that he spoken to health authorities about a mohel [understood to be Rabbi Fischer, who was later interrogated and harassed by the DOH] who had refused to discontinue metzitzah b’peh during bris milah.
As the Yated management recalls, the crusading rabbi saw remarks about his discussion with city health officials quoted in the pages of the Yated. He wrote an angry letter to the newspaper’s editor, denying having ever uttered the words attributed to him.
Shortly after, a lawyer’s letter threatened the Yated with a defamation of character lawsuit. However, as it turned out, the class by the rabbi had been recorded and posted on a school website. As news of the rabbi’s confrontation with the Yated spread, the speech was hastily pulled from the site, but not before the Yated‘s staff had found it online and transcribed it verbatim. That speech, frozen in time, fully corroborated the Yated’s report.
However, a great deal of damage had been done by then. As the novi in Yeshayah says, “Meharsayich umachrivayich memeich yeitzei’u – Your destroyers will come from within.”
Sowing Confusion in Religious Communities
The steady drip-drip of slander by city officials, so-called experts and other detractors who bought into the anti-metzitzah b’peh libels began to manipulate opinion even in religious neighborhoods.
“I hear people whispering that Rabbi Fischer – a respected mohel dedicated to ushering Jewish children into their covenant with G-d – is really a carrier of the disease,” Rabbi Lipschutz wrote in an editorial. “Is there anything more revolting? Is there anything more disheartening than to see the koach of sheker overcome people’s better judgment?
“The yeitzer hara is not satisfied with creating a chillul Hashem only among the masses. He must also poison our own ranks. He must infect us with the asher korcha of Amaleik – the weakening of conviction. Only then is he satisfied.”
Chilling Peek into the Future
In 2005, an editorial in this paper by Rabbi Lipschutz sounded an alarm that community apathy in the face of government encroachment on bris milah and in the face of the verbal lynching of one mohel would have catastrophic effects.
Many pooh-poohed these concerns. Today, however, in the aftermath of New York City’s attempt to regulate bris milah and indications that the consent law was just the first prong of an far-reaching agenda, we know the writer was disturbingly on the mark.
Seven years before the City of New York put a law on the books that said metzitzah b’peh kills babies, Rabbi Lipschutz described just such a scenario as being around the corner.
“Why was there only one newspaper defending Rabbi Fischer [later exonerated as a carrier of neonatal herpes]? Why was there no organization standing up and calling a blood libel by its name?” Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz challenged the community 7 years ago.
“Will we become like our Russian brethren in the past century who were forced under the communists to conduct the sacred bris in underground bunkers with sentries standing guard? Are we about to revisit those day in our own country? Such a scenario may not be that far-fetched if we don’t raise our collective voices and set the record straight.
“It will be a bechiyah ledoros if local health departments become the arbiters of halachic practice and the New York Daily News and talk show hosts are permitted to become the forums of halachic debate.
“It will be a bechiyah ledoros if mesirah is tolerated as the means of rolling back centuries of halachic precedence.
“It will be a bechiyah ledoros if an exemplary individual like Rabbi Fischer can be harassed and scape-goated and we fail to rise as one voice to his defense.”
The Yated‘s prolific coverage of the bris milah/metzitzah b’peh battles helped to gradually turn the tide of community sentiment, electrifying the Orthodox community to support the bris milah lawsuit. Perhaps in the merit of this solidarity and the kiddush sheim Shomayim of those who agonized over the fate of bris milah in this country, the prayers of all of us were answered.
• • • • •
Integrity and Passion for His Calling
Perhaps one of the most stirring illustrations of moral courage in this odyssey is the little known chapter of the Rockland County protocol. Most people know that this has something to do with DNA-testing of mohalim in Monsey and New Square that proved conclusively that, contrary to allegations, they had not transmitted HSV-1 to babies who fell ill after being circumcised.
As is well-known, the findings of non-matches in the cases under investigation were a game-changer. They torpedoed an article of faith among New York City health officials that a rash or blisters found in the bris milah area within 7-10 days after circumcision, plus an HSV-1 positive test, point conclusively to the mohel and metzitzah b’peh as the mode of transmission.
The Rockland County protocol left this position in tatters. It paved the way for the city’s striking turnaround, in which authorities agreed to abandon the consent law in favor of finding a more effective method of nailing down HSV-1 carriers through DNA analysis (not only of the mohel, but family members and caregivers).
What is less well-known about this extraordinary story is the acts of integrity, moral courage and personal sacrifice that went into actually implementing the Rockland County protocol.
Leading epidemiologist Dr. Oscar Alleyne and his team at the Rockland County Health Department entered the metzitzah b’peh debacle well after a sophisticated propaganda machine had indoctrinated public opinion to believe that metzitzah b’peh killed babies.
“He came into the picture,” a community askan said, “when the unquestioned premise was that the Orthodox community was led by religious fanatics who clung to their primitive rituals and could not be trusted or reasoned with.”
To keep an open mind in such a climate is no small feat. Yet, Dr. Alleyne’s integrity combined with his passion for his calling drove him to look beyond bigotry to find the truth.
“Adopting a position of mistrust defeats my whole goal in public health,” he told the Yated in an interview.”
He refused to turn over the investigation of the herpes cases to New York City or to Albany as requested, insisting that “this is a Rockland County investigation” and would be conducted under his supervision and that of his colleagues, Commissioner of Health Dr. Ruppert and Medical Director of Disease and Control Prevention Dr. Vaidian.
Dr. Alleyne made overtures to the community during the summer of 2013, offering to work out a protocol that would allow DNA analysis to track the carriers of the HSV-1 virus in the afflicted infants so as to block further spread of the contagious disease. Under the guidance of rabbonim, the community cautiously accepted.
“In just a few weeks, the protocol was hammered out,” recalled attorney Simins, who drafted the document with Dr. Alleyne.
Calling for extensive participation in the DNA testing process by mohalim and their families, the protocol was initially met with ridicule by some New York City officials, who scoffed at the very notion that a mohel would cooperate.
Dr. Alleyne was reportedly cautioned, “You will never get a mohel who performs metzitzah b’peh to identify himself. The practice of metzitzah b’peh is shrouded in the tightest secrecy.”
City officials were said to be stunned by Rockland County’s success in achieving unprecedented access to mohalim and partnership with the Orthodox Jewish community. This achievement sharply clashed with the image of religious Jews as scornful of the law, callous and secretive.
Love of the Mitzvah was Stronger than Fear
Simins recalls witnessing the crumbling of stereotypes as he accompanied Alleyne to the homes of mohalim who consented to be orally swabbed for DNA samples to be tested in Albany. The swabbing went on for eight weeks or more in order to collect adequate samples to guarantee reliable analysis.
Why did the mohalim and their families consent? The risks involved in coming forward, including opening themselves up to media attacks and/or criminal investigation by New York City health officials, were obvious to all.
If Dr. Alleyne’s offer was not genuine, or if the doctor proved unable to withstand pressure from his New York City colleagues to disclose the names of mohalim who practice metzitzah b’peh, their cooperation in the project might be courting disaster.
“What I saw was the miracle that can be accomplished when there is trust,” Simins said. “The choice the mohalim made to go against instinct and submit to government scrutiny took courage and mesirus nefesh.”
The mohalim had been promised that no matter what the outcome of the DNA analysis, their names would not be divulged. They would be identified in Albany by number only. And they trusted Dr. Alleyne. Husbands and wives willingly came forward to be orally swabbed.
“Dr. Alleyne conducted this procedure with the greatest sensitivity and tact,” recalled Mr. Simins, who accompanied the physician on these visits to the homes of the mohalim.
Dr. Alleyne, in turn, trusted the promise made to him that were the mohalim found to be carriers in any of the herpes cases under investigation, they would never again perform metzitzah b’peh.
Today, we know that DNA testing fully exonerated the mohalim from any link to the babies stricken with herpes, and that the non-matches played a crucial role in overturning the consent law. But two years ago, when the Rockland County protocol was launched, the bad press mohalim had suffered for so long clouded the atmosphere with suspicion and distrust. No one was prepared to go out on a limb.
How and why did this change? There is something mysterious and wondrous about all this. One can’t help but be awed by the sense that, at the end of the day, devotion to the mitzvah of bris milah suspended the natural order. Earlier in the game, it overcame profound divisiveness and produced the lawsuit coalition. Now, that love prevailed over other deeply-rooted fears, making the impossible happen.
Jews are intrinsically and deeply thankful for the blessings of living in a democracy where human rights and civil liberties form the backbone of society. A people whose history is checkered with persecution, massacres, pogroms and expulsions cherishes American freedoms in a way that few who have not suffered bigotry can understand.
Let us take a lesson from the brave individuals for whom “the land of the free” is more than a pretty cliché. This soaring synonym for America alludes to the inviolate human rights built into the fabric of American government and society, rights that public officials are sworn to protect – and that rank-and-file citizens must at times battle to uphold.
America can be proud of the appeal court justices who understood that the consent law threatened freedom of worship and could not be allowed to stand. These elite scholars and noble public servants command our deepest respect.
As we approach the Yom Tov of Zeman Cheiruseinu, when we relive the epic moments that transformed our nation into an am segulah vegoy kadosh, let us draw inspiration from the unsung heroes who rose to this lofty calling. Turning their lives upside down and risking everything to protect the sacred mitzvah of bris milah, they wrote a glorious page in the annals of kiddush Hashem and deserve our everlasting thanks.
The Miracle of Trust
A secular newspaper wrote about the extraordinary collaboration between the Rockland County Health Department and the Orthodox community in their mutual efforts to wipe out HSV-1 in neonatal.
The author notes the deep mistrust that inhibits parents in New York City “from divulging the name of their mohel,” contrasting it with the ease that seemed to mark the DNA investigations in Rockland County.
“An hour’s car ride north of New York City, Dr. Alleyne has secured the cooperation of one of the largest ultra-Orthodox communities in America, where “about 91,000 Jews, mainly ultra- Orthodox, live in the area,” the author wrote.
“Since Alleyne began working with the community two years ago, parents have come forward voluntarily to report eight suspected cases of neonatal herpes. In the three confirmed cases of the disease, mohels, parents and other caregivers have submitted to weeks of oral swabs, which are then sent to a laboratory for testing,” the article noted.
“If anyone tests positive for HSV-1, the laboratory runs an analysis of the strain in his or her mouth to see if it matches the strain in the infected infant.”
The article expressed amazement at the harmonious collaboration taking place between the ultra-Orthodox population and city health authorities.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.