Jewish Week
August 24, 2010

Philip Sherman, mohel and cantor, says the circumcision rate in this country is cyclical.

Circumcision Under The Knife

The largest-ever study of circumcisions in the United States has found the largest-ever drop in the circumcision rate: from 56 percent to 33 percent over the last four years, according to a report released at the recent 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

The Jewish Week asked Philip Sherman, a veteran mohel who is also associate cantor at Congregation Shearith Israel, about the report.

Q: Do the new figures, which indicate a drop in the circumcision rate in the U.S., surprise you?
A: No. The anti-circumcision movement is very active and very vocal. The only problem for them is that it seems circumcision significantly reduces, by 50 to 60 percent, the transmission of the HIV virus. I'm not sure how one could be opposed to that.

If medical studies show the health benefits of doing circumcisions, why do you think fewer families are doing it?
Medical studies show that eating healthfully and exercising will have tremendous health benefits, yet many people are extremely overweight and sedentary. Part of the answer is human nature; the other part of the answer is that there are rarely pro-bris/circumcision stories being written showing the benefits of a properly performed, spiritual and meaningful bris by a traditional mohel.

Do non-Jewish families ever ask you or other mohelim to circumcise their sons?
Yes. When I trained as a mohel in Jerusalem in 1976-1977, the Italian ambassador came to my teacher, Rabbi Yosef Hakohen Halperin (z'l) and asked him to circumcise his son. He didn't want a doctor; he wanted the super-specialist.

There are often reports of liberal Jewish families objecting to doing a bris on their sons. Barbaric, they say. How do you persuade them to still do it?
The problem is that word is not getting out that a traditional bris performed by a religiously observant, certified rabbi or cantor-mohel takes under 20 seconds with no advance preparations needed. The baby being held by the warm, loving hands of, usually, his grandfather and not strapped down to a board. Also, it is a mitzvah; it is not a medical procedure. It is a profoundly significant lifecycle event connecting the child to the ancient covenant between God and Abraham and the Torah and its commandments.

Do you notice a drop in non-traditional Jewish families having their sons circumcised? Does it mean a, pardon the expression, cut in your business?
Yes, but it is no different than previous yearly cycles. I've been a mohel for 33 years and have performed more than 20,000 brisses. Some years there are more babies born, other years, less. More girls, less boys and so on.

We've reported on a few controversies involving incorrectly done brisses. How has the training of and procedures used by mohelim changed since you entered the field?
The proper training [in the Orthodox world] for a mohel really hasn't changed. It is an apprenticeship ... It includes at least a minimum of one year following the mohel around, which involves learning all of the laws as they relate to brisses, observing and practicing to the point where the teacher is confident that the student is qualified in all aspects of the bris, not just saying a blessing and removing the foreskin.

Interview by Steve Lipman