Ottawa’s three mohels all fit their special duties into their very busy lives as a labour of love of Judaism.
Rabbi Sender Gordon, Dr. André Engel, and Dr. Lisa Rosenkrantz perform brit milah (ritual circumcision) in Ottawa and sometimes travel out of town to do the mitzvah.
This month, Rabbi Gordon flew to Nunavut to perform a brit milah.
The Ottawa mohel, 26, has a young family, a full-time job in real estate, and he and his wife Sarah also run a program called Israel Connect, which pairs retirees in North America with children in Israel for 15-minute weekly conversations via Skype aimed at helping the children with their English-language skills.
Nevertheless, he made time to serve as mohel for the Iqaluit family who had contacted him.
“I feel there is one mitzvah that took people for generations through all kinds of hardship,” he explained. “From the most religious to the unaffiliated, this mitzvah reaches across to them. This plays a very important role in Jewish life, and I want to be part of it.”
Male circumcision is prescribed in the Book of Genesis as a mark of the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham: “Throughout all generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old … This shall be my covenant in your flesh, an eternal covenant.”
“I don’t do it as a job per se, and it’s not for the income,” Rabbi Gordon said. “I try not to go out of town to cities where there is already a mohel. I just travel for family or special request. That’s why this week I’m flying to Iqaluit; it’s something special. If they have the will to take part in this mitzvah, then I will travel to help them do that.”
Rabbi Gordon, who is from Ottawa, holds a bachelor of Talmudic Law from the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in Brooklyn, New York, and received his mohel training and certification in Israel from Rabbi Yackov Shechter, a veteran expert mohel endorsed by the Israeli Health Ministry.
In 2011, Rabbi Gordon returned to Ottawa with his wife, Sarah, and their two children, Yitzy and Chava.
For Dr. André Engel, being a pediatrician and a mohel is a great combination.
“It was a very natural thing to train as a mohel, allowing me to combine my pediatric expertise with my love for Judaism,” said Engel, who has been a pediatrician for more than 37 years.
“As a pediatrician, I deal with babies on a daily basis and I also perform medical circumcisions on non-Jewish babies in my clinic,” he said. “I also have a very strong Jewish background. I was brought up Orthodox in Montreal, and I’m a graduate of Herzliah High School.”
Engel has been a member of Congregation Machzikei Hadas for the past four decades.
Over the past 25 years, he has been a mohel for several hundred babies, using what he calls his “kinder, gentler approach.”
“I do three different things to minimize discomfort for the baby,” he said. “First, I treat the baby with Tylenol prior to circumcision, offer him sweet wine during the circumcision, and we do a ring block, using a local anaesthetic injected into the base of the penis.”
Dr. Lisa Rosenkrantz, a family physician, who has also flown to Iqaluit for a brit milah, made the decision to become a mohel about 18 years ago.
“It came to me as a perfect opportunity to combine my religious life and my medical life.”
She said there are no barriers to a woman being a mohel, except for Orthodox tradition.
“In the Talmud, it says anyone can do it as long as they have knowledge and are skilled at it. Even if you have no other option, the most important thing is to have it done. I have done a circumcision for an Orthodox couple when there was no one else to do it. I did the procedure, and the cantor did the ceremony, and it was lovely.”
Rosenkrantz estimated she performs a brit milah about 10 to 20 times per year. She has also travelled to a variety of locations in response to requests for her services. In addition to Iqualuit, she has gone to Halifax, Peterborough, Belleville and Kingston.
“I love being asked,” she said. “I feel honoured to be asked to participate in the ceremony.
“Especially for unaffiliated Jews and mixed marriages, I really view it as an opportunity to open the door to Judaism. It’s the first important Jewish decision they are making for their child. With the ritual and the ceremony, I try to impress upon them what a great choice they are making and I talk to them a bit about it as an entranceway to finding their place in the Jewish community.”
In a mixed marriage, she tries to make sure the non-Jewish family members feel equally involved, and, with the family’s permission, she gives their name to Shalom Baby, the Soloway Jewish Community Centre’s initiative to welcome babies, which re-enforces the way into Judaism.
A long-time member of Temple Israel, Rosenkrantz has been a family doctor for 35 years. She still does house calls, delivers babies, and provides palliative care. It’s very busy, she said, “but good busy.”