MERCURY NEWS, San Jose, California, Saturday, 12 July 2003,

Posted on Sat, Jul. 12, 2003

Saying no to circumcision


By Lisa Fernandez
Mercury News

A small but increasingly active number of Jews are bucking ancient tradition, opting not to circumcise their sons, a religious rite practiced since Abraham first took a flintstone to his foreskin.

Instead, these families are performing alternative birth ceremonies that leave the penis intact. As they choose to reject an integral part of their religious history, they also risk tearing apart family and friends.

The global movement, powered by the Internet, reflects an increase in interfaith marriages, changing parenting philosophies and a desire to avoid unnecessary surgery. The heart of the country's trend-setting "no circ" base is in the Bay Area.

"I know circumcision is historic, tribal and runs really deep, but I don't think it's right," says Avi Rose, 49, of Oakland, who did not circumcise his adopted son, Oren. "It's precisely because I'm so committed to Judaism that I couldn't do what feels deeply wrong. A core ritual to welcome a newborn into the Jewish world shouldn't do unnecessary violence."

Instead of snipping Oren's foreskin, his parents created their own birth ritual, blessing the baby and dipping his feet in water, a biblical practice symbolic of generosity and hospitality.

No one keeps an official tally of how many parents opt not to circumcise their sons. But Jewish community members say anecdotally, the numbers of alternative ceremonies, and books and Web sites denouncing circumcision are increasing and gaining popularity. Helen Bryce, who runs the Alternative Bris Support Group in Capitola, said that a decade ago she used to get 10 calls a year from Jews questioning circumcision; today, that number is 100.

A Jewish circumcision is called a brit milah, or bris, and is performed in a few seconds by a mohel, sometimes without anesthesia, sometimes with a little wine rubbed on the baby's lips. It is often performed in a home. It's estimated that at least 90 percent of Jewish boys are circumcised in the United States, several rabbis and mohels said.

Abraham's pact

As the Genesis story goes, Abraham made a pact with God to be circumcised and follow the Torah. In turn, God would make Abraham's nation prosperous. Today, Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day after birth.

Muslims also circumcise their sons in a less-formal ceremony called a khitnah or khitan, often in a hospital by a secular doctor. Two Muslim anti-circumcision Web sites are or In the Bay Area, Muslims who choose not to circumcise their sons are not as vocal as their Jewish counterparts and have no active groups, several community members said.

Within Judaism, the debate surfaces every 30 years or so and is steeped with religious and medical arguments. Both sides are equally passionate.

Circumcision is barbaric, reduces sexual pleasure, and in rare cases, can lead to death, argue the "no-circ" supporters. They point to the American Pediatric Academy's latest statement in 1999, which said there was "insufficient" evidence of medical benefits to recommend routine hospital circumcisions. Since 1980, hospital circumcisions -- most of which don't include Jews because they circumcise at home -- have hovered around the 60 percent mark, federal health statistics show.

But traditional Jews counter that circumcision hurts as much as being stuck with a pin and can reduce some types of infections. But it's more than just a scientific argument, they argue.

"It would be the loss of one of our oldest traditions," said Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue. "For 3,000 years, this is how Jewish males have expressed their covenantal relationship with God."

Rabbi Mark Bloom won't let non-circumcised boys have a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. While he said staff won't be "fanatical" about checking, he acknowledged that the children who have their diapers changed at temple preschool would be discovered.

"A bar mitzvah acknowledges that you are taking on the Jewish commandments," Bloom said. "To flout this is such a violation. I know not everyone keeps kosher, which is also a commandment, but this is just more important. In the Bay Area, some can't believe the stance I take. Outside the Bay Area, people can't even believe the question."

Not all rabbis feel that circumcision defines a Jew.

Rabbi Yeshaia Familant, who is also a marriage and family counselor in Menlo Park, performs circumcision-free ceremonies, which are often called brit bli milah (covenant without circumcision), brit shalom (covenant of peace), brit shem (covenant of the name) or brit hayim (covenant of life).

Familant said the Jewish "no circ" movement has picked up speed in the last five years. Familant cited the increase in interfaith marriages, where one spouse often doesn't care about the ancient rite. Also, he said people nowadays are skeptical of the need for any type of surgery, and parents are increasingly interested in democracy within the home and the "rights of the child."

Living among diverse ethnic groups also shapes opinions.

Gillian Flato, 32, of San Jose was raised a Conservative Jew on the East Coast who had never thought twice about circumcising a son if she had one.

But when she moved to Silicon Valley, a friend from India said to her: "Any religion that demands you cut off part of your son's penis is not a religion I would want to be a part of," Flato recalled.

In 2000, she launched one of the first, and still one of the few, Web sites for Jews who consider circumcision a barbaric blood sacrifice. Today her site, has grown to 60 international members who advocate keeping the human body intact at birth.

`Trauma' recalled

Another popular Web site is run by Mark Reiss, 70, a retired San Francisco radiologist who recalled what he called the "trauma" of his own circumcision in his mid-60s. His site,, now offers a list of 25 rabbis and lay ministers worldwide who perform ceremonies while keeping the foreskins intact. He said he gets two or three e-mails a week from families seeking information.

Some Jews are ashamed to tell others of their decision.

One 30s something couple in the North Bay did not circumcise their newborn in April. They asked not to be named because their larger circle of relatives -- many in the South Bay -- don't know about their decision. One set of grandparents is Holocaust survivors, and the couple's break with tradition was very painful for them, even though the baby will be raised a Jew.

Not circumcising her 3-month-old son, Naison, was so traumatic for Kalanete Baruch's father, that he no longer speaks to her.

"It's a touchy issue for observant Jews," said Baruch, 34, of Sebastopol. "My dad hung up on me and hasn't spoken to me since."

The uncut Jewish movement comes on the heels of a much larger, secular no-circumcision movement founded by Marilyn Milos of San Anselmo. She founded the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Center (NOCIRC) in 1986. Since then, dozens of groups have formed to fight what they call routine child mutilation. The coalition of groups successfully lobbied Medicaid to stop paying for routine circumcisions in hospitals in 10 states.

Sari Singerman, 37, and her husband, Moses Goldberg, 35, did not circumcise their son, Julian Zion. The couple said it's about time Jews against circumcision speak out -- even if it means stirring up controversy at the Petaluma Hebrew school where Goldberg is principal.

"There might be people in the closet who feel like they can't say anything and who fear being ostracized," Singerman said. "I want people to raise the question, `Why do we Jews do this?'"

Contact Lisa Fernandez at or (408) 271-3635.

(File prepared 13 July 2003)