Every January newspapers fill with photos of the first babies of the secular year. Now Lucy Waldman — one of a handful of mohelets, or female mohels — in the United States, is running a baby contest for the Jewish New Year.
Waldman, who also works as a nurse midwife and childbirth educator, was certified as a mohelet in 2010 through a program of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2010. In her “New Year, New Baby Contest,” the first baby born in 5774 will win a $100 gift card for Diapers.com and be featured on Mama Mohel, Waldman’s blog.

With four sons, Waldman, 43, has been on both sides: in fact, negative experiences with her older sons’ brisses spurred her to learn the trade herself.

The Jewish Week spoke with Waldman by phone this week. The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation. For a longer version go to www.thejewishweek.com.

Q: What was your experience like with your sons’ mohels?

A: My first son was with an Orthodox mohel … and as a certified nurse-midwife, I’d been doing circumcisions in the hospital for years, so I stood over this mohel to watch, and I was horrified. What I was concerned about, and went to an urologist to confirm, was that he had taken off too much. … Then, with my twins, the [Conservative] rabbi was an hour and 45 minutes late, and was quite rude. Again, one of my sons needed an urologist to correct the circumcision. For the fourth son, I used a Conservative rabbi referred by my rabbi [Steven Bayar at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn]. He said, “He’s not particularly pleasant or kind, but he does a good circumcision.” After that, Rabbi Bayar said, “Go get certified, we need you!”

If you are Conservative, why did you get certified through the Reform movement?

Another midwife who’s also a mohelet recommended this program, and I did it with my rabbi’s blessing. It was a four-day intensive study of the halacha [Jewish law] of brit milah, studying from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. just of Torah study: what’s OK and what’s not OK. It was wonderful. I went to a Schechter [Conservative day] school as a girl, so I’d studied Torah before, but studying as an adult was magnificent …

Is there any halachic prohibition against women serving as mohels?

If you go to the Gemara, it will say a woman is OK, but only if there are no men available … In a JTA article about this from the 1990s, it said a number of Orthodox rabbis interviewed said it was OK within halacha [for women to be mohelot], but what’s interesting is they all refused to have their names mentioned.

How does your experience as a mother influence you?

I know what a new mother is experiencing, and my priority is to keep the baby safe, do a quality circumcision and make sure everyone in the family is comfortable, Mom and Dad especially. My goal is for the parents to feel the beauty of the welcome ceremony. It’s a sacred event.

A lot of liberal and secular Jews are opting not to have a brit milah nowadays or even a circumcision. Have you encountered families in which one parent doesn’t want to circumcise the child, and how do you deal with that?

I won’t do Brit Shalom — that’s what they call a bris without circumcision … There are also a lot of families that call and want me to do a circumcision but “without all those blessings and prayers and stuff.” I tell them I’m happy to do a secular circumcision for you, but that’s not a bris, they’re not synonymous. … Generally after a conversation, most families I speak with feel more comfortable. I say that everyone needs to be on board.

I know a lot of your clients are interfaith families. Will you do a bris if the father is Jewish, but the mother is not?

I accept patrilineal descent. However, I have to make sure the mom who is not Jewish is on board with raising the baby in Judaism.

To enter the New Year, New Baby Contest, e-mail lucy@birthtobris.com or tweet @mamamohel about a baby born around Rosh HaShanah.