Denver Mohel Undergoes Training in Israel

By Leigh Rich, IJN Staff Writer – December 15, 2000

Dr. Kenneth Katz, a local pediatrician and mohel, recently visited one of the most renown and well-respected mohelim in Israel this past August – Josef HaCohen Halperin, chief mohel for Bikur Cholim Hospital in Jerusalem.  Katz traveled to Israel for the sole purpose of apprenticing under Halperin to learn “the much more specialized training, both technical and spiritual, a mohel receives.“ 

“I feel especially fortunate to have both medical knowledge and now the further training from an Orthodox Jerusalem mohel, giving me both spheres of expertise,” he told the INTERMOUNTAIN JEWISH NEWS.  “My trip to Israel last August was not the usual touring or Family Mission experience.  Fortunately, it was before all the recent unrest in Israel.  Instead, I was privileged to be able to enhance my knowledge and training in performing britot by apprenticing with an experienced mohel and teacher of mohelim, Yosef HaCohen Halperin.”  Having since returned to Denver, Katz has been honored with Halperin’s stamp of approval as a fully trained and certified mohel

IJN:  Who is Yosef HaCohen Halperin?

Katz:  “Halperin has had an illustrious life, performing milah since before 1948 – he was trained by his father.  He is chief mohel of Bikur Cholim Hospital in Jerusalem, where he interacts closely with the medical staff.  He is in charge of certifying other circumcisers for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”

“Halperin has performed the ancient rite of bris milah there and in other countries such as Singapore, Austria and China.  He also lived and performed milah in Paris for about 10 years.”

“He is not only a master at his trade but also has developed an outstanding teaching program for other mohelim, offering Orthodox certification to those who successfully complete his program and demonstrate competence in performing this mitzvah.”

IJN:  What was the impetus to study under Halperin in Israel?

Katz:  “Although I have 20 years of medical experience as a pediatrician and have performed over 2,000 circumcisions for my patients, in addition to performing over 100 bris ceremonies, I wanted the opportunity to study this ancient art in the traditional manner in which it has been passed down – from expert mohel to student – by apprenticing.”

“When I learned that the famous mohel and teacher Yosef HaCohen Halperin was available and willing to work with me, I jumped at the chance.”

IJN:  What were your first impressions of Halperin?

Katz:  “My training began on a Sunday in August.  After introductions, Yoske said, ‘Let’s get going.  We have five britot today.’  We hopped in his car and off we went.”

“The first bris was at a shul in Shiloh in the West Bank.  We drove out of Jerusalem into desolate country.  Arabic words were dominating the road signs.  After driving for a while, Yoske said we must turn around, we were heading into Ramallah.”

“We turned around and made our way to Shiloh.  We seemed to be in Palestinian territory, so I asked Yoske, ‘Are we safe here?’  His answer:  ‘Of course we are safe.  We have Eliahu Hanavi with us."  Eliahu (Elijah the Prophet) is said to attend each and every bris. 

IJN:  What were some of your favorite moments working with Halperin?

Katz:  “Seeing the joy Israeli Jews experience at the mitzvah of a bris was overwhelming.  Since the time of Avraham, bris has always been associated with joy.  The Torah describes that Avraham and Sarah made a party when Yitzhak was weaned, but we learn from Tosofos that the party was for the joy they felt at his bris.”

“The wine we have at a bris symbolized joy.  No where is the sason, the joy, of bris understood and expressed more than in Israel, where each new life is truly precious.”

IJN:  What was your daily life like?

Katz:  “I observed britot in small synagogues in the West Bank, at a kibbutz near the Dead Sea, in party halls and hotels in Jerusalem, in Orthodox synagogues, in a very observant Chasidic shul in Mea Shearim, and in smaller communities and settlements throughout Israel.”

“I saw britot performed by several mohelim, including the head rabbi of the Bresolv Shul in Mea Shearim.  He is a 74-year –old Chasidic Jew who learned to do milah when he was 70 and has performed over 700 in these past four years.”

Bris really does hold our people together.  It was special to share the thrill of the entire community at a secular kibbutz near he Dead Sea when one of its members had his bris.  We became part of the ‘kibbutz family’ as we ate, danced and sang with them, sharing the joy of their simcha.”  “What a special way to see Israel.”

IJN:  Were you always busy observing and performing britot?

Katz:  “When there wasn’t a bris to be done, Yoske and I spend many hours in one-on one didactic training at Bikur Cholim Hospital.  We thoroughly reviewed the halachah of milah directly from the Sulchan and from texts such as Safer HaBris.”

“We reviewed medical tests and illustrations of anatomy and its variations.  We practices every aspect of the procedure on plastic models Yoske uses for teaching purposes.”

“His technique is quite different from that which I learned during my pediatrics internship.  We examined countless newborn baby boys in the hospital nursery to learn the many variations in share of the foreskin and how to correctly approach its removal.”

IJN:  As a long-time pediatrician, why did you want Halperin’s certification?

Katz:  “To a mohel, milah is a highly specialized skill taking lots of time to learn.  In contrast, a physician learns to perform circumcisions as just one part of his complete medical training.”

“In the spiritual realm, I learned the beauty and importance of this mitzvah.  Using gematria (assigning a numerical value to each letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet), the word bris has the value 612, suggesting that, of all the 613 mitzvot Hashem has given us, bris is the most important for us as a people being equal in value to all other 612 mitzvot combined.”

“It is actually also a mitzvah to attend a bris.”

IJN:  When did Halperin give you his certification?

Katz:  “I was not able to perform enough bris ceremonies while in Israel to obtain Yosef Halperin’s approval as a certified mohel.  He is careful only to give his certification to those who truly have earned it.”

“Since returning to Denver, I have sent Yosef video tapes of many britot I have performed here, and we converse often by phone.”

“After giving me additional suggestions for minor improvements in my technique and watching additional video of my skills, he recently called me with excitement in his voice.”

“He said my britot were perfect.”

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