Even for the most ancient of rituals, telecommunications can offer assistance, it seems.
Worried by a dearth of mohelim, the Jewish experts in the fine art of circumcision, a Florida rabbi has formed a mohel collective and gotten an 800 number new parents can call.
"There's a shortage of people with this specialized training," says Rabbi Pinchas Aloof of Delray Beach. "We want to bring the mohel to the family in need of the services so the requirements of Jewish law can be fulfilled."
Aloof says that the shortage of mohelim in the South once forced him to perform five briths -- circumcision ceremonies -- in four different states in the course of one day, and has sent him as far from home as the Caribbean. No longer. Now there is 1-800-FOR-BRIT.
But around Washington, 800 numbers are not necessary. Mohelim are listed in the Yellow Pages, and local practitioners say no parent here need worry a brith will go undone.
"Always we had fewer people doing it," says Rabbi Raphael Malka, who has heard this kind of talk before and prefers to take the long view. Now, he says, there are about four local mohels who manage to keep up with the demand, although it is not always easy.
"Sometimes I have three in a day. Doctors have it so easy, because it's done in the hospital, and we have to run from house to house. You have one in Gaithersburg, you have one in Georgetown -- it takes time to get from place to place."
The problem is, the young just aren't all that interested in pursuing this particular career. Frederick Goldberg, who advertises in the Yellow Pages (under "Mohels"), has managed to convince only one of the five potential candidates in his family (one son and four sons-in-law) to train with him. "My second son-in-law is a mohel, but he doesn't make a living out of this," says Goldberg. "He's an accountant in Baltimore."
The accountant-mohel had always hoped to be a surgeon, Goldberg says, "but his parents couldn't put him through school, so he went along with me. He's a very precise person, and he went out twice a week to Philadelphia to the Einstein Medical Center for three months to train and he's A-1. I tell you, the way he performs a brith -- no one does it like him. He really knows his business."
Goldberg has been a mohel for 30 years, and no longer remembers exactly how he came to the work.
"You just fall into it," he says. "I just decided, or maybe somebody talked me into it. I also went to Philadelphia, to one of the best teachers in the United States -- he's known all over the world. Morris Shoulson. He made his son to be a mohel."
(Shoulson's son Joel, in fact, has performed more than 20,000 circumcisions and been profiled in Esquire magazine.)
A brith is supposed to be performed on the eighth day after birth, as stipulated in the book of Genesis, and it is a father's duty either to perform the ceremony himself or to appoint someone else to do it. Most choose to appoint.
"It's a mitzvah, a good deed," says Rabbi Malka. "As a father, I wanted to do it for my own kids. That's the greatest mitzvah. The first time I was nervous. After that, it was a joy."
Brit America, as the new referral service is called, has 20 mohelim who can be reached on what Rabbi Aloof calls "our hot line." The group hopes eventually to sign up 200 mohelim.
"I have been doing this for some 30 years," says Rabbi Aloof. "To me it goes along with my work as a rabbi. This is a happy, joyous occasion when we can bring the child into the covenant of Abraham. I just did two of my grandsons ... Oh, what a feeling!"
In the United States, about 90 to 95 percent of baby boys are circumcised. In the past few years, some parents and health activists have begun to question whether circumcision is medically necessary, but Goldberg says there are no doubts about the religious and cultural necessity in the Jewish community. He estimates that 75 percent of local Jewish parents aren't satisfied with a hospital circumcision, but want a home ceremony performed by a mohel.
Mohels have, of course, developed their own jokes and lore. Goldberg laughingly calls it "a 50/50 business -- you have girls too, you know." And Rabbi Malka talks about his years training in London, when he learned of what Queen Elizabeth did upon the birth of her son Charles.
"Prince Charles is circumcised, and circumcised by a mohel," he says. "She called her surgeon, and he said, 'Your majesty, the expert is a mohel and I am no mohel.' "