A Grateful Community

How appropriate that we approach the days of Purim celebrating a milestone turnabout — with the rescinding of a decree against the Jewish community of New York City.

As we reported yesterday, in a landmark reaffirmation of the right to Freedom of Religion, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that the city had reached a tentative agreement with community representatives that would end the unconstitutional regulation of bris milah enacted by the Bloomberg administration.

The rescinded regulation, enacted by previous Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, required mohalim to ask parents to sign a consent form espousing the NYC Department of Health’s view associating MBP with HSV-1 herpes infections, a position dismissed by leading medical experts and veteran mohalim. The City has now agreed to take all necessary steps to withdraw the regulation requiring consent and will no longer regulate any aspect of bris milah.

In its place, a new protocol will be implemented that satisfies our requirements and medical safety: In the event, chas v’shalom, of an infant contracting herpes shortly after a bris, medical authorities will use advanced DNA testing to determine the real source of the infection rather than automatically blaming the mohel.

The turning point came with a precedent in Rockland County. There, a protocol was successfully put into place by the Rockland County Health Department, with the close cooperation of the local Jewish community. This in turn sparked mounting calls on the NYC Health Department to revise its misguided policy on MBP.

Dr. Oscar Alleyne, director of Epidemiology and Public Health Planning for the Rockland County Health Department, wisely took the approach that a comprehensive investigation looking at all potential point sources of infection is necessary, and reached out to the community to work out the details of a successful protocol. In the process, a scientific system was developed that fully protects our religious rights, and works side by side with the community to try to safeguard the health of children. In the process, Dr. Alleyne and his department have earned the respect and admiration of local askanim.

So far, three mohalim were tested in Rockland county under the terms of protocol. One led to an inconclusive result, as not enough virus was detected in the mohel to warrant DNA testing. In the other two cases it was conclusively determined that the mohalim were not a DNA match to the respective infants.

The egregious regulation, adopted by the NYC Board of Health in September 2012 and put into effect in January 2013, was viewed by members of the community as a grave infringement of religious liberties and a dangerous precedent for all religious freedom in a land founded on that freedom.

In an inspiring demonstration of unity, a unique coalition of groups joined to fight the good fight. Agudath Israel of America, the Satmar-affiliated Central Rabbinical Congress, the Chabad-affiliated International Bris Association and three mohalim filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City, saying that the regulation violated their constitutional rights to both freely exercise their religion and to free speech, because it forced mohalim to give parents a message that they know to be untrue, namely that metzitzah b’peh — which they hold to be a requirement of Jewish law and a safe practice — should, incongruously, not be performed.

Our community owes various askanim, whose affiliations span the spectrum of Torah Jewry, a deep debt of gratitude for having dedicated themselves selflessly to this cause for the past decade.

How sadly ironic that the same Mayor Bloomberg who donned a yarmulke and courted religious Jews to help reelect him, turned his back on and broke his word to those supporters. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his staff — including Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli and senior aide Avi Fink — deserve credit and our heartfelt thanks for making good on a campaign promise to chart a new approach. Under the mayor’s leadership, the administration engaged in a series of conversations with askanim — who in turn were guided by leading Rabbanim — that led to the understanding that was reached on Tuesday.

Ever since Hashem commanded Avraham Avinu to circumcise himself and his sons, bris milah has been recognized as the cornerstone of Jewish life. Over the centuries there have been decrees against it. From the Seleucid Greek Empire to the Soviet Communist “evil empire,” our enemies who sought to destroy Yiddishkeit targeted bris milah. The wise learn from their enemies. And our enemies have always understood the centrality of the mitzvah of bris and all its observances.

At a time when the right to freely practice bris milah is under attack, it was imperative that in New York City, home to the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, our sacred mesorah be respected and our religious liberties protected.

The turnabout announced Tuesday gave reason for all of Torah Jewry to rejoice.