New York City Stonewalls Forward on Metzitzah B'peh Circumcision Regulations

Babies Are Sickened — But City Won't Give Info

Tradition? Rabbi Avrohom Cohn performs a bris at a synagogue in Brooklyn’s Boro Park. He says he performed the controversial metzitzah bpeh ritual, but did not get consent from the parents.
courtesy of avrohom cohn
Tradition? Rabbi Avrohom Cohn performs a bris at a synagogue in Brooklyn’s Boro Park. He says he performed the controversial metzitzah bpeh ritual, but did not get consent from the parents.

By Paul Berger

Published April 24, 2014, issue of May 02, 2014.
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It’s been more than one year since New York City announced a new regulation to protect infants from contracting herpes during metzitzah b’peh, a controversial circumcision rite that many ultra-Orthodox mohels employ.

Since then, two babies in the city that were subjected to MBP, as the rite is known, have been infected with the herpes virus, and as the Forward reported in March, one of the city’s leading mohels continues to flout the law.

But the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has refused to respond to multiple requests from the Forward for basic information about how, or if, it is implementing its regulation.

The department’s regulation requires mohels to seek written parental consent before performing MBP, in which the mohel’s lips are placed on the infant’s penis to suction blood from the circumcision wound.

The city has not responded to questions that the Forward sent via email eight times between March 27 and April 22. Nor has the city responded to four phone messages left between April 9 and April 22.

In its queries, the Forward sought to learn what, if anything, the health department is doing to enforce its own rule after Rabbi Avrohom Cohn, a leading mohel, told the Forward that he refuses to comply with it.

MBP is practiced by a significant percentage of the city’s large Orthodox Jewish population. Though health authorities warn that it poses a threat of infection to infants, whose anti-immune responses are not fully developed, several major ultra-Orthodox groups insist that its performance is an integral requirement of the overall religious rite of circumcision.

However, many Modern Orthodox mohels use a sterile pipette to suction off blood following an infant’s circumcision.

Leading medical groups say there is a risk in particular that the mohel can transmit herpes to an infant during MBP that, while harmless to adults, can be potentially fatal to newborns. New York City’s health department says 14 infants have been infected in the city since 2000. Two of those babies died, and at least two others suffered brain damage.

Cohn, who is chairman of the American Board of Ritual Circumcision, told the Forward in March that he performs MBP in the city on a regular basis.

But he said that he would never seek parental consent, because he believes it is an infringement of his religious liberties.

He called the claim that MBP poses a risk to infants a blood libel.

After publishing Cohn’s statement, the Forward asked the health department, “In light of Rabbi Cohn’s statements and actions, will the [health department] be taking action to try to prevent more cases of MBP-related herpes and/or to enforce its consent form rule?”

But the department will not respond.

Under the new regulation, mohels must keep signed copies of the forms for one year.

The health department has previously said that it has never sanctioned or fined a mohel for failing to comply with the consent form rule.

But the department will not say whether it has ever checked if mohels are complying with the rule. To do so, it would simply ask mohels who practice MBP for copies of signed forms they have collected.

The Forward filed a request in February, under New York State’s Freedom of Information Law, asking whether the health department had ever requested such forms and, if so, how many forms it had asked for. The Forward also wanted to see redacted copies of such forms.

The city responded by refusing to confirm or deny whether it had ever asked for such forms. The city added that if such forms did exist, because of privacy concerns they could not be released.

Before he became mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio blasted city agencies for failing to respond to Freedom of Information requests.

“We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers,” de Blasio said when he was public advocate, in April 2013.

The Forward appealed the city’s decision March 26.

Under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, the city was required to respond within 10 business days of receiving the appeal. It failed to do so, and more than 20 business days later has yet to respond.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger


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