A majority of the leading Democratic candidates running for mayor of New York City said they plan to retain a controversial policy adopted by the de Blasio administration that accommodates the Orthodox Jewish community on a risky circumcision practice known as metzitzah b’peh, which can transmit herpes to an infant.
Five candidates who responded to a survey the Forward sent to eight of the leading contenders for the June 22 primaries said they wouldn’t seek to change Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policy that allows the ritual circumciser, or mohel, to clean the circumcision wound by oral suction but bans mohels implicated in cases where infant boys have contracted herpes.
One candidate took the middle-of-the-road approach, saying he would seek to balance protecting religious rights and public health, and the remaining two leading candidates didn’t take a position.
The issue has been a political football in citywide races in the last decade due to the city’s Orthodox populations, a voting bloc that has proved influential in the past and could be even more so in this year’s experiment with ranked-choice voting. De Blasio barely avoided a run-off in the crowded Democratic primary in 2013 in part by winning the support of some Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. Those who embrace metzitzah b’peh appreciated his signaled intent to repeal a rule instituted by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg that required parents to sign a consent form acknowledging the risks of the practice. At least 22 children contracted herpes from the practice between 2004 and 2020, according to city records.
In 2015, the city’s Board of Health voted to repeal the consent form regulation after reaching a deal with representatives of the Hasidic community. In return, rabbinical leaders agreed to cooperate with the city’s agency in identifying mohels who were in contact with herpes-infected infants and ban them from performing oral suction. The mayor admitted two years later that the city failed to enforce the new regulations after six additional cases were reported.
Andrew Yang, the frontrunner according to recent polls who has invested time courting the city’s Orthodox Jews, faced backlash for a stance he took against circumcision when he was running for president in 2020. He immediately diffused the matter by committing to protect religious freedom.
“As mayor, I will respect freedom of religion,” Yang told the Forward in February. “I will not get in the way of anyone’s right to circumcise their children and maintain the traditions of their faith.” The clarification earned him praise in Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities.
In a recent interview on the Daily Beast’s ״The New Abnormal” podcast, Yang maintained that his personal stance against circumcision hasn’t changed. “I have and had a personal viewpoint on circumcision that is constant and is the same as it ever was,” Yang said in the interview published on Tuesday. “I just don’t think that our government should have a role in very intimate personal family decisions.”
“Even if babies get herpes?” Harry Siegel, the publication’s senior editor asked.
To which Yang responded, “I can have my own viewpoint on what people’s decision should be. But I also recognize that it’s not my job to have my viewpoint somehow dictate policy to influence other families’ decisions at that level.”
Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, said in his response to the Forward survey, sent to the candidates in January, that he would “work collaboratively with community leaders in respect of religious customs while prioritizing enforcement against individual actors who threaten the health and safety of their Neighbors.”
Adams added, “The city’s current policy reflects that goal, and it should be regularly evaluated to ensure it continues to do so.”
May Wiley, who served as a counsel to de Blasio, and Shaun Donovan, who served in the Bloomberg administration, echoed that sentiment, pledging to retain the current policy.
Kathryn Garcia, most recently the commissioner for the city’s sanitation department, suggested that the ban, while well-intended, has not worked. “The practice continues and families with infants who became infected have been unwilling to cooperate with health officials,” she said. “Distrust between the community and the city’s health department has only worsened over the pandemic and set us back further.” Garcia said that there needs to first be a rest in the relationship between City Hall and the Orthodox community “so that we can all move forward together.”
Ray McGuire, a former Citibank executive, pledged to “work with communities and public health experts to find a balance between public health and religious liberty.”
Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, and Dianne Morales, a former non-profit executive, didn’t respond to the question by press time.