Are some New York City hospitals and the city’s Department of Health suppressing disclosure of cases in which a dangerous herpes virus is being transmitted by mohels to newborns?
Representatives from New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center refused to respond to this allegation — made specifically about their own hospital — by a senior rabbinic authority at Yeshiva University recently. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also declined to respond to the charge despite multiple requests.
As his source for the allegation, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the influential YU rabbinical leader who made the charge publicly, cited his own daughter who, he said, works as a nurse at New York Presbyterian.
In a public lecture last February in London, Schachter, who is a rosh yeshiva, or senior chief rabbinic authority, at Y.U.’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, claimed that his daughter’s hospital treated three cases per year of Hasidic babies infected with herpes. The infections were “obviously because of metzitzah b’peh,” Schachter told his audience. The remarks were first posted March 14 on the website Failed Messiah.
The Hebrew term metzitzah b’peh, often shortened to MBP, refers to a procedure practiced by some ultra-Orthodox mohels as part of a male infant’s circumcision rite in which the mohel orally sucks the blood away from the infant’s genital area after cutting away his foreskin. The practice can infect newborns with Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1, according to medical authorities, a virus that, while not serious for adults, can be fatal for infants, or cause permanent cognitive or physical harm.
Since 2004, the New York City Department Of Health And Mental Hygiene has reported 12 cases, with two deaths. Schachter cited his daughter as claiming that there are, in fact, about 15 such cases per year in the city, including the three cases or so she claimed per year at her own hospital.
Schachter said his daughter explained that the hospitals do not report these cases because Hasidic clients would not return if they were made public.
Mohels from outside the ultra-Orthodox community use a sterile pipette for this purpose. But many ultra-Orthodox mohels consider direct suction of the genital area by mouth to be mandated by the Talmud as part of the religious rite.
In contrast to New York Presbyterian and the New York City Department of Health, Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, which has perhaps the largest clientele of Orthodox patients in the city, strongly denied Schachter’s allegation.
Eileen Tynion, assistant vice president, public relations for Maimonides, wrote in an email that, “Like all hospitals, Maimonides is required to report cases of infant herpes to the DOH, and we remain in compliance at all times with that requirement.” In September 2011, a two-week old boy died at Maimonides after contracting herpes following MBP, according to the city medical examiner.
Efforts to reach Schachter and his daughter were unsuccessful.
The ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, which has filed a lawsuit against the city’s effort to regulate MBP, also declined to comment on Schachter’s allegations.
Schachter’s remarks on the issue were part of a broader talk he gave to an audience of British rabbis that has sparked intense controversy. During the lecture, Schachter also said that allegations of child sexual abuse within the Orthodox community should not be directly reported to law enforcement authorities; instead, he said, they should first be brought before a special panel of Torah scholars who are also psychologists to determine their validity. He voiced caution about sending cases to law authorities because such action could result in a Jew being sent to a state prison, where he could be locked up “with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.”
This story "Are New York Hospitals Hiding Herpes From Metzitzah B'Peh Circumcision Rite?" was written by Seth Berkman.