Monday, April 15, 2024 -
Print Edition

Dr. Sarah Grope: Denver’s first and only mohelet

Joe and Rachel Greengard Galt, daughter Jasmine and Rachel’s grandmother Helen Bernstein recite blessings as mohelet Dr. Sarah Grope gently holds Jay at his brit milah.Placing an eight-day-old male into a stranger’s arms for a brit milah, the ritual of circumcision that binds men to the Jewish covenant, can be a tremulous act of faith.

Dr. Sarah Grope, a Denver pediatrician and first practicing Reform mohelet (ritual circumciser) in Denver, understands.

One of about 50 Reform women certified to perform brit milah in the US, Grope also is the mother of three sons.

The fusion of personal insight and professional skill gives her an unusual perspective on the age-old Jewish ritual.

“I have done of hundreds of circumcisions in the hospital, but then my first son Avi was born,” she says. “Dr. Kenneth Katz was our mohel. It was so emotional I cried through the whole thing.

“New moms feel their babies are perfect, precious beings. To willingly accept that someone is going to use a knife on them is extremely difficult.”

As a doctor, Grope is well acquainted with the benefits of circumcision. “I had all the reasons in the world for doing this. But rationalization doesn’t ameliorate the emotional piece of being a new mom.

“Eight days after the birth is still a volatile time for us. There are hormonal fluctuations; emotional mood swings — so many things are going on.”

Grope always had strong ties to Judaism and even contemplated being a rabbi at one point. “It’s hard to consider which way to go in life,” she says. “But I’ve always loved medicine, so I followed my first passion.”

She majored in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at CU as an undergrad and matriculated magna cum laude. But wherever she went, a persistent passion for Judaism accompanied her like a familiar melody.< During her junior year at CU, Grope studied in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was president of the Jewish Society. Upon her return to Boulder, she was co-president of Hillel. Grope started medical school at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo and graduated in 2000. She completed her pediatric residency at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in 2003. Married to Josh Grope, she has felt the successive trepidation, awe and significance of brit milah with her sons: Avi, nine; Aaron, six and a half; and Zev, almost three. “I don’t think I gave serious consideration to the idea of becoming a mohelet until they were born,” she says.

Ritual circumcision first appears in Genesis 17. G-d instructs Abraham to “circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Abraham circumcised himself and every male in his household.

The tradition has continued uninterrupted for thousands of years. However, the inclusion of female circumcisers reflects philosophical shifts in society.

There is nothing in the Torah that forbids a woman from performing brit milah. In Exodus 4:24, Moses’ wife Tzipporah cuts off her son’s foreskin to save him from mortal danger.

Orthodox mohelim undergo extensive training. They are not required to be physicians. The Orthodox do not accept women as mohelim.

In 1984, the Reform movement established the Berit Mila program in Los Angeles, which certifies both men and women as mohelim. The organization ruled that only physicians and nurse-midwives could apply.

The Conservative movement, under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary, also certifies women as mohelot. According to recent estimates, a third of Conservative trainees in recent years have been women.

Around five years ago, mohel Jay Feder made aliyah to Israel. Despite three active Orthodox mohelim in the city, Temple Sinai’s former assistant Rabbi Jay TelRav felt there was a need to introduce a new ritual circumciser into the Denver mix.

TelRav, now senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Conn., envisioned someone who grasped the complexities faced by some Reform families.

“Maybe’s there is only one Jewish parent in the family,” he says. “Or the family has a different relationship with Jewish tradition, or struggles with the whole issue of circumcision.

“You can’t take it for granted that tradition is where a young family begins.”

He had a particular candidate in mind — Dr. Grope. “She was perfect: Reform, a physician, and an incredibly sweet person.”

TelRav consulted with Temple Sinai’s Senior Rabbi Rick Rheins about Grope. He agreed. “As a physician she has the training,” Rheins says. “As a Jew, she has the learning and sensitivity.”

In 2009, TelRav approached Grope with the idea, and she was very receptive.

Within weeks, TelRav and Rheins managed to snare a spot for Grope in the movement’s selective Berit Mila program.

“We may have sped the process along,” says Rheins, “but Sarah was the brains behind the whole operation. The initiative, the study and the skill are 100% hers.”

Grope passed the intensive 35-hour certification course with flying colors.

The new phase of Grope’s life “lit a spark in me,” she says. “Now I could be part of the Jewish community in a very individual way.” She recalls her first brit milah as an exciting yet apprehensive initiation.

“I was nervous,” she admits with a slight laugh. “I was used to doing circumcisions on a tall table with really bright lights in the hospital. And I don’t love talking in public.

“It depends on the size of the crowd — whether there’s a room full of people or a more intimate family setting.”

Now a veteran, Grope feels quite comfortable at a brit milah. “And I always feel very lucky and privileged to be a part of this ritual.”

Her technique and advice on after care are essentially identical to the practices of traditional mohelim —with some noticable variations.

“There’s an order to it,” she says, “like a seder. Everyone stands up and welcomes the baby, who is held by a grandparent, aunt or whomever is chosen.

“I sit in the chair of Elijah. The parents hand me the baby and say, ‘We want you to do this for our son.’ Sometimes the father says he’d like to help, but that’s fairly rare.”

Grope performs half the ceremonies in tandem with rabbis, and half by herself.

Her description of the procedure’s physical details omits graphic elements. “I examine the baby, then numb the area with lidocaine and put on sterile gloves.” The rest is left to the memories of those who have witnessed a brit milah.

For the Metzitzah, the integral yet controversial practice of suctioning blood from the area, Grope utilizes a sterile piece of gauze that draws a small amount of blood away from the wound.

“This method fulfills the halachic requirement and poses no risk of infection to the infant,” she explains.

The baby receives his Hebrew name. Three traditional blessings are recited, as well as additional prayers requested by the family.

“Then you eat,” she laughs.

A sizeable number of families who come to Grope don’t belong to synagogues. “They are young. Often this is their first child. I think of this as my opportunity to connect them to the meaning and warmth of Judaism.”

Grope, who often deals with interfaith families, believes “this is one of the biggest mitzvahs I can do for them. I show them the light of our Jewish life and lovingly usher the non-Jewish partner into Jewish ritual.

“My hope is that this offers a beautiful entry into Judaism so they can embrace and grow in it.”

Grope routinely asks the parents about their plans to raise their child in the Jewish faith. “If a couple wants a brit milah but also intends on baptizing the baby, I will not perform the bris,” she says.

“If they are raising the child Jewishly, then it’s my honor to be part of this wondrous beginning.”

Mothers who entrust their infants to Grope wrap her in glowing adjectives — sensitive, compassionate, tender, gentle, loving, attentive, reassuring.

Sarah Felsen, who has two sons ages three and six months, converted to Judaism. A member of Conservative Rodef Shalom, she heard about Dr. Grope from her husband Gidon’s cousin, who attends Temple Sinai.

“Rabbi Jay TelRav told us about Sarah,” she says.

The couple had met local mohelim at Jewish Baby University but had already decided to use Grope for their first child’s brit milah. “We are egalitarian,” Felsen says, “so that was a major factor.”

TelRav officiated at the ceremony, and Grope was the mohelet.

“My family felt very uncomfortable with the bris,” Felson says. “But Sarah explained it all incredibly well.

“We were committed to circumcision,” she says. “Still, Sarah described the health benefits — which is good, because people actually do ask you what informs your decision.”

Once the ritual concluded, happiness superseded familial divisions.

Just six months ago, Dr. Grope did the brit milah for the Felsens’ second son.

Blessings incorporated the traditional and progressive, including a prayer expressing the parents’ hopes that their children would develop a strong interest in social justice.

“My youngest son took a long time to nurse after the ceremony,” Felsen says. “Sarah went out of her way to comfort me. She has a very calming personality. She stayed with me. That was so important.”

Rachel Greengard Galt, who attends the Conservative HEA, succinctly summarizes her feelings for Grope: “I love her.”

Rachel and her husband Joe are the parents of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and seven-month-old son.

They first listened to Grope speak at Jewish Baby University and decided that if they ever had a boy, she fit the bill.

“She is a pediatrician,” Galt says, “which was important to both of us. And I really connected to her because she’s a working mother.”

Seven months ago, family and friends gathered at the Galts’ home in the early morning for the brit milah.

“My great-great-grandfather was a mohel in Poland,” Galt says, “and my mother brought his knife to the bris. We also had a glass that belonged to my great-grandmother. Sarah used these items in a special way.

“She really understands the anxiety that mothers experience at this time,” she says. “We had this mother-to-mother bond.”

Afterward, Grope said a prayer of healing for Rachel, stayed behind to explain aftercare to the parents, packed up her traveling bag of mohelet supplies and left.

“The next day, she checked in with us to see how we were all doing,” Galt says.

“I got a warm fuzzy feeling from Sarah, and I needed that. She comes to you without pretensions. I loved it.”

Grope says she spends lots of time with mothers before and after the ceremony, explaining why their choice is a sound one religiously, medically and emotionally.

“I completely understand what it’s like to be a new mother,” she says. “You scrutinize your every move; constantly wonder whether you’re doing it right.

“I reassure these mothers that they are doing everything right.”

Rabbis commend Grope for her gentle manner, skill, religious foundation and innate insights. “She’s a wonderful mom,” adds Rick Rheins, who proudly mentions that she’s a member of the Temple Sinai family.

“I loved Jay Feder, but he’s in Israel,” Rheins says. “Dr. Katz is wonderful. He’s Orthodox, yet has always been very respectful of our own traditions. But Sarah is very aware of our needs as a community.

“Women occupy positions of leadership throughout Reform Judaism, and they excel in them all,” he says. “We have female rabbis, female cantors, female presidents of congregations and female mohelim.

“I think it’s great. Women make up half of the Jewish community.”

The HEA’s Rabbi Bruce Dollin says he would recommend Grope “to anyone.

“She’s an excellent mohelet who brings all this knowledge and skill to the procedure. Sarah is gentle, loving, and works very well with all the rabbis.”

Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanuel praises her friendliness, accommodating nature and willingness to structure each brit milah around the requests of families and rabbis.

“She has great spiritual depth, and flawless technique,” he says.

When TelRav and his wife Julie had their first child, Amitai, they chose Grope to perform the ceremony.

The entire congregation was invited to the bris.

Poignant, proud and teary-eyed, the life cycle event was not without its humor.

“Sarah was pregnant, and had also been injured in an accident,” TelRav recalls. “She broke her leg, wore a cast and was strapped into one of those little scooters.

“My wife’s uncle Julius looks at Sarah, looks at me, and says, ‘Now I’ve seen it all — a one-legged pregnant Reform mohelet!’”

Grope cares for sick children at the hospital all day. “It’s my calling to help these children feel better,” she says.

Participating in a brit milah, she says, is pure joy.

“It’s my job to make the baby feel as good as I can. But I also want parents to comprehend brit milah’s vital connection to the history of Judaism, and its future.”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Avatar photo

IJN Senior Writer | [email protected]


2 thoughts on “Dr. Sarah Grope: Denver’s first and only mohelet

  1. Meg Smilowitz

    My second grandson is due in January in Parachute, CO. Is there any female mohel in that area that would be available in that area?

    Reply

Leave a Reply