Bay Areas newest mohels bring personal style to the table

Two more professionals have joined the Bay Area mohel brigade.

Though they represent different streams of Judaism, Dr. Elizabeth Pohl and Rabbi Gil Leeds are eager to carry on the ancient tradition of brit milah.

 

Elizabeth Pohl

Pohl, 33, is a pediatrician at San Rafael’s Marin Community Clinics, which serves low-income and uninsured patients, and Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. She’s done hundreds of circumcisions over the course of her practice, but later this month she’ll perform her first as a certified mohelet.

 

“It seemed a natural thing for me to do,” says the San Diego native and member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “I always appreciated the sense of warmth and continuity I felt being part of the Jewish community. Once I learned how to do [circumcision] and went to a few brit milahs, I was excited to contribute, to use my skills, being part of Jewish tradition and creating that sense of warmth.”

Last December, she attended a mohel certification program for health care professionals at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The surgical skills and “bedside manner” she already had down. The program taught her the proper prayers, ritual and significance of the ceremony.

“One of the most important things was learning the historical symbolism of [brit milah] in Judaism,” she says. “The different interpretations –– talmudic, kabbalistic –– and how it makes us whole, makes the baby whole.”

Pohl is about to hang out her shingle, but Leeds has been performing brit milahs for a while, mostly as protégé of and heir apparent to Rabbi Chanan Feld, the late Berkeley mohel. After Feld died last October, Leeds stepped out on his own.

“I’ve had to take over the reins in these unfortunate circumstances,” says Leeds, who also serves as director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at U.C. Berkeley. “[Feld] turned me on to the whole concept of bris. Every place I go, he’s a legend. Every bris I do is in his honor.”

 

Rabbi Gil Leeds (far right) performs a brit milah in Palo Alto, with Rabbi Yitzhak Feldman (far left) and Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson. photo/alex axelrod photography

Leeds grew up in a secular Jewish home  in the San Fernando Valley, though he attended a Jewish high school. He interrupted his premed studies at U.C. Berkeley to study at yeshiva in Israel for a year, all the while becoming more observant.

 

He deepened his Torah studies in Australia, and, later, Brooklyn, before moving back to Berkeley in 2005, where he took up residence at the Chabad House. It was Rabbi Feld who pitched the idea of Leeds becoming a mohel.

“[Feld] said to me, ‘No matter the circumstances, you always have to keep your mind clear and focused, and never let anything disturb your peace,’ ” Leeds said of the advice of his mentor. “The easy part is the baby. Baby and mohel are on good terms. It’s keeping the family calm that counts.”

With a schedule that sometimes includes four ceremonies in a single day, Leeds tries to embody that teaching. Pohl, too, has developed her own approach, one that accounts for delicate babies and queasy parents.

“The most important thing,” she says, “is have parents focus on the baby and less on the actual procedure, because that can make them feel nervous. We know there’s pain, but we train to provide pain relief. The act of sucking [on wine or sugar water] serves as a sedative and helps the baby stay more relaxed.”

Though it’s not un­heard of for women to become mohels, it is relatively rare. Pohl thinks women bring something extra to the table.

“Not that men can’t bring the sense women bring,” she says, “but it’s more natural for women to have that maternal instinct, that sense of warmth and ability to bring people together. That’s something I feel I’m bringing, too, making sure everyone feels comfortable and included.”

Leeds, too, places a priority on making all feel welcome at the brit milah. “I always make my service inclusive,” Leeds says. “You’re part of an intimate moment in their lives. Then they’re inspired to do more mitzvahs. One mitzvah leads to the next.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.