Monday, Jun 10, 2024

DOH Campaign Against Circumcision Takes New Hit

MOHEL BLAMED FOR HERPES TESTS NEGATIVE The Department of Health's campaign to demonize metzitzah b'peh by blaming herpes infections in newborns on the mohel, has taken a new hit. Twice in the past two months, the DOH has been embarrassed by evidence shattering its myth about the so-called life-threatening dangers of metzitzah b'peh. In two of the five herpes cases continually cited as showcasing these “dangers,” new evidence backed by medical records has pointed to family members with active herpes sores - not the mohel - as the most likely source of the infection.

The discovery of this evidence, in live interviews with parents of the affected babies, has prompted sharp criticism of the Department’s policy of attacking the practice of mbp, and groundlessly targeting mohelim as the source of infection in every case.


In a third case, a baby with a rash on his knees was diagnosed as having herpes even though lab results were negative. Nevertheless, the DOH mounted a hunt for the mohel who performed mbp.


Now, for the first time, a mohel blamed for transmitting herpes to a Kiryas Yoel baby in May has submitted to blood tests to determine if in fact he carries HSV-1 antibodies.


A positive finding, while not proving claims that mbp caused the baby’s illness, would not disqualify the mohel as a potential source. In rare circumstances, someone who has herpes antibodies may “shed” the virus in his bloodstream and possibly transmit it to another party.




Contrary to Department presumptions, however, the mohel tested negative. That is proof positive that since he never had the HSV-1 virus, he could not possibly have transmitted it.


In an exclusive interview with Yated, the mohel, Rabbi G., said he chose to be tested a second time, to be absolutely sure.


“On the advice of my lawyer, Mr. Yerachmiel Simins,” he said, “we took the precaution of not only taking the test twice, but arranging witnesses and a legal affidavit signed by a doctor and two nurses, testifying to the results.”


The mohel said he felt these measures were necessary to protect himself from false attacks by health officials.


“I and other mohelim feel that when it comes to mbp, the truth no longer matters to the Health Department. They are after mohelim and are not interested in the facts.”




Rabbi G. said he didn’t need the test for his own peace of mind, that he had been a mohel for over a dozen years and had performed thousands of brissen. Of these thousands of circumcisions, he said, every single one had been done with metzitzah b’peh, and never once had a baby he circumcised fallen ill with herpes.


“If I have the slightest cold or infection of any sort, I would never touch the baby,” Rabbi G. said. “I also take precautions by sterilizing my mouth before doing metzitzah like all mohelim I know do.”


Rabbi G. said that in the aftermath of the discovery that the Kiryas Yoel baby was treated for a serious herpes infection, health officials apparently told the media that the mohel was to blame. The unfounded allegations were repeated in a spate of news articles that reported on the tragedy. Determined efforts were made by health officials to uncover his identity.


“Knowing how some of my colleagues have been hounded by the DOH over metzitzah b’peh, I was afraid that I too would be singled out,” Rabbi G. said. “One mohel was bashed in the press and hounded by the health department and reporters. His life was made miserable.”


Rabbi G. said he spent weeks living in fear of being the victim of such a media lynch. “Many in our community no longer trust the Department. Instead of working for the public good, they are using their authority to push their own personal agenda. Their tactics don’t fit in a democracy.”




The distrust of the Department runs so deep, that Rabbi G. chose to speak anonymously to this writer, and only with counsel present. Even while armed with a legal affidavit signed by doctors and nurses who attest to his being free of HSV-1 antibodies, Rabbi G. is wary of DOH efforts to identify him.


“Their attitude is, we have a case of herpes in a baby boy, let’s find a mohel to blame it on. I am not willing to be their scapegoat.”


 “There would be no need to keep this mohel’s identity under wraps,” explained attorney Simins in a separate interview with Yated, “if the Department were willing to approach the issue rationally. If they were willing to make an even-handed investigation to pin down the source of the HSV-1 infection, we would be more than happy to cooperate.”


Simins said his work in the community over the past 7 years has convinced him that if the DOH would conduct unbiased investigations — testing not only the mohel but also all other family members and caregivers that had contact with the baby – “rabbonim and community members would be all too willing to fully cooperate. We want to find the causes of these viruses.”




Mr. Simins confirmed Rabbi G.’s testimony regarding the negative findings of the blood tests, the presence of witnesses and the legal affidavit. He said the DOH’s shabby research and fixation with metzitzah b’peh have caused it to stumble in its mission.


Instead of working to educate the public about real dangers to be on guard against in the transmission of herpes, he said, “we are looking at an obsessive preoccupation with a religious practice, and a campaign of demonization that has hijacked the Department’s true function.”


He said a culture of fear has been spawned by the Department’s assault on the time-honored practice of metzitzah b’peh.


Simins noted the law, passed in 2006 in New York City, that requires all cases of neonatal herpes to be reported to the Health Department. This led to an overzealous drive on the part of some hospitals to aid the Department in linking neonatal herpes to mbp, and to holding the mohel responsible for transmitting the infection.




As a result, many in the Orthodox community have grown wary about using those hospitals for a newborn who had become ill after his bris milah.


“I’ve been called by parents standing outside the ER with a sick baby, afraid to admit him,” recalled Simins. “They’re scared of having an investigation opened against them for no reason other than that their baby’s bris milah included mbp.”


Rabbi G. echoed this observation. He said that as an experienced mohel, he is called on an average of two or three times a week with questions regarding the appearance of a rash in the baby’s diaper area before or after circumcision.


“Many parents want to avoid the hospital if at all possible,” he said. “Especially Maimonidies and Columbia Presbyterian. They are treated with suspicion there and asked humiliating questions.”




In media stories surrounding the Orange County baby that have fueled the DOH crusade against mbp, it is apparent that all pretense at objectivity and journalistic integrity has been abandoned.


Circumcision Gives Orange County Baby Herpes: officials” shrieked one headline in an April 2012 issue of Newsday.


Another Baby Gets Herpes After Controversial Circumcision,” blared a special report by WPIX, a Brooklyn news site.


Taking journalistic excess to breathtaking heights, the Newsday article accused mbp of killing two babies, citing “health officials” as their authority.


“An Orange County infant has been hospitalized after contracting a deadly strain of herpes from an Orthodox circumcision ritual that has claimed the lives of two babies in New York City in the past decade, health officials told Newsday on Monday,” the article began.


Other articles cloaked their accusations in more insidious rhetoric:


“Last September, a two-week old Brooklyn baby died from herpes at Maimonidies Medical Center, shortly after he underwent metzizah b’peh,” a WPIX article stated. The family refused to tell health officials the name of the mohel who performed the ritual.”


The article went on to cite a “a study released in June by the federal Centers For Disease Control that showed 11 baby boys contracted herpes simplex between 2000 and 2011 in New York City… Two of the infant boys died, and two suffered brain damage. The CDC noted that circumcisions “should be performed under sterile conditions.”


Note the coy placement of the sentence about the CDC advising “sterile conditions” when performing circumcision. Because not a shred of conclusive evidence links any instance of herpes infection to circumcision, the article is not brazen enough to go out on a limb with an explicit allegation. It relies instead on the considerable power of insinuation.




The same article quotes an older Orthodox resident defending the practice of mbp: “You can’t change the tradition we have had for thousands and thousands of years,” said Pinchas Kohn, who told WPIX he has 50 grandchildren. “You have to check the mohel,” he said.


Someone on the WPIX staff messed up badly here, fabricating the remark about having to check the mohel, but forgetting that a news clip from a live recording of the interview was featured right above the article. To the shame of WPIX, its very own video clip puts the lies in the article in bold relief.


In the clip, Kohn makes no comment at all about mohelim needing to be checked. It’s the WPIX reporter who asks Kohn whether he thinks the “mohels” should be tested.


The first fabrication is followed by a more egregious one, with Kohn quoted as replying, “I think so, I think so.”


But this, too, is pure invention. In the WPIX videotape of the interview, Kohn says nothing of the sort. What he does say in response to the question about whether mohelim should be tested is, “I’m not a rabbi, I can’t comment on that.”


That some news organs are willing to shamelessly distort the truth is nothing new. But shouldn’t we expect more from a government agency to whom we entrust the public good?


From the flawed data in the health study that falsely incriminates mpb in the death and illness of newborns, to the willful blindness to other, more likely modes of transmission of herpes, and the release of misleading information to the media, the Department of Health has displayed a wanton disregard for the facts.




Jewish groups have slammed the DOH for pushing for the adoption of an amendment to the Health Code that would limit mbp, force parents to sign incriminating waivers before the ritual can be performed, and coerce mohelim to speak disparagingly of their religious beliefs.


Should the DOH choose to continue in this direction, Agudath Israel warned in a letter to the Department, “the result will clearly be litigation and more confrontation. In the end, whether the department’s regulation survives will be decided by a judge.”


“At the end of the day, the letter said, “the resulting perception in the Orthodox Jewish community will be an extremely negative one; a perception that the Department is not interested in working with the community, simply in imposing regulations on a time-honored practice.”


Agudath Israel urged the DOH to take another path, the path of consultation and cooperation:


“That is the path that the NY State Department of Health [not to be confused with NY City Dept. of Health] chose in 2006. Instead of unilaterally promulgating regulations, the State Health Department chose to work together with our community.”




In 2006, the Rabbinical Council, a group comprised of representatives from the spectrum of Orthodox Jewry in New York, entered into a Circumcision Protocol with the NY State Health Department. The terms agreed upon called for an unbiased investigation in exchange for rabbinic and community cooperation.


This included banning the mohel from performing mbp if he’s found to be DNA-matched to an infected infant.


The State Health Commissioner lauded the agreement, praising “the participation of the Rabbinical Council of the State of New York, and the good faith that was put forth with the Department of Health to protect the public health, and at the same time, respect religious freedom.”


The Protocol was reviewed by nationally renowned neonatal infectious disease experts and the National Institutes of Health, and was unanimously passed by the NYS Public Health Council.


It was adopted by every health department in the State of New York — except New York City’s.


On the rabbinic side, it was entered into by the Central Rabbincal Congress of the United States and Canada, Rav Feivel Cohen, Rav Hillel David, leaders of Koshau, Satmar, Skver, Belz, Bobov, Pupa and Vien. It was subsequently adopted by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel, and the rabbinic leadership of the National Council of Young Israel.


It was also endorsed by many gedolei Eretz Yisroel, including Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, zt”l and ybl”c Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky.




If the Protocol had been adopted by the DOH in 2006, all 5 cases it claims arose since then could have been thoroughly investigated with the full cooperation of the community. Had such an investigation taken place, the issue of mbp’s relation to HSV-1 in each of these cases might have been put to rest. This valuable opportunity, however, was squandered.


The Protocol was terminated when a new administration came into office. It was recently raised by representatives of the Jewish community with the State Department of Health, as well as city officials. The hope was that this carefully negotiated agreement could be resurrected to benefit all concerned parties.


The officials declined to revisit it.


It is not the Orthodox community that refuses to cooperate; it is the DOH that has steadfastly refused to conduct unbiased investigations. It has adopted an intransigent and adversarial stance that has left the community no choice but to close up.


The proposed amendment calling for government regulation of mbp will likely be adopted by the Board of Health on September 13. The DOH may claim that as a victory. Opponents predict it will be a hollow one, guaranteed to boomerang.



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