YAHALOM SEMINARY Bridging the Gap

Past Articles:
MOHEL RABBI MORDECHAI MOZES – A MODEL OF SERVICE TO ALL COMMUNITIES

By: Machla Abramovitz



For the Mozes children, it was a remarkable childhood. As the children of the acclaimed Lakewood mohel Rabbi Mordechai Mozes, every day was infused with joy and a deep sense of pride that can only come from having a father whose profession involves doing mitzvot and making people happy. His son Rabbi Nison Mozes recalls many Shabbats trudging through the heavy snow on his way home from shul, and stopping off atsynagogues along the way – sometimes as many as three – where his father performed Brit Milahs. These were stopovers he loved, as they were filled with joyous celebration. Acknowledging this, his mother Golda Baum Mozes, greeted her husband with a hearty “mazal tov” every time he stepped into the house.

Rabbi Mozes’s distinguished career spanned fifty years until his retirement last November at the age of 70. He acquired the recommendations of some of the greatest Torah luminaries of our time: Rav Elya Svei, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Hacham Baruch Ben Haim, Rabbi Jacob Kassin, and Rabbi Yosef Harari-Raful, among numerous others. During this time, he performed more than 20,000 Brit Milahs; as such, this gentle-looking mohel became a much esteemed and beloved fixture within the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in New Jersey and New York. Rabbi Mozes’s contributions to the mitzvah of Brit Milah in North America are currently being documented in a book on Brit Milahs by Rabbi Yechiel Spero.

Rabbi Mozes being a mohel permeated every aspect of the Mozes’s home. The phone calls from parents and relatives either arranging for Brit Milahs or concerning post Brit Milah care and health-related issues came in almost non-stop. Managing these calls was not easy for Golda Mozes, a young mother of nine children, who was also her husband’s administrative secretary. In later years, after his career took off, their family life centered on the rabbi’s milahschedule. The Mozes family never allowed themselves to plan in advance. Rabbi Mozes frequently left town, as his schedule occasionally required him to travel to different cities and even countries. When the children were younger, Mrs. Mozes often made Kiddush for them herself, especially when her husband spent Shabbat in Brooklyn or in Deal. Despite these inconveniences, there were definite perks, especially for the children. "Everywhere I went, I was asked whether I was related to the mohel, Rabbi Mozes. Whether it was roshei yeshivot, doctors, or rebbes, everyone he connected with." Rabbi Nison says.

He and two of his brothers – Rabbis Boruch and Yossy – are carrying on their father’s illustrious legacy as full-time mohels. “Growing up in our home, we received our training almost through osmosis.”

Rabbi Mozes – A Man of Many Talents

The sons attribute much of their father’s success to his warmth and graciousness. “My father is a people’s person. He enjoys being around people and was always making people feel comfortable during this stressful time. He would discuss with the families who to name the baby after, who to give the different kibudimto at the Brit Milah. He also has a broad outlook on life, which enables him to connect with Jews of all persuasions,” Rabbi Nison says.

Less apparent were the mohel’s other interests and talents. Rabbi Mozes has always been medically inclined. He devoured medical tomes, keeping up-to-date on the latest medical discoveries. He is also musically talented and plays the violin beautifully. “As a first born and a Levi, he prepared himself to play at the Temple when Mashiahcame,” his son Rabbi Boruch explains. Rabbi Mozes even built furniture, a skill heput to use when he was first married and money was scarce. Foremost, though, he continues to be a Ben Torah. Even while working as a mohel, he continued learning in the yeshiva during the day. In the evenings he and his brother, who lives in Brooklyn, studied together over the phone until late at night.

According to his sons, their father is a perfectionist who used his extensive personal gifts in the pursuit of excellence. For him, being a mohel was more than a profession; it was a calling, which enabled him to grow spiritually and professionally. In turn, he witnessed the astonishing growth, spiritually and population-wise, of the Lakewood and Deal communities, which he served faithfully.

To the surprise of many who know the mohel by reputation, Rabbi Mozes is not Sephardi. He was born shortly after the war in Lodz, Poland and is a descendant of a prestigious line of Amshinover Chassidim and talmidei hachamim. His father, Rav Yakov Dovid Mozes, studied under Rav Aaron Kotler in Kletz, Poland and was also ahavrutaof Rav Schneur Kotler. During the Holocaust, Rav Aaron sent blankets to his family in Siberia. He later arranged for green cards, enabling them to immigrate to the US. Rabbi Mozes’s grandfather, Rav Nison Mozes, was a prominent Polish mohel who risked his life performing illegal circumcisions after the Russian invasion. “Perhaps it was in his zechut that my father merited having performed so many mitzvot on a daily basis," Rabbi Boruch says.

Given his natural affinity for medicine, as well as the personal examples set by his illustrious relatives – his father-in-law, Rav Chaim Shmuel Baum, a Belzer Chassid, also worked as a mohel in Europe – the decision to study milahwas an easy one for this Talmudic scholar to make. In 1971, after studying in theLakewood yeshiva for seven years, he moved with his young bride to Bensonhurst to train under the renowned mohel Rabbi Tzvi Harry Bronstein. In the early 1970s, most Brit Milahs were done in hospitals, where mothers remained for two weeks after giving birth. Some mohelim had rights to certain hospitals. Rabbi Bronstein had such rights and took his young protégé under his wing, assigning him many circumcisions. It was a relationship that lasted many years.

Rabbi Bronstein, who founded the organization Al Tidom, was especially renowned for his activism and mesirat nefeshon behalf of Soviet Jewry. He traveled secretly to the Soviet Union to perform illegal Brit Milahs there. When Soviet Jews began flowing into the US after the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Rabbi Bronstein and Rabbi Mozes circumcised many of these immigrants in doctors' offices: it was not unusual for grandfathers, fathers, and sons to be circumcised on the same day, one after the other. That’s when Rabbi Mozes became known as “the fix-it mohel” given that many circumcisions that had been performed in the Soviet Union needed redoing.

The Mohel’s Special Training

Within a short time, Rabbi Mozes, who received milah accreditation from Rav Schneur Kotler, became an authority on milah in his own right, enabling him to answer halachic questions concerning anomalies within the brit itself and babies that weren't well. "He learned a lot from Rabbi Bronstein, as well as from Rav Moshe Feinstein, who he consulted with regularly. Eventually, my father amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of minhagim, halachot, and medical issues. He told people, “Rav Moshe said this; Rav Elyashiv said that. In the Syrian community, Rabbi Yosef Harari-Raful holds like this. This is how the Moroccans or the Egyptians or the Iranians do it,” Rabbi Nison says. Today, while no longer a practicing mohel, Rabbi Mozes serves as a consultant in an advisory role concerning shaailot regarding Brit Milah.

Rabbi Mozes also consulted with Rabbi Moshe Bunin Pirutinsky, the author of Sefer Habris, an encyclopedic compilation of halachot and minhagimof Brit Milah that contains haskamotfrom gedolei Torahsuch as Rav Chaim Shmulevitz and Rav Yitzchok Hutner, among others. Rabbi Mozes also consulted with Rabbi Mordechai Zimmerman, who trained as a mohel in pre-WWII Vienna. Rabbis Pirutinsky and Zimmerman were two of the most acclaimed mohelim of their generation. “My father was always ready to stay on top of the game knowledge-wise; he constantly strove to master better and newer techniques,” Rabbi Nison says.

The Lakewood – Deal Connection

In 1973, Rabbi Mozes and Golda moved back to Lakewood, where they have remained since. At the time, Lakewood housed a small Torah community with few permanent residents. Most residents came to Lakewood so that the husband could study for a few years in the yeshiva, then they returned with their families to their hometowns in New York and elsewhere. This made it difficult for the newly certified mohel to eke out a living, especially as his family began to grow. “It was a slow progression from that first Brit Milah. We were so appreciative of the people who expressed faith in us by using us," Golda recalls.

Neighboring Deal shared similar demographics, in regards to size. At the time, over 800 Sephardic families resided there year-round; the numbers blossomed during the summer months to about 10,000 families, whose primary homes were in Brooklyn, along Ocean Parkway. Significant changes would take place after Rabbi Yitzchak Dwek was brought from Lakewood to Dealto take charge of the Deal Synagogue. That occurred the same year the Mozes family returned from Bensonhurst to Lakewood. Soon, religious schools for the community, as well as the Sephardic Torah Center and Kollel were formed, and Rabbi Shlomo Diamond became the Rosh Kollel. The Kollel flourishes to this day.

It was Rabbi Dwek who started the ball rolling by asking Rabbi Mozes to officiate at his son’s Brit Milah. Following suit, other
year-round Deal residents began using the Lakewood mohel’s services. Before long, their extended families and friends living in Brooklyn started calling Rabbi Mozes for their sons’ britim. “People didn’t care that my father wasn’t Sephardic; people were only interested in getting the best mohel,” Rabbi Nison says.

What beganas a small undertaking in the 1970s increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s when the Deal and Long Branch communities grew by leaps and bounds, as did the numbers of distinguished community leaders serving these communities. These included such renowned personalities such as R’ Rachamim Aboud, R’ Shmuel Choueka of Long Branch’s Park Avenue Synagogue,
R’ Isaac Farhi of Hathaway Synagogue, R’ Reuven Semah of the West Long Branch Synagogue, R’ Mordechai Nahem of Long Branch and R’ Edmond Nahum of the Deal Synagogue. They all engaged Rabbi Mozes’s services, as did many prestigious Syrian families. Within time, Rabbi Mozes would preside over three generations of families.

 

Rabbi Mozes and the Syrian Community – A Mutual Love Affair

While Rabbi Mozes’s access to the Syrian community through Deal and Long Branch was a Gd-send, it was also cause for major culture shock. Rabbi Mozes soon discovered “Syrian time.” Within Syrian communities, ceremonies take place very late. Rabbi Mozes encountered this the first timehe officiated at a Brit Milah in Deal, when he showed up at the synagogue, as requested, at 8:00am sharp, only to find the doors locked. About twenty minutes later one older gentleman finally arrived. The confused mohel shyly inquired if there was to be aBrit Milah there that day. The gentleman answered, “Yes,” but with a knowing smile.
In Deal, he informed Rabbi Mozes, Brit Milahs are not performed before 9:00am at the earliest, and sometimes as much as an hour later, no matter what the baal simha promises.

This was a reality Rabbi Mozes accommodated, especially when he began performing Brit Milahs in Brooklyn, a one and a half hour drive away. He would schedule the Lakewood Brit Milahs first, sometimes as early as 7:00am, and then drive off to Brooklyn,where a nephew would be waiting to grab his car while the mohel ran across Ocean Parkway. Meanwhile, a son – Nison, Boruch, or Yossy – would already have prepared the baby. There were many such occasions. He would later log up to 50,000 miles on his car yearly.

There were other culture shocks, as well. There’s a common joke in Lakewood, Rabbi Nison says. If you want to have a minyanat a Brit Milah, have twin boys. The same cannot be said about the Sephardim. For them, a Brit Milah is a momentous occasion to be celebrated to the fullest extent possible. The night before they read from the Zohar, and during the ceremony itself the Sh'ma Yisrael is recited. It’s also an occasion for lavish celebrations, with large numbers of friends and relatives participating. Rabbi Nison presided over Brit Milahs that were like mini chatunas in terms of numbers and elegance.

Golda attended some of them. “It’s a production that begins prior to the baby’s birth. Looking to be part of the celebration, the grandparents would go to the hospital and remain there with the expectant mother until the baby was born. They are usually the ones to call the mohel to arrange for the Brit Milah. On the day of the Brit itself, the Syrian ladies look for ways to share in the simhah.I never knew that dressing a baby was such a big honor. Their enthusiasm is something to behold. The baby’s mother always attends the ceremony, unlike by the Chassidim, where the mother never comes. She wears a new dress and gets her makeup done. The baby’s grandmother would always ask its mother if she got a beracha from the sandak, who now has the power to dispense blessings. Guests came to my husband to ask for a blessing,” Golda recalls.

Golda was especially taken by the hospitality extended by the host towards all his guests. “The host – not hostess – personally comes around to every guest with not one but multiple platters of food and asks if he can serve them. It’s amazing to watch.”

There is particular respect given to rabbis. Rabbi Mozes recalls Ellis Safdeye’s son’s Brit Milah that was set up in a tent. He specifically instructed the waiters not to serve the rabbis, as that was an honor he reserved for himself.

The summer months would see the decent of many great rabbis and hachamimfrom Israel to Deal, who came to spend time with the community there. Rabbi Mozes fondly recalls the great reverence bestowed on them by the community.He felt deeply honored to officiate at Brit Milahs where
the great kabbalist Hacham Yaakov Hillel and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar served as sandak. Rabbi Mozes personally experienced the degree of respect and appreciation shown to rabbis and spiritual leaders when a member of Rabbi Choueka’s Park Avenue Synagogue bought him an aliyahfor $2600 one Yom Kippur.

Especially Emotional Brit Milahs

Whereas every Brit Milah is a celebration, some were especially moving. There was the father who cried in wonder as he carried his newborn to the mohel. The doctors had told the couple that they would not have any more children after their first daughter, a miracle baby, was born – and here this child arrived, an unexpected gift from Above.

On another occasion, 25 years ago, Rabbi Mozes presided over the Brit Milah of a son of a young man who had recently become religious.While there, he heard this man’s story. Having moved into the Deal/Long Branch vicinity, he began looking for a synagogue in which to pray during the High Holy Days. He had called the local Conservative and Reform synagogues in order to compare their prices, he told Rabbi Dwek over the phone. He was now calling the local Orthodox synagogue. Despite the man not being Sephardic, Rabbi Dwek immediately extended an invitation to come pray with them. Not only would they not charge him for his seat, but they would set him up in the homes of local families since he lived too far away to walk. The young man agreed, and Rabbi Dwek proved true to his word. He assigned him the best seat in the synagogue, and arranged to house him by some of the community’s nicest families. This was the start of a special relationship between Rabbi Dwek and this man. In time, the man became religious, married a woman who was also a baalat teshuvah, and now they had this child over whose Brit Milah Rabbi Mozes presided.

Then there were babies who had been ill and were now doing well. There were also babies on heart monitors, the Brit Milahs taking place in hospitals under anesthesia, with their doctors’ approval, while the babies were undergoing separate operations. On occasion the mohel would fly to Minnesota, New Orleans, and as far as Caracas, Venezuela to perform circumcisions that were especially difficult.

There were also times when the parents reserved the mohel’s services two months in advance, knowing when the baby was scheduled to be delivered. One such Syrian couple residing in the Philippines (where there is a small Syrian community) tried securing Rabbi Mozes’s services for the expected date. Fortunately, he didn’t commit. They ended up having a girl.

Syrian Customs and Hospitality

Needless to say, Rabbi Mozes’s close association with the Syrian communities in Deal and Brooklyn – spending Shabbat with them, getting to know the families personally, and building relationships with the Rabbis – impacted his own behaviors and customs, which he shared with his family. He began singing zmirotusing Syrian tunes.
Similarly, he introduced his family to eating dips on Shabbat. “Today everyone eats dips, but thirty years ago, dips were a very Syrian thing. My husband would bring home dips that were given to him. He also brought home kibbeh. We’ve been eating kibbeh since I don’t know when,” Golda says.

Golda was especially impressed with the hachnasat orchim the community exhibited to her family when she accompanied her husband to Deal or Long Branch for a Shabbat Brit Milah. She recalls one particular Hanukah when her boys were coming home from yeshiva. Their hosts insisted on hosting the mohel together with his entire family. The warmth and hospitality that was extended to her and the children on that and many other occasions was something she will always cherish.

“My father spent many Shabbats at the homes of these great rabbis and these wonderful families, and appreciated their warmth and kindness. He witnessed firsthand the spiritual growth of their communities and feels proud to have been a small part of it,”
Rabbi Boruch says.