“You don’t need to check your bag. It’ll fit in the overhead compartment,” the woman checking me in said.
“Why?” she asked.
Since this was my first international brit milah, I was afraid to answer honestly. “I’m a mohel,” I said.
No further explanations were necessary. Israelis know: mohalim carry a lot of knifes. In Ukraine, where I was headed to do a bris, in addition to the language barriers, the cultural ones would prove even more daunting.
The coordination of this bris actually began about six months ago. A rabbi I’ve known for some time called me and said there was a family in Kiev expecting a boy and they were looking for a mohel and he asked if I was interested. As is my minhag (custom), I pass my international britot requests on to my teacher, whose goal in life is to do britot in as many locations in the world as possible. Since I have four young children at home and I owe my teacher almost my entire livelihood, I have no reservations in paying it forward. But something went wrong in the planning and my teacher wasn’t able to go. So (thanks to my wife’s compliance), I jumped at the chance.
My flight was at 6:30 a.m. from Ben-Gurion, and all went like clockwork. When I arrived in Ukraine, I was met by the father, who I instantly took a liking to. I could sense his warmth from the moment he smiled at me as we shook hands. But I really had no sense of this place yet.
As I walked out of the airport, the father assured me the car service was close by. But all things are relative. As we made our way along the half block to the car, I quickly learned an important lesson: when it’s negative 15 C, and you’re not wearing a hat, there’s no such thing as a short walk.
During the drive to the Jewish Center, the father and I had much to talk about, from logistics to small talk. I reveled in each time his cell phone rang because it gave me a chance to look out the windows at an area I had never been to before. The most striking thing I noticed in the very limited ride were the statues. They are so different from anything I’m used to. Very dark and imposing and some of them tower above the street, almost as tall as buildings. One particular statue towered above a river; it was a huge female figure with her arms stretched out side to side. In one hand she held a shield and in the other a sword. I was fascinated. I asked the father, “What IS that?” He replied, “I believe the best translation is ‘Mother Homeland’. Very fitting, I thought.
The brit itself was different from what I am used to, though I expected it to be so. I usually sing throughout the britot I do in order to fill the empty spaces and to calm the nerves of the group. The difference this time was the community barely recognized one tune I sang and could not join in with me. I called it my solo performance. My mother, who was a music teacher for many years, would have been proud. Because this community is Mesorti (Conservative), it helped emphasize one of the things I truly love about my work. Unlike other rabbinic endeavors, there is a great deal I can do with this community even though I wouldn’t regularly daven with them. I was able to lead the brit milah service (which does not demand separate seating) and even the Grace after Meals.
Being a mohel is an amazing vocation because it allows you to meet people where they are as Jews, and I love that.
When my work was finished, I said goodbye to the three people I could converse with (and waved to everyone else) and made my way back. The father called me an Uber taxi (yes, they have Uber in Ukraine), and as I drove off, I realized I couldn’t say a word to this man and I had no idea how to get to the airport. As my internal nervous Jewish mother came out of me, I thought, “This man could kill me if he wants. I wouldn’t even know he wasn’t driving the right way to the airport.” Thankfully, I made it safely.
The flight home, though, wasn’t as flawless as the way there. We were delayed in the plane for two hours. This made the day quite a bit longer.
But the greatest reward for the trip came on my drive home from Ben-Gurion. My father told me something I had not known until that moment. Three of my father’s grandparents fled from Ukraine to the United States many moons ago.
As if it weren’t enough of an honor to come to this community and perform a brit milah, knowing my familial connection to the place made it that much more meaningful. I felt like I was truly helping the Jewish people survive in a place which, at least in the past, did not fully embrace them.
I guess we each do our piece to advance the cause.
Hayim Leiter is a mohel for the greater Jerusalem area and he also teaches at The Pardes Institute. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org