Hayim Leiter
Mohel, Activist, and Educator

You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello

I’ve only worn blue hospital scrubs twice in my life and they were both in the last month and a half. The first was in the neonatal intensive care unit and the second was the geriatric intensive care unit.

The NICU story began when I was meeting a family about a Bris deep in the Gush. I got a text from my wife that read, “Call me when you’re done.” Not her usual style of text. I sensed a hidden urgency. Due to my location and its lack of cellphone reception, it took me some time to connect with her. The call finally went through and she simply said, “I’m leaking.” I responded nervously saying, “Ok, what week is it again?” “34,” she said. Certainly not the earliest birth ever recorded, but still not full term.

The hospital tried to keep the baby in for as long as possible, but he had other plans. Just before the end of week 34 he was born. All in all, for a preemie, he was pretty solid. He came out at 2.6 kilos (5 lbs 12 oz), but, since he was early and had some breathing issues at the beginning, he was sent to the NICU.

That time period was filled with many blue scrubs, visiting as often as possible while balancing our three other children and work. But just like that, on the fourth day they said it was time to go home.

Before I knew it the Bris, even though delayed, was upon us. Being the Mohel for both of my sons was an emotional experience but each at different points in the process. My first son’s Bris was just as I began to work without a teacher. I was excited to have no outside pressures while working. Not only having no one directing me but there wouldn’t even be any parents looking over my shoulder. I was sure my emotions would be the most controlled they’d ever been. But then, just before I made the cut, I didn’t become nervous, but rather so taken by the whole experience of performing this mitzvah for my own son, I was almost moved to tears.

This time, at my second son’s Bris, for the same reasons, the liturgical pieces actually brought a tear to my eye. And I think that was because those are not the parts that the mohel says and it accented that I was the mohel for my son. But when I started to prepare him for the cut, I turned to my left and said to no one in particular, “Make me your emissary for this Mitzvah.” (Since the father is obligated to circumcise his son, he must appoint the Mohel his agent for doing the commandment in his stead) When I said this, I quickly realized there was no one there, and I continued with the Brit Milah. Apparently I’ve built quite a routine.

The whole day was beautiful. But there was something missing. For nearly a decade I’ve had the honor of learning with and becoming friends with a man named Rav Joseph Urivetsky, a student of Rav Soloveitchik, who made Aliyah in the sixties. When I called him and his wife to let them know when the Bris would be, Joseph’s wife Martelle told me they couldn’t make it because Joseph was getting a battery of tests. Needless to say I was disappointed and a bit worried, but I understood.

My relationship with Joseph was a complicated one, and I’m sure most of his friends would empathize with this notion. We first met at our shul just after I finished leading the morning service. He waddled over to me and said, “So, we gave God Smicha (rabbinic ordination) today.” I responded, “Sorry?” Joseph quoted me saying, “You said, Atah Rav L’Hoshiah” (normally translated – You have great power to save, Rav being great). The problem was I was meant to pause in between Atah and Rav and I did not. When you don’t, it sounds like “You are a rabbi God.”

Thus spawned a decade-long friendship of learning the weekly portion with an eye on grammar. We learned together on Friday mornings. Sometimes there were cookies and tea, sometimes just water. But there was always banter and gossip.

My wife and children also became very close with Joseph (Jophes, as he was called by our first) even though things got off to a rocky start. One of the times I was intended to take him to shul I was unavailable because our firstborn child had recently arrived. When I told Joseph I couldn’t come, he remarked, “Don’t let the fact that you had a baby change things between us.” I replied, “Joseph, everything has changed between us.” I’m still not sure if he fully understood me.

Joseph and I and three other friends of mine spent many a Friday night at one of the most beautiful davenings in all of Jerusalem. He being very musical loved to harmonize with me as we belted out L’cha Dodi at the top of our lungs.

Joseph seemed to be hanging on as if he’d somehow defy all the odds and outlive us all. But things took a turn for the worse just before Rosh Hashanah. The tests showed that Joseph had cancer, and just after finding that out, he fell for the second time, this time breaking his hip and pelvis. The final blow came two weeks ago when his kidneys failed and dialysis didn’t take.

Last Wednesday night, I received a call from our rabbi. He simply said if you want to see him again before it’s too late, go now. My friend Daniel and I jumped in the car and rushed to the hospital, unsure if we would get in to see him since it was way past visiting hours. We made it into the hospital and finally found him. Awaiting our entry to the intensive care unit were the blue scrubs. I donned them again, feeling anxious as to what I would find.

Joseph was in a very serious state. We sat with him for a time, unsure if he knew we were there or not. If Daniel had not been there I’m not sure when I would have left. It was so hard to see him like that, but I couldn’t imagine leaving him alone when these may have been his final moments. Daniel told him we loved him very much and I told him to get some rest. That was the last time we saw him.

These blue scrubs accompanied me to both usher life in and out. With our son, there were so many hopes and expectations, whereas with Joseph we weren’t sure what to hope for. I am so thankful for the time I spent with him. His Torah and his corrections will always be with me, especially when I lead davening. If nothing else, I hope to hold on to the memories and the teachings he imparted to me and pass them onto my newborn son and his siblings. But maybe just with a few less corrections.

About the Author
Hayim Leiter is a Rav and a Mohel in Israel , as well as an activist, and a Jewish Educator. He founded Safer HaBrit, an organization committed to protecting both our sacred ceremony of Brit Milah and the children who undergo it. He made Aliyah in 2009 and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children.
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