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City’s Defense of Jewish Community a Factor as Circumcision Ban Falls

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Posted to Jewish News

A proposed ban on circumcision failed a legal test Thursday as a S. Francisco judge, ruling that the initiative conflicted with a state law prohibiting local governments from regulating doctors, struck the item from the upcoming municipal ballot.

The ban’s organizer, Lloyd Schofield, and a small group of activists have vowed to appeal the decision, but their opponents expressed cautious optimism after the ruling. Rabbi Gil Leeds, a Bay-area mohel, or ritual circumciser, said the back-and-forth has been a real eye-opener for him.

“On the one hand, circumcision could have been something that you could potentially go to jail for and be fined for, but on the other hand, I think [people] will use this as a good example of what not to do in the future,” said Leeds, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center at the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s bringing about an awareness in the Jewish community, a stubborn refusal to submit to such a measure.”

Abby Porth, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in S. Francisco, one of the groups spearheading a coalition to educate voters, said that she and her allies were “preparing for the possibility” that the latest decision would be appealed.

The ballot measure would have banned the circumcision of boys under 18 years old, punishing offenders with a $1,000 fine and possible imprisonment. After the local elections board approved a petition from Schofield in May and placed the issue on the ballot, many legal experts argued that the law would have infringed upon parents’ First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of religion.

“The measure would prohibit a single religious practice and nothing else,” the City Attorney’s office wrote in a legal brief challenging the proposal. “It specifically targets the centuries-old practice of brit milah,” the Hebrew term for ritual circumcision.

City lawyers also pointed to an apparent anti-Semitic comic book created by one of the ban’s proponents as evidence of their anti-Jewish animus.

“It was incredibly moving as a Jew and as a mother who has chosen circumcision for all the important reasons we do,” said Porth of the fight. “It was moving to see this from the City Attorney’s office and know the lawyers behind this who saw it very clearly for what it was.

“Without sounding overly dramatic,” she added, “my mind went back to what it must have felt like for my husband’s family living in Eastern Europe in the 30s and not having friends and supporters.”

The struggle brought together a coalition of unlikely allies, including more than 250 public officials, researchers, physicians, and non-Jewish clergy.

“That has been gratifying,” said Porth. “Everyone recognizes the demagoguery behind this measure. There’s a common belief in parental choice, in safeguarding the rights of families to choose tradition.

“This has been a tremendous moment for unity within the Jewish community,” she continued. “Jews are united in feeling this measure was an outrage.

Leeds saw a silver lining in the measure: It seemed to spur people to take a stronger, public stance in favor of religious practice.

“People are being mobilized,” he observed, “and reconnecting with the tradition.”

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, who holds the pulpit at Congregation Chevrah Tehillim and worked closely with the JCRC in the efforts, said he was heartened by the way the city came to the defense of the Jewish community.

“We have the increased responsibly going forward of doing education around the city and state, to make Jews more proud and stronger in their own observance,” he said. “We should not just breathe a sigh of relief, but be more prideful in how we relate to our entire Jewish community.”

Whether or not an appeal is filed to get the ban onto the ballot, Porth said the JCRC is ready to move forward.

“Even if it is on the ballot, we will win this campaign,” she said. “Our focus is on winning by such a large margin that they won’t bring this elsewhere.”

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