Friday, January 06, 2006

Mayor Balances Hasidic Ritual Against Fears for Babies' Health

Orthodox Jewish men visited Gracie Mansion Thursday
for a meeting with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

With three days to go before Election Day, ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, held what was by far the largest rally of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's campaign. With searchlights bouncing across the Brooklyn sky and klezmer music blaring from speakers hoisted on cranes, thousands of Hasidic Jews, in black hats or head scarves, cheered the beaming mayor from rooftops and blocks upon blocks of bleachers.

When one of the most revered Orthodox leaders, Rabbi David Niederman, addressed the throngs, he praised the mayor for his push to create more affordable housing, his takeover of the public schools and his support for the constitutional separation of church and state.

For many in the crowd, the last reference was code for the administration's decision to hold off from taking action against an ancient form of ritualistic circumcision practiced by some Hasidic rabbis that had been linked to three cases of neonatal herpes in late 2004, one of them fatal.

But now, with the election over, the city's Health Department, while not banning the procedure, is angering those Hasidic leaders just the same by pushing a public health campaign against the rite, in which the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the circumcision wound to clean it. The department took the action after linking the rite to additional cases of herpes in infants, one of whom suffered brain damage as a result.

Some in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities say the city is infringing upon their religious rights. They go so far as to accuse Mr. Bloomberg of reneging on what they say they took as an election-year assurance that the administration would leave the matter to rabbinical authorities. But others outside those communities had been harshly critical of the administration, saying that it failed to take adequate action against a practice that has been endangering the lives of infants.


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