Next time a Detroit-area mohel is called upon by the Jewish community in Windsor, Ontario, to conduct a ritual circumcision, he may want to consider attaining a work permit from the Canadian Department of Immigration. Or, hire a good international labor lawyer.
Without the right credentials, he might get turned around at the border.
That was what Dr. Craig Singer of Bloomfield Hills, a board-certified dermatologist, pediatrician and mohel, encountered at the Windsor Tunnel crossing on Thursday, May 19, as he traveled to perform a circumcision for a family in Windsor.
Unfortunately, once he stated his purpose for visiting Canada, he was further questioned by immigration officials who denied him entry into the country because he did not present any work permit or Canadian credentials to perform a circumcision in Canada.
While there have been the occasional delays, clergy on both sides of the border — and as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia — agree this is the first time they can recall that an American mohel was denied entry into Canada.
Canadian immigration officials told Singer, who received his mohel certification through Hebrew Union College, that the circumcision was medically surgical in nature and if he ever attempted to perform a bris in Canada again, he would be “reprimanded and possibly prosecuted.”
A central rite of identity for Jewish males, the ritual circumcision, barring any serious health concerns, occurs on a baby boy’s eighth day of life and takes precedence over any other holiday or occasion in a Jewish community, including a funeral, Shabbat or Yom Kippur.
“Windsor does not have a mohel and, therefore, we rely on our nearest town over the river — Detroit — to bring in a mohel to conduct a brit milah,” said Rabbi Sholom Galperin, head of Windsor Chabad for seven years. “Having access to a mohel is essential for any Jewish community to be able to bring a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life into the covenant made between Abraham and God.”
Singer says he had talked with the family about plans for the bris several months ago as well as a few days prior to the brit milah.
While detained at the border, poor cellular service prevented him from calling the family. When he asked to make the call or have the officer call the family, the officer refused.
At press time, the JN was unable to make contact with the family to see how the issue was resolved.
In the 15 years Singer has been a mohel, he has made many one-day trips to Windsor to perform circumcisions. Mohalim such as father-and-son rabbis Avraham and Ezra Cohen of Southfield for decades have also crossed the border to perform the ritual for nearly 40 years with little incident.
Border Service Response
A general statement released by the Southern Ontario Region of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) about the incident read:
“Every person seeking entry into Canada must demonstrate that they meet the requirements to enter the country.
“Admissibility of all travelers seeking to enter Canada is considered on a case-by-case basis, and based on the specific facts presented by the applicant in each case at the time of entry.
“The onus is on the traveler to understand and meet the entry requirements.
“A temporary foreign worker seeking entry to Canada may require a work permit.”
The CBSA also pointed to its online guidelines for Refugees and Citizenship/Canada Temporary Foreign Workers. There, in a paragraph especially deemed for temporary clergy (R186), the regulations state that a foreigner is permitted to work in Canada without a work permit as clergy defined as a person who is “responsible for assisting a congregation or group in the achievement of its spiritual goals and whose main duties are to preach doctrine, perform functions related to gatherings of the congregation or group or provide spiritual counseling.”
Still, the CBSA did not offer a clear explanation as to why Singer was turned away, nor did they explain why the immigration officer would threaten to prosecute Singer if he returned to Canada to perform a bris.
“The immigration officer asked me if I knew of any Canadian legislation that would permit me to enter the country to perform this ‘surgery,”” Singer said. “I explained this is not surgery, but rather a religious rite, and I told him there are religious freedom laws protecting and enabling Canadian citizens to fulfill their religious beliefs.”
While still widely practiced in Canada, views on circumcision — ritual or medical — seem to be shifting out of favor.
In 2015, the Canadian Pediatric Society released a statement reaffirming its recommendation against the routine circumcision of newborn males but also maintained that families need to make the best decision for their children based on family, religious and cultural beliefs.
Canadian clergy maintain that Canada holds religious freedom in the highest regard and that this matter, however unfortunate, is more about who is allowed to work in Canada and less about infringement on religious practices. And that all comes down to the whim of the immigration officer on duty.
Rabbi Don Pacht, head of school of the Vancouver Hebrew Academy in Vancouver, B.C., who has practiced as a certified mohel in both countries for 17 years, said there is no official governmental certification in either Canada or the U.S. for mohalim. They train either under doctors or rabbis, and their training is not regulated by any government.
Finding a mohel in the wider Jewish community in North America is a practice based on references and trust. Pacht speculated Singer’s being a medical doctor is what may have been the determining factor for the immigration officer’s denial of entry.
“Canada is very liberal in regard to protecting religious rights, perhaps even more so than the United States,” said Pacht, who holds dual citizenship. “As an American, however, you cannot practice medicine or surgical procedures in Canada without proper documentation; and this immigration official perhaps deemed a circumcision, even though ritual, as surgery.”
Singer said he will be hesitant to return to Canada if asked to perform a bris. And if he does, he said he might have to “hire a good labor lawyer” to work through the wording of Canada’s labor laws for foreign clergy.
He remained remorseful for the family waiting for him to welcome their baby officially into the Jewish community.
“A beautiful lifecycle event was completely soured for this family,” Singer said. “I was wearing a kippah as I went through customs. I could have just said I was visiting a friend in Canada, but with a carrying case containing circumcision surgical equipment in my trunk, I wanted to be completely honest.”