Jonathan Goldstein and Jennifer Schiller were nervous, but they handed their 8-day-old son to Sara Imershein anyway.
Imershein, a kippah affixed to her brown hair with a pearl-studded bobby pin, pulled on white surgical gloves and circumcised Noah Goldstein in less than 60 seconds. Imershein, 65, noted the parents’ pale faces. “He’s doing so well,” she said.
Two days later, she doled out a very different kind of comfort.
Approaching a patient in a Falls Church, Va., abortion clinic, Imershein saw a tear slipping down the woman’s cheek. As a nurse administered anesthetic, Imershein rested her hand — now purple-gloved — on the patient’s knee. In less than five minutes, Imershein performed an abortion on the woman.
Since retiring from her D.C.-based obstetrics-gynecology practice in 2015, Imershein has spent her time this way: performing first-trimester abortions and ritual circumcisions, known as brit milahs. She believes both practices achieve the same goal: allowing women to create the families they want. Given that, she said, her Jewish faith compels her to offer the two services.
She cited the Jewish concept of “mitzvot,” which means “commandments.” For her, she said: “It means I am commanded, if I have the skills as a physician, to use them to alleviate suffering. Not to use my skills would be wrong.” She is “hyper-aware,” she added, that the two procedures are “under attack” in the U.S.
Dennis Ross, a New York rabbi, said, “People forget that there are religious groups that support access to the spectrum of reproductive health-care services.”
What Jewish law, known as “halakhah,” says is more complicated. Halakhah mandates that abortion is necessary if the woman’s life is in danger. For Jews to be able to “fulfill our religious tradition, actually, abortion must be legal,” said Rabbi Marla Feldman, the executive director of Women of Reform Judaism.
But Jews vary on what constitutes a sufficient threat. By performing abortions for all women who meet the clinic’s standards, Imershein is taking a “very permissive” position, said Elli Fischer, an Orthodox rabbi.
Imershein said she is undeterred. “My mother says I enjoy working in areas that are controversial,” she said. “I like areas that empower women.”
Imershein did not explicitly link religious principles to her practice of medicine until late in her career. Her thinking started to shift after she signed up for mohel trainings in 1995, partly as a way to meet other Jews. That’s when she learned about mitzvot as a commandment — and, prodded by class conversations, began studying what the Torah and the Talmud, a book of Jewish oral law, said about abortion.
As she pored over the texts, sometimes helped by rabbis, Imershein became convinced: She had to devote her retirement to circumcision, abortion and advocacy. In 2015, her two children now adults, she did it.
Jewish law teaches that human life starts at birth rather than conception, Fischer said. One rule is clear, Fischer said: “The woman always takes precedence.”
Ross and Feldman said their vein of Judaism, Reform, places a premium on the woman’s ability to decide for herself, which reflects the notion that the woman’s life should be valued above all else.
“I ultimately give all rights to the mother,” Imershein said. “With brit milahs, they’re having the family they want, and if I’m doing the abortions, I’m just fulfilling the wish of women to have the lives they want.”