Fran Redisch began planning in January for the birth of her grandchild.
“Since my daughter Allison and husband Oren did not want to know the baby’s sex, plans included having a ceremony on the eighth day after the birth, either a brit milah [ritual circumcision] if a boy, or simchat bat if a girl,” said Redisch, a member of Congregation B’nai Torah.
At that point, she hadn’t made airline reservations to Washington, D.C., where her daughter lives, because the due date wasn’t until mid-May. When COVID raised its head in mid-March, Redisch and family members were making sure their Zoom and livestreaming devices were in good working order. Besides altering travel plans, how would a brit milah, or bris, in Yiddish, be changed for Redisch, metro Atlanta and beyond?
Change of Plans
Redisch’s daughter gave birth to a baby boy May 17. With husband Oren Hirsch, Allison began making the brit milah arrangements, inviting hundreds of guests to join them on Zoom on the eighth day. Over 150 people signed on, spanning 22 states, the District of Columbia, and five countries. Cities included Mumbai, Jerusalem, Haifa, London, Cincinnati, Houston, Atlanta, St. Paul, New Haven, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Elizabeth Richman officiated the ceremony from her house in D.C. A mohel trained in ritual circumcision conducted the procedure. Only the parents, baby and mohel were present.
Redisch told the AJT that one of their goals was to do things as if the bris were in person. “We used a naming ceremony that friends and family had used for naming their children that included several songs, quotes from the Talmud, and traditional readings.”
Announcing the newborn’s name, Johan Emanuel – named after three grandfathers — brought tears and shouts from those watching. The baby’s aunts, uncles and grandparents read blessings. Cousins in California and Minnesota led the singing.
Had it not been during COVID, Oren’s father and the baby’s grandfather Daniel Hirsch would have been the sandek, honored godfather.
Allison’s sister, Lisa Redisch also lives in the D.C. area. Lisa brought over her own homemade bagels while Oren’s parents provided lox, leaving care packages at the baby’s new home so that after the ceremony, the new parents could enjoy a traditional meal.
The emailed invite for the bris indicated “folks should BYOB – bring your own bagels!” Some did in their own homes after the Zoom event.
COVID and the Commandment
Weddings and b’nai mitzvah can be postponed or rescheduled to a future month or another year. But a brit milah is a Torah commandment mentioned in Genesis 17:9-14, stating that a Jewish boy’s ritual circumcision take place on the eighth day after his birth.
When the son of Julie and Perry Bern was born recently, the eighth day fell on April 13, in the middle of Passover. At that point, B’nai Torah members Caryn and Eric Bern and Fred and Debra Wener, members of Temple Sinai, joined other family members and friends to view the bris of their grandson Eli Mason Bern through Zoom. It was a traditional bris at the Bern’s Dunwoody home. Rabbi Ariel Asa, the mohel, conducted the ceremony and performed the procedure.
Rabbi Abi Nadoff, another Atlanta mohel, explains that “the word ‘bris’ means covenant, and the mitzvah of bris milah represents the eternal covenant G-d has made with the Jewish people.”
He said COVID-19 presents numerous challenges to a normative brit milah ceremony and its accompanying celebration. “If the baby is healthy, and a mohel is accessible, the bris must be performed on the eighth day. Guidance from medical professionals determines how many people should be present. Social distancing and PPE protocol can and should be followed by anyone participating in the bris,” he said. Nadoff notes that with planning and consultation with a pediatrician, a proper bris can usually be held on the eighth day.
While many customs surrounding a bris add to the joy of the occasion, Nadoff said they are not essential components to fulfilling the biblical ritual. Due to COVID’s social distancing norms, the celebratory meal normally following the bris has largely been suspended.
Rabbi Brad Levenberg of Temple Sinai calls the Torah a living text with lots of interpretations. He told the AJT that because of the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, a value that has been interpreted to include suspending religious obligations for health-related reasons, there is a long-standing precedent, accepted among all denominations, for delaying a brit milah if it would harm the infant, such as when born prematurely.
“Some within rabbinic circles, including myself, have adapted the halacha (Jewish law) concept during the time of COVID to include having a circumcision in a hospital room upon the birth of a boy and doing a naming ceremony on the eighth day.” He admits that while not ideal, “those of us who have adopted this perspective do so with the understanding that we don’t really know enough about COVID and how it impacts children, making a surgical procedure uncomfortable for some.”
Atlanta OB-GYN Arthur Gumer is also a mohel with over 24 years of experience in conducting hundreds of brit milah. Dr. Gumer belongs to the National Organization of American Mohalim, under the umbrella of the Brit Milah Board of Reform Judaism.
If there is no underlying health issue for the baby, Dr. Gumer believes that a “bris needs to be done on the eighth day, as is the normal tradition, because the home, following CDC guidelines, is still a safe environment for the baby.”
He said that since the pandemic began, it is typical that only the parents, baby and a few family members who had been sheltering in place with them are present. Everyone attending wears a mask, and an attempt is made to keep social distancing whenever possible. Other guests can attend through Zoom, where a rabbi or others have the opportunity to offer prayers.
Allison Redisch concluded, “When it is safe, we hope to host an in-person celebration in the future, and it will definitely include bagels!”
To learn more about the bris ceremony:
Allison Redisch and Oren Hirsch share the script of their brit milah ceremony, https://bit.ly/2B7dHcK
- STYLE Magazine
- Fran Redisch
- Congregation B'nai Torah
- Oren Hirsch
- Rabbi Elizabeth Richman
- Johan Emanuel
- Lisa Redisch
- Brit Milah
- Julie and Perry Bern
- Caryn and Eric Bern
- Fred and Debra Wener
- Temple Sinai
- Eli Mason Bern
- Rabbi Ariel Asa
- Rabbi Abi Nadoff
- Rabbi Brad Levenberg
- Arthur Gumer
- National Organization of American Mohalim
- Brit Milah Board of Reform Judaism
- Allison Redisch