I have officiated at more than 100 britot (brises) for newborn baby boys and girls (and plenty of older adopted children as well). None made me more nervous than the bris I recently led.
Ask anyone about my anxiousness. My office assistants would laugh as they shared how concerned I was that every synagogue room was clean, dusted, and set up properly. Our cantor would remark that I was doubly attentive about the choices and placement of music. The parents would note the abundance of calls and texts to ensure that every aspect of the ceremony detail was … perfect.
Why all the Nervous Energy and the Extra Detail Work?
Because we were naming Noam Daniel Weisz, son of my partner rabbi, Julia Weisz and her husband David. I was officiating at a ceremony for a colleague with whom I spend inordinate amounts of time visioning, problem-solving and planning. One for whom I have tremendous respect and appreciation. I was honored with great responsibility: balancing the communal need to welcome our “temple baby” with Julia and David’s own needs as parents. Yup, this bris had to be extra special.
Split Personalities: The Bifurcated Existence of Jewish Professionals
Communal leaders – rabbis, cantors, educators, Federation leaders and others – spend vast amounts of time building relationships, creating community, and designing meaningful Jewish moments for others. When our own s’machot (joyous moments) approach, we are pulled in two directions. On the one hand, with the communities in which we work, we want to share our joy, find consolation, or be role models of how to mark both experiences. On the other hand, Jewish professionals have the need and right to have a personal (non-rabbinic) life cycle experience.
Julia and David set a perfect tone of balance when they decided to divide the brit milah ceremony into two parts: the bris (circumcision) which would be held in a separate room for family only, and the naming which would take place in the sanctuary as a public ceremony. Such Solomonic wisdom from so young a couple!
The Bris: Blessings Between Family Members
The bris was intimate, musical and moving. We were connected midor lador (from generation to generation) and mimedinah lamedinah (across state borders) as Noam’s out-of-state relatives, including Super Nana and Super Zayda (great grandparents), watched the live streaming webcast of the ceremony and as Noam’s Aunt Jo FaceTimed in from Texas, where she was required to participate in the first days of her graduate school nursing program. His three living grandparents schepped nachas (shared the joy) in person with the rest of us.
Mohel (urologist) Dr. Andy Shpall explained the ritual, led the ceremony, and, in 30 quick seconds, circumcised young Noam with calm and professionalism. Cantor Doug Cotler, master musician, played background music and added in appropriate Jewish songs to focus our attention on this transcendent, joyous moment.
Cantor Doug and I caught each other’s eyes, and together recognized the blossoming kedusha (holiness). We wordlessly agreed to extend this portion of the day’s festivities to encircle the sparks of holiness. An extra song added. Then family members each blessed baby Noam with words that completed the sentence, “May you be blessed with…”
Eyes welled up as Mom (Julia) and Dad (David) blessed their baby. Family gathered close together and we pulled Aunt Jo’s iPad picture closer. Touching, hugging, holding each other, they all embraced Birkat Kohanim blessing. Eyes welled up poured out tears, as family celebrated the simcha.
Transition Time: Returning to the Rabbi Role
As family members were ushered downstairs to the sanctuary (where our lay leaders ensured that front row seats awaited them), we gave the Mom and Dad transition time. They spoke with the mohel about care for their circumcised infant. They took moments to hug each other. They held little Noam. Breathe in the blessings; breathe out the pre-bris worries. Breathe in; breathe out. Breathe in; breathe out.
The Naming: Schepping Nachas (Sharing the Joy)
The naming gathered a substantially larger group, mixing Rabbi Julia’s and David’s colleagues, friends, Or Ami congregants and family. Cantor Doug bonded the group by teaching them Nachas, Nachas, his new, original song for celebrating any significant moment of meaning. Paired with Siman Tov uMazel Tov, Nachas, Nachas brought old world yiddishkeit to our decidedly new American Jewish ceremony.
Grandparents shared readings about the significance of a name. Following the tradition – part superstition, part practical – of waiting until the bris to announce the baby’s name, David and Julia shared Noam Daniel’s name and its derivation from his deceased great-grandfather Oscar/Naphtali and his deceased step-grandfather Daniel. The congregation ooo’ed and ahhh’ed as the baby slept and cuddled. Hebrew blessings confirmed his Hebrew name and our prayers for his speedy recovery from the circumcision.
Allowing “Julia, our Rabbi” to Be “Julia, his Mommy”
How do communities care for the caregiver? Just as some adults have difficulty parenting the parent, congregations do not naturally know how to care for their Jewish professionals. Without such tools in their toolbox, it rests upon the shoulders of the leaders – clergy and president/board chair – to set the expectations. So as part of this ceremony, we explained to the assembled that today – and for the weeks (and years) following – Rabbi Julia and David need to be able to be like any other parents. Today especially, we celebrate with them and allow them just to relax into the most sacred of roles – the parents of a child.
Therefore, as part of the naming ceremony, we shared the congregation’s vision for Rabbi Julia’s maternity plan. We reminded the community that for the next three months, while on maternity leave, “Rabbi Julia” becomes “Just Julia.” We who have been so lovingly and tirelessly cared for by our Rabbi Julia, will want to care for her by allowing David and her to focus solely for baby Noam and each other. So as we see her in the mall, out at dinner, up online, we will NOT discuss Temple issues or updates with her. All temple related issues or concerns can be shared with her assistant or with Rabbi Paul Kipnes. Message delivered, we moved toward conclusion.
Birkat Kohanim: A Benediction for a Baby and Family
Since the blessings of the community are as significant as are those of the clergy, we asked everyone to stand up and form one complete, unbroken chain of hugs or hand-holds, reaching all the way forward to Noam’s grandparents and from them to Noam’s parents, and to him. Quickly the large gathering became even more intimate. The assembled repeated the words of Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction) to Noam.
It was a moment of kedusha (holiness). To purposely misquote our patriarch Jacob, Achen, yeish Adonai bamaqom hazeh vanochi ken yadati – Surely God was in this place, and we all knew it!
Throughout the service, we lovingly treated Rabbi Julia and David as just two parents (not a rabbi and her spouse). We articulated the hope and expectation that she gets to be mommy first for her child, rabbi next. You see, Rabbis and other Jewish professionals (as mommies and daddies) can have rich, deeply meaningful spiritual lives, if we just need to educate our communities, articulate the expectations, and pre-think a process to address issues that might arise.
How does your community work to care for your caretakers and leaders?
Photos by Michael Kaplan
Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.