The good news: The ritual known as the brit milah, or bris, has not changed because of the pandemic. The aim is the same, and so are the blessings that are recited.
In fact, the improvements that have been made in the millennia since circumcision was described in the Mishnah — certain sanitary practices and numbing agents — remain intact.
Scalpels, forceps and non-woven dressing remain the tools of the trade. A bris is a bris, as permanent as ever. Eight-day-old babies continue to be gently laid upon big pillows.
The only changes are just about everything else.
For a while, according to several mohels serving the Greater Philadelphia area, the rate at which they received work was down significantly. In some sects, fewer mohels are being trained due to the travel and room occupancy restrictions that have arisen in the last several months. Mohels, like everyone else, are wearing masks at work. And perhaps most importantly, what is meant to be a joyous communal occasion has become smaller, quieter and decidedly without a kosher spread to follow.
“A bris does not make the child a Jew. A bris brings the child into the Jewish community. So when you limit the number of people who are present, it’s almost antithetical to the concept of a bris,” said Cantor Mark Kushner. Kushner has been a mohel for decades, accredited in Israel, with an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a master’s in education from Gratz College. The homepage of his website — with a collage of smiling families tilting their newly convenanted sons toward the camera — testifies to the number of ceremonies he’s been a part of.
But it wasn’t until the last few months that Kushner led ceremonies that relatives were watching via Zoom, from Israel, South Africa and elsewhere. Virtual attendees with whom he might’ve jostled for position at the bagels and lox table instead watched their newest family member be brought into the global community of Jews in pixels.
In the room itself, the number of people who attend has been limited to 10 or 15, and fewer of the assembled end up holding or touching the baby. When Kushner walks in the house, the first thing he does is cover his shoes, wash his hands and put on a medical-grade gown. Though the atmosphere is dramatically different, Kushner said, families who contact him for help have been “very receptive” to the changes he’s implemented.
“People are frightened. People want safety, and anything that you can do to help them towards that goal … my experience is that they’re very accepting,” Kushner said.
Dr. David Rawdin, a pediatrician in Merion Station, has been a mohel for 10 years. However many parents feel nervous about bringing people into their home at the moment, they’ll never be as great in number as those that are nervous about the circumcision itself. Skittish parents and relatives are nothing new for Rawdin.
Rawdin’s approach to britot milah during the pandemic has been to fold risk assessment discussions into his typical pre-bris conference with families. Those meetings, once in person, are conducted via Zoom or by phone; the particulars of the service and the simcha are still discussed in detail, with extra time made to discuss pre-screening the reduced number of guests.
What made the profession attractive to Rawdin was the chance to be a part of a family’s simcha, and those pre-bris meetings, even with their new character, are part of what keeps him coming back.
“One reason I became a mohel was to do it the way I wanted to do it,” Rawdin said, explaining that his way means personal connections with the people to whom he provides a service. That element of his job hasn’t changed a bit.
Howard Glantz does double duty; he’s helped families reestablish the everlasting covenant since ’91, and has been a cantor at Adath Jeshurun since 2004.
Glantz learned the trade from an OB-GYN at Jacobi Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the OB-GYN himself being a mohel, and the son of another mohel at that. Between the three of them, that’s a lot of skin in the game; and yet, it’s safe to say that neither Glantz’s teacher nor his teacher’s father could’ve known to teach Glantz how to deal with, say, a pandemic.
Back in March and April, Glantz found himself in a position he never wanted to find himself in, turning down opportunities to shepherd a family through their child’s bris. Traveling to northern New Jersey and New York during that time felt like entering a conflict zone, he believed, and he did not want to put himself or his family at risk.
Just a few weeks ago, he made the trek to Jersey, and the danger that was in the air back in the spring feels a bit more distant. But still, Glantz, who loves the profession, who wants to sing with a sense of celebration, and regrets that he must put on gloves before he gets out of the car, restricts his services to those that have acted responsibly.
Rabbi Betzalel Katkovsky, who serves Jewish families in the Northeast, feels the new normal acutely in the way that the memory of the bris is preserved. Professional photographers, begging extended broods to squeeze together a little more, have been done away with; in their place are frequently the mohels themselves, asking fewer people for fewer smiles.
And even those smiles, Katkovsky said, are hard to discern behind a mask.
“Part of the beauty of keeping this commandment is the consistency that we, the Jewish people, have had for 4,000 years,” Kushner said, reflecting on the changes he and the families he serves have made since March. “It’s what makes this so intense, and so emotionally gratifying, that you know that you’re reaching back to something that started with Abraham. And there’s not much else that you can do to reach that far back, and connect.”