By Justin Regan
Moshe Rappaport and Michael Henesch are two Baltimore-area rabbis who have a combined 70 years of experience working as mohels, performing tens of thousands of brit milahs. Yet they have never seen a year like this.
As the pandemic rages on and the world remains masked up and isolated, the need for Jewish baby boys to be ritualistically circumcised remains crucial.
“It’s definitely an essential service for Jewish families, the Jewish people,” Henesch said. “There are many cases where we [mohels] try to perform this mitzvah. We walk in the snow, we walk in the rain, we drive hours sometimes to perform a bris to different types of families, traditional, less traditional.”
When lockdowns began in the spring, Henesch found himself telling parents he couldn’t do their son’s bris. Even though the ceremony is supposed to be done eight days after the baby is born, many families waited several weeks for Henesch to resume his workload. And when he did, things changed. Masks came on, social distancing was enforced and only the parents were allowed to be present. He’s since started allowing grandparents and other immediate family members to attend, but it’s still a small operation.
“My responsibility is and has been to try to be as safe as possible,” Henesch said. “When I’m asked to come into an environment that I’m not comfortable with for the safety of the baby or myself I decline, or I tell them what the conditions are.”
Rappaport said brit milahs can be minimalist ceremonies. But even when all the halachic boxes are checked, it can still feel like something is missing.
“What’s been the most challenging has been that I have not been able to shake hands or hug fathers or hug grandfathers at a bris,” said Rappaport, who has been involved with Hatzalah of Baltimore, Etz Chaim and other Jewish organizations in Baltimore. “After a bris is finished, everybody’s relieved and there’s happiness and there’s closeness and touching and shaking hands, and that hasn’t happened since COVID. That’s really been a real challenge for me.”
Instead, a lot of the pomp and circumstance has gone away, or gone virtual.
“There could be 150 people in Zoom,” Rappaport said. “Sometimes, the people on Zoom, sometimes it’s a rabbi who will say a few words and sometimes it’s a relative. I once had a relative from Israel who was on Zoom and he’s the one who named the baby, from Israel. In the past, before all this, Zoom would never be used. If they couldn’t make it, they just wouldn’t be part of it. Now people can participate in this unique way.”
Both Henesch and Rappaport work hard to assure parents of the levels of safety they take in their job, especially during the pandemic. The challenge now is convincing families against having a circumcision in the hospital.
“I will tell you that a certain segment of the communities I service have markedly reduced the number of brises,” Henesch said. “The drop has been very, very extreme, and I surmise a lot of this is because certain people are not committed to the sense that they want a mohel to do it. Certainly if they have to have it at the hospital, I’m certainly not going to argue with them. The importance of a bris is certainly there. But many have declined unfortunately. I say unfortunately because until recently a bris has been something that Jews universally have performed and accepted and committed to.”
Rappaport also said a hospital circumcision loses the important spiritual aspect of a bris.
“It’s a lifetime investment, this bris milah,” Rappaport said. “And it’s one of the few mitzvahs that has this lifetime guarantee. It stays with them and it helps this person during his lifetime. It’s not just a physical procedure. It’s a procedure that creates a lot of spirituality for the person, for the family and so forth.”
There is a halachically permissible “do-over” ceremony known as a hatafat dam brit that can be done if someone had a secular circumcision (it’s also a ritual many male converts go through). It’s hard to tell at this point if there will be an increase of those in 2021.
But in 2020, there’s no stopping Henesch and Rappaport. The singing and dancing may be on hold, but the covenant remains.
Henesch said operating in difficult times is a bit of a mohel tradition.
“If we study our history, the history of our people, we will realize that unfortunately, historically, there has been millions of brises performed under clandestine situations,” Henesch said. “Where the threat of life wasn’t the pandemic, but it was by other extraneous sources, where mothers, fathers sometimes and just the mohel performed a bris, most recently even in the former Soviet Union, in the ‘80s and ‘70s and ‘60s.”
Henesch said one silver lining is that the lack of celebrations has led him to lose 20 pounds.
“I’ve eaten a lot fewer carbs, a lot less bagels.”
Justin Regan is a freelance writer. He produces the American Rabbi Project podcast.