When parents Evan Stein and Jackie Friedman held a brit milah for their first son, Sam, in January 2018, more than 100 people gathered in the ballroom at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill to mark the occasion.
What a difference two years and a pandemic makes.
Stein and Friedman’s second son, Ronen, was born last month and the couple was not sure how to address the bris in the age of COVID-19. After debating the option of having a doctor circumcise Ronen at West Penn Hospital, where he was born, they met with Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom and decided to instead stick with the traditional Jewish rite, performed by a mohel, but just scaling it down to make sense in light of current health guidelines.
A few people met at Stein’s parents’ house for the brit milah, which was conducted in mid-April by mohel Rabbi Elisar Admon. About 30 to 35 family and friends “attended” the low-key service via Zoom. Sam’s brit milah, by comparison, had been pretty lavish.
“This time around, it was much more about the occasion,” Stein said. “That’s what we did and then we left. It was almost more religious, more of a religious experience, because what was happening was really the focus.”
Though COVID-19 has turned much of the world upside down, two of the region’s mohels – Admon and Dr. Kerra Doyle, who both live in the East End – continue to be busy as ever. Some of the changes in ritual circumcision among custom-following Jewish families due to the pandemic are to be expected – fewer people witnessing the circumcision in person, for example, and mohels showing up in masks and wearing gloves. Other changes have come as a bit of a surprise.
As more people join by Zoom and other teleconferencing methods, there often is increased participation in the actual service. More people are doing planned readings, though the medical procedure at the center of the brit milah is more intimate when it is shared among immediate family, said Doyle, who is also a physician.
“In some ways, it’s been really nice,” Doyle said. “Some of [the families] have even said, ‘Why didn’t we do this in the past?’”
Doyle, who lives in Highland Park, also continues to conduct circumcisions at Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg, where she specializes in obstetrics and gynecology.
Doyle said she has not seen any specific trends of Jewish families opting for circumcision in her Westmoreland County hospital versus in the home. But she does have several brit milot scheduled in the coming weeks.
She see advantages in performing the rite – often with a rabbi joining via Zoom or Skype – around the new baby boy’s closest relatives.
“I think we’ve changed our minds to what it means to be present,” Doyle said. “That’s been really special.”
Admon said he has heard of some Jewish families opting for a hospital circumcision instead of a bris during the pandemic. One family he said he knew chose to circumcise their son on the second day in the hospital.
“I cannot argue with that,” Admon said. “It’s the parent’s choice.”
Stein, for one, is very happy with Admon and the service he led in Stein’s parents’ home. It was quite different from what they experienced with their first son.
For Sam, his first son, “it was the Jewish rite of the circumcision and the main event was brunch,” he laughed.
Stein said his second son’s brit milah seemed to echo Jewish values relating to the importance of the home, as well as religion’s place within it, even more.
“I guess, when you look back at the customs, [doing it at home] is traditional,” Stein said. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.