When Andrew and Lisa, a young couple in the East Bay, were preparing for the birth of their first child, a boy in 2009, they faced a conundrum. Lisa was not Jewish; Andrew was “ethnically, culturally” Jewish but not practicing.
The couple wanted some kind of Jewish ceremony to welcome their newborn, but they were conflicted about circumcision. “I didn’t feel comfortable with making that decision for another human being,” Lisa said. “So we went online and started looking into alternatives.”
What they found was a naming ceremony called brit shalom — Hebrew for “covenant of peace.” They also found Rabbi Judith Seid, who leads Tri-Valley Cultural Jews, a Pleasanton-based community for people who identity with Judaism through family, culture and/or history rather than through religion. Seid helped the couple plan a naming ceremony for their son that reflected their wishes.
According to the New York Times and NPR, the couple is at the cutting edge of a trend.
In July 2011, during the same week a measure aiming to ban circumcision of any male under 18 was ordered by a judge to be taken off the San Francisco ballot, both media outlets reported on brit shalom. They noted that the ceremony is a small but growing phenomenon in the Bay Area.
Brit shalom is frequently promoted by opponents of circumcision as a way to welcome baby boys into the Jewish covenant without a brit milah, also known as a bris.
But it’s not just a ritual seized upon by “intactivists,” anti-circumcision activists. It’s also seen by some Jews as a ceremony that can be adapted and personalized, and one that promotes egalitarianism — the male equivalent of a girl’s baby-naming.
Seid, a rabbi who also works as a cantor, said she presides over a couple of brit shalom ceremonies each year, though they’re not always referred to that way.
“We usually just call it a baby naming,” she said. “Same like with a girl.”
At a recent ceremony she helped lead — for a baby boy in San Francisco — there were remarks about Jewish tradition, the Jewish community, and the child’s parents and grandparents. No mention was made of the circumcision that did not take place.
“People want some kind of way to mark the birth of their child, and if they don’t want to circumcise, then this is a way to acknowledge a new member of the Jewish community,” said Seid.
Seid’s personal stance is that circumcision is “up to the parents,” and she doesn’t ask families who choose a brit shalom about their reasons.
Still, the ceremony is controversial, even among some of those who perform it. Rabbi Jerry Levy, who reaches out to unaffiliated and secular Jews in the Bay Area and beyond through an agency called Bay Area Jewish Services, said he does perform the ceremony.
“Let’s just say that I do the ceremony,” said Levy, 69, an independent Reform rabbi who lives in Tiburon. “I may not favor it, but I do it.”
Levy said he believes that parents should be able to choose the content of their religious practice. But it is no coincidence that brit shalom appeals, he said, mostly to parents who have a weaker sense of Jewish identity and less interest in Jewish continuity. “I think that this not wanting to circumcise your sons is part of this process of diluting Judaism and assimilating into a very bland culture,” Levy said.
However, Levy said that in recent years he has officiated at more brit shalom ceremonies than at circumcisions. (As an independent rabbi, he explained, fewer opportunities arise to officiate at services in general.)
Mark Reiss of San Francisco, a 78-year-old retired Jewish doctor who is executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision, maintains the most complete list of those who officiate at brit shalom ceremonies. The list includes eight officiants in the Bay Area.
He began putting the list together after turning firmly against circumcision in 1999.
“Circumcision is not an identity issue,” reads a statement by Reiss posted on the website. “You do not need to be circumcised to be Jewish any more than the need to observe many other Jewish laws. The bottom line is this: If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, period.”
All major branches of Judaism currently call for parents to circumcise their baby boys. But if, as recent stories in the New York Times and NPR have reported, the incidence of brit shalom is increasing, some believe it will follow in the path of intermarriage — that is, the ceremony may one day raise very few eyebrows.
“When I first started doing interfaith marriages, you can bet that I got a lot of flak from my colleagues in the Reform movement,” said Menlo Park–based Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant, who was one of the first Reform rabbis in the country to begin performing intermarriages, in 1967.
When the couples he helped marry later had children, they called him, which is why Familant started performing what he called brit chayim (covenant of life) ceremonies in the early 1970s. Before retiring last year, Familant said he performed about 15 to 20 of the non-cutting naming ceremonies annually.
Familant is not opposed to circumcision, but he has no problem performing brit shalom–type ceremonies.
“If it violated any of my principles I would not have done any of this,” he said.
As for Andrew and Lisa, the ceremony surpassed their expectations. They invited 25 family members and friends to their home to witness the brit shalom, which incorporated a prayer shawl that once belonged to Andrew’s father. The reactions from everyone, including many of their practicing Jewish friends, were extremely positive, Andrew said.
“It felt like the evolution of something traditional,” he said. “It may seem new, but there is a history; there’s something fundamental behind it.”
The couple is now expecting their second child. They plan to have a similar ceremony for her.
The Los Angeles Jewish Journal contributed to this report.