The night that Chris and Jen Rogers went to the hospital to deliver their twin sons, Soren and Paxton, the hospital locked down. No one was allowed in with them, and for the next four days, they couldn’t leave their room — even to get water or walk in the halls.
“It made it kind of nice because we were really insular and focused on what we were doing, but it was a little bit unusual,” Chris Rogers said. “And then, of course, to have to ask a nurse for water was a little peculiar.”
Now, in the first week after their sons were born, the family is finding that sheltering in place prepared them to be home with two newborns.
“As hard as it is, this now sort of does feel normal, because for March, April, May, June, we were already masked up to go to the grocery store and otherwise homebound,” Chris said.
Back in March, when Rabbi Aviva Funke’s son Amitov was born in Los Angeles, restrictions were already being put in place to protect new mothers from COVID-19.
“My mother couldn’t come to the hospital, our older son couldn’t come and meet his brother as soon as he was born,” said Funke, new principal for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Hebrew High. “We were lucky that my husband could be in both the labor and the prenatal care. We know that there are many women who were alone during this time.”
Three weeks later, her family came to Arizona for Passover “and just never left,” Funke said. Since then, her family has been sheltering in place with her parents in the Greater Phoenix area, and having that support and quality time with them is one of the silver linings of this time for Funke.
Both Funke and the Rogers agreed that the hardest part of having a newborn isn’t staying home. Instead, it’s that family and friends can’t meet their babies. Amitov is already four months old, and his godmother, Funke’s best friend, has never met him.
“In some regards, there are things that have brought us closer to each other, but I feel so far away from my community. I feel so far away from my friends,” Funke said. “Not to have the hugs and not have the eye contact, the face-to-face with some of my best friends and my family and [have them] affirm the new life that we brought into the world was probably the most crushing part of his entering the world.”
Knowing that it could be months before people meet Soren and Paxton is sobering for the Rogers.
“It’s a challenge not being able to share our joy in person with family, with friends and with the community,” Jen Rogers said. “We just don’t even know when our friends are going to meet the babies.”
For both families, the uniqueness of the challenges they encountered didn’t stop after they left the hospital. The bris, or circumcision ceremony held on the eighth day after birth, was also adapted for the circumstances and transformed from a community celebration to a small, intimate event. These days, only the immediate family and the mohel might attend in person, with a virtual option for other friends and family.
“It’s a muted experience, just like the family who’s getting married on Zoom, who can’t have a big party and dance afterwards,” said Dr. Alan Singer, a pediatrician and mohel in the Greater Phoenix area. “It’s all just an element of the terrible pandemic that we’re in the middle of.”
As with other events that have gone virtual over the last few months, however, a Zoom bris means that some who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to attend now can.
“Today, when I do a bris, we have people joining from all over the world. It’s pretty amazing, actually,” said Rabbi Mendy Lipskier, a mohel at Chabad Lubavitch of Fountain Hills. “It’s not that it wasn’t available before, it just wasn’t used as much and today it became the norm.”
For the Rogers, the virtual option meant that Chris’ brother and sister, who live on opposite coasts, could attend Soren and Paxton’s bris over Facebook Portal while just nine people attended in person: the Rogers, both sets of grandparents, the boys’ godparents, the mohel and Rabbi Jeremy Schneider.
Even with a small guest list, everyone wore masks and socially distanced. The rabbi stayed near the door of the home, away from the family. Rather than bless the babies himself, he allowed the Rogers’ 8-year-old daughter to deliver the blessing.
“He kind of put the blessing in her hands and she put her hands on the babies for the blessings, which I thought was actually really cool,” Jen Roger said. “She loved to be involved, and it gave him that social distance that he was comfortable with.”
For Funke, having a small bris for her son Amitov was bittersweet. Hosting a large gathering can be challenging with a newborn, and “to not have to do that, and to have the most intimate brit milah we could have ever imagined — there’s a beauty in that,” Funke said.
With only six people in the room — Funke, her husband, children and parents, and the mohel — it was intimate, and in spite of the fact that she took on the role of rabbi and performed the blessings herself, Funke found herself caught up in the moment.
“I didn’t even look on the screen to see who had joined us until I watched the recording,” Funke said. “You’re just so focused on your baby in a really fragile and vulnerable moment.”
Lipskier has experienced the new, small bris both as a mohel and as a father. His youngest son was born just a month and a half ago, and he performed the bris himself with only his wife and children in attendance.
“I would not give up that experience once I’ve had it. It was an amazing experience to have the bris just with my children, my wife, the baby,” Lipskier said. “It was beautiful; difficult to describe, but all I could say was we were totally present and in the moment.”
While the unique intimacy of these moments is an unexpected silver lining in the face of COVID-19, the health risks of even a small gathering brings up questions for parents.
“We didn’t know if we were even going to have a brit milah on the eighth day,” Funke said. “I was contacting my rabbis, trying to figure out what is the safest situation during a pandemic? Do you have a mohel come into your home who goes into other people’s homes and circumcise your child? Do you wait? How long can you wait before it becomes a surgery? I had to do a little extra research on what was going to be the most safe.”
While her family ultimately held a small bris with a mohel and the baby’s godfather, she said inviting a mohel into their home was a difficult decision.
“It was really worrisome, because we didn’t know: Were we making the right choice of having another person in our house?” Funke said. “We don’t know the boundaries of how we’re supposed to trust people. It’s a really weird line.”
As a mohel, Singer is also acutely aware of the risks involved. To protect himself and his wife, both of whom are senior citizens and at risk for complications from COVID-19, he’s taken a step back from performing brises for the time being, and instead refers new parents to other mohels in the area.
“The first oath of a physician is ‘do no harm,’” Singer said. “The last thing I want to do is be exposed and not even know I’m positive, and go into a house with the new baby and maybe an older sibling or two and expose them. Nor do I want to pick something up from them and bring it home to myself and my wife, and have us get sick.”
In spite of the challenges, Lipskier is seeing more requests for a bris than ever, and for him, it’s a sign of parents’ continued dedication to Judaism.
“There’s no question that when you invite someone into your house, even if he is the mohel, even if he’s being careful, you’re inviting someone that doesn’t need to be there otherwise,” Lipskier said. “It’s just an amazing expression of dedication to our faith and to God and to the beautiful mitzvah of bris.”
The Rogers will always remember this summer as not just the summer of COVID-19, but the summer of Soren and Paxton’s birth and bris, and their first few months of life.
“It’s going to be a great gift,” Chris Rogers said. “We’ve got something else to remember this time for. It’s not just COVID now, it’s Soren and Paxton.” JN