In Judaism, a male child must, if at all possible, be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. And not even a blizzard trumps that biblical commandment — especially not when the baby in question is the son of two Washington rabbis.
“It is important to us that our son enter the Jewish people in the same way his ancestors who were born Jewish or chose to be Jewish entered into the covenant,” said Rabbi Aaron Alexander, 40, whose wife, Rabbi Penina Alexander, 39, had given birth to their third son at 5 a.m. Jan. 17.
But the weather made holding the brit milah, the circumcision ceremony, a challenge. It was scheduled for Sunday morning at Adas Israel Congregation in Northwest Washington.
The baby’s paternal grandparents’ flight had been canceled. An aunt who lived in New York couldn’t make it on the train. Neither could an uncle in Ohio.
But the most critical attendee was the mohelot, the woman who would perform the brit milah, or bris. April Rubin lived on Capitol Hill, a short distance from the Cleveland Park synagogue, except in a storm expected to dump nearly two feet of snow on downtown Washington. Bus service had been suspended. Metro had closed Friday evening. And Washington’s mayor was asking people to stay off the streets.
The Alexanders, who live across the street from Adas Israel, knew it might take an act of God to get Rubin, a physician, across town.
“If she is the only one who can make it,” Aaron Alexander vowed, “we will do it.”
Other members of the congregation also worried about the timing of the blizzard.
“When I got the Facebook message the baby was born, I knew the bris would be Sunday,” said Sarah Brooks, who lives two blocks from Adas Israel. “I had actually been watching the weather.”
On Thursday night, Brooks sent Rubin a text offering her a place to stay.
Rubin, who does about 80 brises each year, had planned to stay on Capitol Hill, ride out the storm, then take the subway to the congregation Sunday morning. That was before Metro officials announced the system would close at 11 p.m. Friday.
“When they shut the Metro,” Rubin said, “I called [Sarah] and said, ‘Is that offer still on?’ ”
Brooks said yes, and Rubin went to her house Friday for Shabbat dinner and stayed for the weekend in her family’s guest room. On Saturday morning, as the wind whipped, they walked to services together.
The synagogue sent out an email to the congregation saying that if people could make the brit milah, great — but if they could not, they should stay home and stay safe.
On Sunday morning, those who could walked through the snow to get there. More than 50 people made it, sitting on pale green chairs. Penina Alexander held her newborn in the front row, where a table had been prepared for the circumcision.
“This little guy has braved one of the greatest blizzards of the century in Washington,” said Gil Steinlauf, head rabbi at Adas Israel, predicting the boy will “represent incredible strength and justice in the world.”
The audience stood and sang as the maternal grandparents, Rabbi Shalom Podwol and Dalia Podwol, who had arrived from California on Wednesday, carried in the still-unnamed baby boy.
Rubin rose, explaining the covenant.
“Obviously, eight days is very important, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here in the middle of a blizzard,” she said. She explained the ritual objects, including a ceremonial chair called “Elijah’s chair. It is said that Elijah is present at every brit so he can see with his own eyes that Jews are keeping the covenant.”
The parents laid the baby on a pillow on a table. He whimpered. The circumcision was very quick. As the congregation sang, a bandage was applied, Rubin wrapped the baby, and Aaron Alexander placed his son on his chest.
Then, during a chant blessing the newborn, Steinlauf revealed his name: Amos Eden.
Aaron Alexander sent a text to his mother in Florida to share the news. “No one knew the name except Penina and I,” he said. “I texted her right away.”
Penina Alexander rose and explained that one of the reasons they chose that name was in memory of her paternal grandmother, Mae. The “m” in Amos is a tribute to the first initial of Mae’s name.
“My Nana Mae was a strong woman who also raised only boys,” Penina Alexander said. “She was well loved and respected in her community and in her family. And her commitment to her family and to instilling Jewish values of community and of Israel set a great example for us.”
Amos was an Old Testament prophet who “was special for a lot of reasons,” Aaron Alexander added. “Primarily, he was able to see people for who they were and see the world the way it was in that time. Amos, like many prophets, railed quite eloquently against false piety, religious hypocrisy and understood that a spiritual life had to take care of those on the outside of the temple walls more so than it did for those on the inside of the temple walls.
“It was for that reason that Dr. King quoted from him often and in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. We know this baby was born on the Sunday of MLK weekend; it seemed right.”
The congregation prayed, and more blessings were bestowed on the baby.
Sitting near the back was Joyce Stern, who with her husband has been a member of Adas Israel for more than 45 years. Despite the fact that many sidewalks were unplowed, Stern walked with her cane from her home near the Van Ness Metro station, three-fourths of a mile away, to attend the bris.
“I’m 77 years old, I made it out to Connecticut Avenue and came,” she said. God, she added, “gave me the strength. I made it, and I’m not exhausted. That is a miracle.”