Transplanted couple double effort for baby-naming

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As the parents of newborn twins, Joel Birch and Jessica Braverman Birch had their hands full — literally.

They wanted to hold a baby-naming ceremony but weren't sure they could pull one off.

There were other obstacles as well: The Bay Area couple was living temporarily in Germany when their daughters, Sarah and Amalia, were born April 10, some 5-1/2 weeks early. The couple had no family nearby and the infants had spent more than a month in the hospital to gain weight.

"We knew we wanted to do this," said Joel, a 43-year-old Hewlett-Packard engineer who was transferred to Germany a year and a half ago. "The actual planning was close. With twins, you just had so few hours in a day that were yours."

They were living in the southern German town of Boeblingen and wanted a rabbi from another German city to perform the ceremony. But it turned out he wasn't available.

"We decided we wanted to do it and Joel did it," said Jessica, 38, former political director for the San Francisco office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The naming ceremony for the babies took place June 20 in the living room of the family's temporary home. Joel led the service with the help of about 20 assembled friends and Jessica's 88-year-old grandmother, Jennie Green of San Francisco.

Green, who attended the naming on her way back from a U.C. Berkeley Alumni expedition to Greece, held Amalia. An Israeli woman who, as chance had it, lived next door to the Birches in Germany, held Sarah.

Most of the guests were Jews the couple had met while participating in services at a nearby American military base. Also in attendance was a non-Jewish couple.

"We wanted to have more of our non-Jewish friends there," Joel said. But given the hectic nature of their first weeks as parents, the couple was "a little late in inviting people."

They printed up a short program for the ceremony only the night before.

Joel adopted the service from examples in Anita Diamant's "The New Jewish Baby Book."

The service was participatory, with every guest reading a portion.

"I basically found something that I thought would have meaning for us," said Joel. He also wanted a program that would "help us to engage all our guests in the services as well. For us, that made it more meaningful."

With the babies being held beside him, "I kind of acted as the moderator."

The service began with an introductory prayer that everyone read together. Readings were done in transliterated Hebrew and in English.

Members of the gathering took turns reciting the Shevah Brachot, or seven blessings. The blessings had been recited when the Birches were married in San Francisco in 1996. "We thought it would be a nice touch" to recite them for the baby-naming, he said.

They also recited the priestly blessing, which they had recited for their daughters every Shabbat while the infants were in the hospital.

The entire ceremony took less than an hour. It was followed by saying the motzi over bread. They celebrated with cakes, coffee and a sparkling wine.

The service was quite moving for Green, a regular volunteer at the Jewish Bulletin. "It was just the most beautiful thing. I was so touched by it," he said.

The Birches relocated to the Sacramento area in late July and will hold another naming ceremony in the near future, so local relatives can attend.

"We thought it was really important to do a naming" in Germany, said Jessica. "We had a little Jewish community there."

When the couple moved to Germany from Mountain View, a Christian co-worker at Hewlett-Packard told them about the Jewish services at the military base. The gatherings included American military families and job transferees, like the Birches, from other countries. Once a month, Joel wound up leading the services.

"It was kind of an international group and it was really nice," Jessica said. "We had holidays together." Their Passover seder drew 60 people.

"We didn't have any qualms about moving to Germany, but some of our family and friends did," she said. "I thought any Jewish experience we had in Germany would be a special one. Even though we were transitory, I felt good that two more Jewish girls were born in Germany, thumbing their nose at Hitler."