All they wanted was a circumcision for their son

Several weeks ago, a young immigrant couple, call them Sarah and Ben Levy, asked for help in arranging the brit milah (circumcision) ceremony of their newborn son.

I'd met Sarah and Ben two years earlier at an Independence Day party in Jerusalem for visiting Jews from Yugoslavia. You may recall the story. A group of young members of the Jewish community of Belgrade had been spending Pessah in Hungary when the war in Yugoslavia broke out. They couldn't return home. The Jewish Agency took them to Israel in the hope they'd consider aliyah. Sarah and Ben felt they had seen enough of the writing on the wall.

They had talked about aliyah before getting married. The trip by the Jewish Agency felt as if a Divine finger was pointing them in the right direction. They wrote to their parents that they weren't coming back.

Finances were very difficult. They studied hard to learn Hebrew fast. Sarah, an architect, got a job first, and they rented a modest flat. Ben, a lawyer, needed to retrain, so he waited tables and checked purses at supermarkets while he studied. They joined us and other host families for occasional Shabbatot and Purim.

We were delighted to hear that they were expecting their first child. Sarah gave birth in Jerusalem to a healthy, robust son. Only then did she reveal a secret: Her maternal grandmother hadn't been Jewish.

Since coming to Israel, Sarah had understood that she wasn't really Jewish, even though she had grown up as part of the Jewish community, married a Jew, and moved to Israel. Sarah fully accepted the need to undergo Orthodox conversion.

She was eager to get started during her maternity leave. She wanted to make sure their baby was Jewish. What should she do?

Unlike the marriage canopy from which large numbers of Israelis are fleeing, entering the covenant of Patriarch Abraham has always reminded me of entering Abraham's tent, known for being wide open on all sides.

Nearly all Jews, religious and self-proclaimed secular, enthusiastically observe the ritual of brit milah through nearly identical ceremonies. The moment of announcing a boy's name in public for the first time, and the wish to see him enter the world of Torah, the marriage canopy and the world of good deeds, brings tears to the eyes of faithful and skeptics alike.

Ceremonies I've attended in recent years have also accommodated mothers who didn't want to be secluded in the back until the surgery was completed. Mothers can recite the Torah quotations, join in blessing along with their husbands, give Torah speeches, and recite the prayer for thanksgiving, and sometimes, even act as the sandakit (godmother), holding the baby for the ceremony, with an Orthodox mohel presiding.

I wasn't sure if a brit was possible for Sarah and Ben's baby, so I checked with a rabbanit friend, who assured me that indeed, you could have a brit l'shaim giur, a circumcision ceremony that would be the first step in a conversion. The blessing is adjusted.

More research revealed that the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had approved the conversion of small children attending Jewish day schools in the United States — if the mother was not properly converted — because going to day school increased a child's identification with the Jewish people and his chance of growing up Jewish. Likewise, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren had allowed the conversion of baby immigrants because the chances of them growing up as Jews in Israel was also great.

I went back to Sarah and Ben and explained the procedure, making sure Sarah understood that she'd be expected to begin conversion lessons. They asked me to find a mohel.

I phoned the mohel who does most of the britot in my own community. He refused to take the case until I'd spoken to a specific rabbi who was an expert in these matters. Something in his tone worried me, but I called the rabbi.

He cut me short. There wasn't going to be a brit, he said. Sarah had to complete her conversion before the baby could start the process.

But that might take years, I protested. The couple might feel that they and their son had been rejected and join the half million non-Jewish Israelis (not counting Arabs) living permanently in Israel, who will soon mix into the Jewish people with no Jewish connection. I needn't have added that the character of the state was endangered by our failure to encourage non-Jewish Israelis to become Jews.

What did that matter? asked the rabbi. The baby wasn't a Jew. The baby didn't need a brit. Period.

Dreading bringing the news to Sarah and Ben, I called another Orthodox rabbi and confided my predicament. He gave me the name of a colleague who was a troubleshooter for problems with brit milah. I hadn't heard of Rabbi Andrew Sacks.

Subsequently, I learned that he was quietly called to perform britot for babies born with AIDS, after other mohelim had refused. He was trained by rabbinical authorities in Israel and the United States.

Sacks wanted to know the intentions of the mother. He recommended several approved conversion programs. And yes, he was willing to perform the brit as the first stage in converting the baby.

My relief was palpable. Just before hanging up, I thought to ask: "You're Orthodox, aren't you?" "No," he said. "I'm Conservative."

Now I was in a worse dilemma. As a committed Orthodox Jew myself, I believe the answers can and should come from within Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, every instinct said that Sarah and Ben would be turned off from religion if they couldn't have a brit for their son.

Fortunately, this decision wasn't mine to make. In the most neutral way possible, I told Sarah and Ben the options and provided phone numbers.

They had their own powwow and decided to go with Sacks.

So, last week, little sabra Isaac Levy began the process of becoming a Jew. His mother has been in touch with a rabbi to start her conversion.

As usual, I cried at the ceremony. Tears flowed as the mohel wished that Isaac should enter the world of Torah, chuppah and good deeds.

And I cried for a system that hasn't yet coupled the letter of the law with its spirit.

Just when we should be reaching out to those passing our way, we seem to be battening down the flaps of our tent.