Ceremony binds infants and families to Torah, community

When it comes to tradition, Chochmat HaLev of Berkeley has original ideas. The center for Jewish spirituality does not call itself a synagogue or a congregation, yet it serves an ever-growing community of members looking to participate in Jewish life.

And, naturally, Jewish life means babies.

Traditional Judaism dictates that newborn boys have a brit milah, whereas there is no widely accepted ritual for newborn girls. Modern parents have claimed the no-mohel-necessary “baby-naming” gathering in recent times, yet this lacks a certain ancestral and spiritual significance that Jewish ritual brings to the event.

Rabbi Avram Davis felt the

need for something different and has brought a new kind of baby-

welcoming tradition to Chochmat HaLev.

He received this “folk ritual” from Rabbi Ayla Grafstein of Ruach ha’Midbar of Phoenix, who learned it from a Libyan community. Called a “welcoming baby into the world” ceremony, this ritual binds Jewish custom with Chochmat HaLev’s distinctive personality.

“It bemuses us to find the traditional, to find the ways our ancestors did stuff, and then use them. You have to hunt it down a bit, but it is important to find those rituals that help to accentuate the emotional spiritual power,” said Davis.

Designed to literally bind the baby and the family to the Torah, the ceremony begins with Davis lifting the baby up to the community and wrapping the baby in a tallit. The rabbi then places the infant in the center of the Torah and wraps the scroll around the baby.

Davis asks the community to call on and channel the divine feminine side of God, the Shechinah, as they bless the baby and family. Those present extend their arms toward the infant and parents, forming a circle of prayer and community.

Davis believes the ceremony connects the spiritual aspects of birth with the physical. “If we hold the baby up and say ‘this is the name of the baby’ — that is powerful. But if we can make that more physical, then we can help people feel it in a deeper emotional and spiritual way.”

The ceremony did just that for Gal Adam Spinrad and David Spinrad of Oakland. Though they had a baby-naming for their daughter, Dahlia, when she was 8 days old, the welcoming ceremony, done when she was two months old, was “much more [about] having our community welcome her into the fold,” said her mother.

“It is really important to us that Dahlia knows that she is Jewish, that she grows up with a connection to Judaism, and a connection to the Torah. This ceremony is an amazing visceral way to give this to her.”

For Jay and Ahri Golden of Berkeley, it was significant to participate in such a ceremony because they wanted their son Izzy to feel an immediate sense of Jewish community.

“We decided to do it because it is part of the tradition of our shul, and I have seen it happen many times,” said Ahri Golden. “It is just incredibly beautiful and it gives me a real strong sense of community. I knew that I was really in a place where the people are honoring the full process of life.”

For her son “it was a welcoming and introduction,” she said, “establishing that he is part of the whole.”

While parents found fulfillment in the ritual, many were surprised at their children’s calm and peaceful behavior during the service.

David Doostan and Melita Silberstein of Berkeley definitely had their reservations when it was their daughter’s turn to be wrapped in the holy scroll.

“Leilah was amazingly awake, calm, serene and aware,” said Silberstein. “We had fears about whether or not she would spit up, or something else totally terrifying on the Torah, but she was perfect. Everyone was amazed.”

The couple “made a weekend of it,” added Silberstein. “The ceremony took place on Shabbat. The next day we had a brunch” with friends and relatives. “There was singing and poetry reading, and people could share whatever they wanted.”

The welcoming ceremony in March 2004 was one the Spinrads won’t forget. “Dahlia got super silent, and was all smiles. She looked so beautiful wrapped in an old tallit, black and white,” said her mom.

Even though this particular ritual has yet to catch on with the rest of the Jewish world, it resonates with many in the Chochmat community.

“It was a very Jewish occasion,” said Gal Adam Spinrad. “Even though this is not a ‘traditional’ thing to do, it felt so much like a tradition … There is this connection on an energetic level. At least we know that we are giving her a solid Jewish foundation.”