With the Calmness of Abraham

Rabbi Rachel Silverman

Rabbi Rachel Silverman is the Rabbi for Congregational Learning at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline. 

The following is an excerpt from the story I shared with my congregation on Rosh Hashanah. The full text of the sermon can be found here. (http://congki.org/rosh-hashana-sermon-rabbi-silverman/

A few months ago, I received an interesting call from a colleague in Argentina. He asked if I would help convert the daughter of one of his congregants, once the baby was born to a surrogate mother here in Boston. I said yes without giving it much thought.

In my email exchanges with the father-to-be, Alex, we stumbled over the language barrier, worried about whether a newborn baby is too young to immerse, and discussed details such as who would go in the water with his daughter. At times I felt like I was more diplomat than spiritual guide, as I shuttled between the doctor, father, and mikveh representative to complete the arrangements. Finally, after seemingly endless back-and-forth, we had a date and a Beit Din (rabbinic court).

As we sat in Mayyim Hayyim’s conference room, Alex shared stories about growing up Jewish in Argentina, working hard with the gay Jewish community to fight for the rights of same-sex couples, and told us of his desire to raise his daughter with the same Jewish pride and connection that his parents gave him.

We next saw Alex standing outside the mikveh, in a bathing suit, holding his naked three-week-old daughter. As they descended the stairs into the water, Alex did exactly what he was told to do: he played around in the warm water with the baby for a few minutes to acclimate her, immersing her up to her shoulders while crouching down to be at eye-level with her.

Then, with just a nod of his head to us, he blew in her face. Instinctively, she shut her eyes and closed her mouth — and he let go. Three-week-old baby Emma sank under the water.

In one swift motion, he scooped her back up, hugged her to his chest, and recited the bracha (blessing).

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על הטבילה.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’t’vilah. 

Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with the mitzvot and commanded us concerning immersion.

Moments later, he again lowered her in the water up to her shoulders, blew in her face, and let her go. Catching her before she fell too deep in the water, he gathered her back up and said another blessing. By the time he finished dunking her a third time, the entire room of observers was ready to say a very tearful “amen” to his heartfelt Shehecheyanu.

After hugging and kissing everyone present, Alex and Emma left to get dressed. As I stood in the lobby, still feeling a high from creating a new Jew, it occurred to me: we had just witnessed a modern retelling of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings.

Like Abraham, Alex was a man told by his religious authority figures קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ –  Kach-na et-bincha, et-yechidcha, asher ahavta (Take your son, your favored one, whom you love*) – to take his precious daughter, his beloved only child, into the water… and to let go. By doing this, he was promised, he would ensure that Judaism would live on into the next generations, through his descendants. And with the calmness of Abraham he followed instructions – and all turned out as promised.

* Genesis 22:2 – God tells Abraham to take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah.

Watch “Welcoming Waters: Mikveh Baby”, a video of another baby’s conversion

This three-minute documentary was directed and produced by Jen Kaplan, with funding by a Jewish Innovation Grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Natan.

Many thanks to the Grossmann family for generously sharing their story and to Rabbi Andy Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline for his warm and sensitive ritual facilitation.


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