For the first time in 75 years, the Oslo Jewish community is not meeting for communal worship. Likewise, lifecycle events, such as ritual circumcisions and weddings are now on hold.
“This is the first time since the return of Jewish life to Oslo post-World War II that we have not met in person in the synagogue for a minyan,” said Joav Melchior, rabbi of the Oslo Jewish community, referring to a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men.
The Norwegian Jewish community is hardly alone in having to move prayer services and educational programs online in response to the rapidly spreading novel COVID-19 virus. Government-mandated social distancing directives have forced synagogues and Jewish schools all over the world to connect with congregants and students only virtually in recent weeks.
However, Oslo’s Jews face a perfect storm as the pandemic compounds the challenges small Jewish communities without full and permanent ritual leadership must contend with on a regular basis.
One Oslo couple has felt the brunt of this, unable to have their newborn son ritually circumcised this week due to the rapidly spreading pandemic. There is no mohel (ritual circumciser) in Norway, where it is estimated that between 1,300 and 2,000 Jews reside.
Even under normal circumstances, the community must bring a mohel in from another country. With Norway’s borders now closed to all foreigners, the couple has been forced to postpone their son’s brit milah (ritual circumcision) indefinitely.
“They used to bring a mohel in from Denmark, and more recently mohels have come from England,” said the baby’s father Tyson Herberger, an American-Israeli rabbi who settled in the Scandinavian city with his wife Rebekka Herberger Rødner, whose family has lived in Norway for more than a century. The couple also has a preschool-age daughter.
When the Herbergers’s son was born on March 9, they believed it would be possible to move ahead as usual to prepare for the baby’s circumcision on his eighth day of life, as prescribed by Jewish law.
As is mandated by a2014 law passed by Norway’s parliament, the couple intended to invite a mohel from London and arrange for a Norwegian physician from the Jewish community to supervise the procedure. The law states that a medical doctor or nurse must either perform the circumcision or be present when a non-medical professional performs it.
The Herbergers intended to limit the gathering to fewer than 10 people per the recommendations for minimizing the spread of coronavirus infection. (There is no need according to Jewish law for a minyan at a circumcision.)
However, following a steep increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, Norway’s government began taking drastic measures. All international travellers entering the country faced a 14-day mandatory quarantine.
“At that point, we were exploring the possibility of a British mohel coming here and doing the procedure while in quarantine,” Herberger said. “But then they announced that they were closing the borders to all non-Norwegian citizens and residents.”
Melchior said it was challenging to keep up with the “harsh regulations” that keep changing keep changing day-by-day, and sometimes hour-by-hour.
He suggested that a less-than-optimal possibility for the Herbergers would be a circumcision by a non-Jewish medical professional, followed by a hatafat dam, or ritualized drawing of a drop of blood from the site of the circumcision.
According to Herberger, he and his wife were not inclined to go this route, explaining that in Norway circumcision is not very popular, and as a result physicians are not experienced in performing the procedure on extremely young infants.
The couple looked into traveling to Sweden with the baby while the border between that country and Norway remained open, but unfortunately the two mohels there were unavailable.
“Then we thought that maybe we could fly a British mohel into Sweden and meet him somewhere along the border, making sure to arrange medical supervision, which is also required in Sweden,” Herberger said.
“But that didn’t pan out either when the UK mohels contacted were either unavailable or not on the approved list of Sweden’s IVO – Institutionen för Vård och Omsorg (Health and Social Care Inspectorate),” he said.
To make matters more complicated, the Herbergers received conflicting advice as to whether it was even prudent for a newborn and mother recovering from a cesarean section to travel during a bad flu season and as the coronavirus pandemic was quickly spreading.
“It seems this family will have to wait until things are clear or they can travel,” Melchior said.
“We have had to delay a brit milah in the past because of the health of the baby, but this is the first time we have had to do so because of the health of the public,” Melchior said, when Norway had 1,256 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and three deaths.
The rabbi praised the Herbergers for exploring all possibilities while concurrently meeting all of the new and rapidly shifting regulations. At the same time, he acknowledged that this will likely not be the only case in which his community will struggle with adapting to Jewish life in the time of coronavirus.
“It is emotionally hard to stop communal religious life,” he lamented.
It is not only families with newborn babies that the Jewish community will have to help find solutions for.
“Unfortunately it appears that we will have to hold funerals without a minyan or family present. I hope it won’t come to this, but we need to prepare ourselves,” Melchior said. In case of a funeral without a minyan, the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, would not be said.
Remaining optimistic, Herberger said he and his wife were not giving up on trying to find a way to safely have a brit milah for their son.
“We are of course worried about the coronavirus. But it could go on for months, and we don’t want to have to wait that long to circumcise our son,” he said.