Rabbi Levi Hodakov quietly admitted he was nervous as the crowd streamed into Young Israel-Chabad of Pinellas County last week.
While he and his wife, Miriam, have five daughters, they recently welcomed their first son. As is the Torah-commanded Jewish custom, a circumcision was performed eight days after the baby's birth.
"It's a real new experience for me — having a boy and having a bris," Rabbi Hodakov said.
In the Torah, God commanded Jewish fathers to circumcise their sons, and the tradition has continued for 3,500 years since Abraham. Circumcision is the first commandment given to Abraham, the first Jew, and is central to Judaism.
There are typically about 10 traditional brit milahs performed in the Tampa Bay area each year. Most people use a physician, including many non-Jews who have also adopted the practice for health reasons.
Since there are no local mohels to perform a traditional brit milah, Rabbi Yisrael Heller flew in from New York to perform the bris. In his 16 years as a mohel, he has performed more than 8,000 circumcisions around the world.
"When you do something for God, it's a heavy thing," said Rabbi Heller.
God created the negative because he wanted us to make it better, he said, and so we remove the foreskin of the penis. "Throughout life, we continue going in His ways, making this world a better place."
About 100 people from the community gathered Monday for the event.
"For him, it's an extra thrill — after five girls you finally have a boy," said Raphael Cohen of Indian Rocks Beach, a member of Young Israel-Chabad for 20 years.
Rabbi Shalom Adler, the head rabbi with Young Israel-Chabad, spoke during the event and read a letter from the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Brooklyn-based Chabad outreach movement.
"The words of a tzadik are eternal," he said before reading the letter, which included blessings for the occasion in Yiddish and English. Rabbi Yossi Dubrowski, leader of Chabad of Tampa Bay in Carrollwood, also participated in reading the letter.
Rabbi Adler, who has seven sons and experienced as many brit milahs, explained later that what he finds significant is that the child is not really aware of the covenant he's entering into.
"For the most part, he's oblivious to the deeper significance of this," he said. "But it underscores that our relationship with God is an essential bond that transcends our intellectual capacity. That is the true commitment we are making on behalf of this child."
During the ceremony, Rabbi Hodakov's heartfelt Hebrew prayers and cries could be heard from beneath his white prayer tallis, his face hidden, expressing his genuine appreciation to God for the birth of a healthy son.
"It was very emotional," he said, "when you're standing there and you know here is your newborn son entering into the covenant of Abraham, our forefather, becoming part of the Jewish community."
As part of the ceremony, Miriam Hodakov carried the baby out, dressed in white and resting on a white pillow, and handed him to another woman —- known by the Hebrew word kvater.
Michelle Amnony of Palm Harbor served this role, which is said to be good luck for couples who want to have children. "It's a big mitzvah," she said. "It's something very nice."
She handed the baby to her husband, Ronen, who passed the baby to the sandek, the person who holds the baby during a bris.
Rabbi and Miriam Hodakov, according to tradition, did not know the sex of the baby before the birth and had not decided on a name. The name — which remains a secret for eight days until the bri — was announced during the ceremony.
The baby's name is Yaakov (Hebrew version of Jacob), after Rabbi Hodakov's grandfather, and the grandson of Abraham.
"You get a feeling what to name him when you hold him," Miriam said. "Like a gift of prophecy."