Creativity in the Time of Corona: B’nai Mitzvah
Guest Post: Elizabeth Shnur
Spring typically is prime time for bar and bat mitzvahs and this year was no exception – a dozen b’nai mitzvah were scheduled in April - June 2020 at PSJC. And then the Coronavirus hit, and everything changed: quarantine was put into effect and we could no longer come together in the synagogue building to celebrate this important event in the lives of our children. Families were faced with huge challenge: they’d had the dates on their calendars for years and students had worked on their Torah and Haftorah readings and divrei Torah for a year or more leading up to the dates. Not to mention all the planning for the Kiddush celebration and parties and family travel plans...Now what?
PSJC families responded to this challenge in a variety of different ways. Some embraced Zoom and went forward from the empty synagogue or from home, some completely postponed, some postponed but still did part of their parashah, and others came up with creative hybrid ways to mark this milestone. We spoke with four families about their experiences.
On April 4, Sylvie Reiner became the first PSJC teen to go ahead with her bat mitzvah on
Zoom. She was alone in the PSJC Sanctuary with just her parents, sister, Rabbi Carter and Patrick Francis, but joined by hundreds of family, friends and community members online. Sylvie described how strange it was to come into the building with all the lights off and nobody else there, but said that it was nice to be in the synagogue itself and extremely “cool” to see so many people on Zoom. She noted that it made her feel “connected to the community…all those people there for you even if it is not in person.” Sylvie felt very supported by her family – even when her sister poured candy all over her head! – and her family particularly appreciated all that Rabbi Carie did to help make the day possible. A bonus was being able to be congratulated and “talk” individually with so many different people – something that would not have been in possible in person. As Sylvie summed it up, it was not like a normal bat mitzvah, but it was “a different kind of special.”
Phoebe Spickler also went forward with her scheduled bat mitzvah, but she Zoomed from home. Phoebe strongly wanted to do her bat mitzvah and feel a part of the whole PSJC community, and she was delighted to find that she was able to accomplish that on Zoom. Her family enjoyed having various community members lead parts of the service and appreciated that they were able to include members of their extended family in virtual aliyot – including family members in Massachusetts and Alaska who otherwise could not have been a part. Their advice for other families Zooming from home is to have one phone for the “bimah” (with a mic that can be muted) and another (without sound) to be able to see the Zoom participants. They also note that pets can be a challenge – cats seem to think Tzitzit are toys and dogs want to be part of what everyone else is doing (sitting on the couch, participating)! Phoebe was very happy to have a Zoom bat mitzvah and felt it was a much better option for her than postponing or doing
a small family celebration without the larger community.
It was very difficult to give up something the whole family had been looking forward to for two years, but Pazia Goldstein decided to postpone because she and her family could not imagine the Zoom experience replacing the “real thing.” However, Pazia chanted her Haftorah during the Shabbat service on the scheduled date and many of her extended family “attended” on Zoom. For Pazia it ended up feeling special. The most fun part was being able to talk with family and friends at the virtual kiddush, as well as when Pazia’s uncle dropped off flowers, bagels and lox and did a hora on the sidewalk outside! Although her actual bat mitzvah was postponed, it was a meaningful day
Zoe Alperin also postponed, and instead had what her mom coined a “Not Mitzvah.” Zoe feels that there is not the same energy on Zoom and looks forward to a time she can have the bat mitzvah in a physical place with family and friends. However, she still wanted to mark the day, so the family came up with the Not Mitzvah plan, which included a Zoom Havdalah service with family and friends. After the service Zoe gave a talk about being a teenager in this difficult time, and the aspects of Judaism that helped her get through it. The most fun for her was when they opened the floor for toasts and comments and it was, “wonderful to hear things about family…to see wonderful, supportive family and friends.” In addition to connecting with friends and family in a meaningful way, Zoe also felt that it was important to help the broader community as part of her bat mitzvah commitment. She started an ongoing GoFundMe campaign that seeks to help both local restaurants and needy people by purchasing meals from the restaurants (Della, Giovanni’s, Thai Farm Kitchen, Le Paddock and Klark’s Kitchen) and delivering them to CHiPS for distribution; so far she and her mother have delivered over 250 meals and raised $5,200; any one interested may donate at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/mitzvah-meals
Although in the words of one teen, it definitely “sucked” not to be able to do things as usual, and along the way there may have been “a lot of crying,” these families all are models of how to confront a challenging situation with creativity and grace, and in doing so create something of great value. In communicating with the teens and their family too, we were struck by how all were focused on the bat mitzvah service itself, the importance of family, friends, and community, and on making the day meaningful. There was virtually no discussion of missing out on the party. That said, we have no doubt that when life returns to normal there will be some “epic, awesome” parties as well!