A Summer of (Unusual) Bar and Bat Mitzvahs

“I went to a bar mitzvah this summer,” said almost nobody.   This has been a very unusual five months for 13 year olds who planned to mark bar or bat mitzvah, for their families, and for their synagogues.  

I have been preparing students for b’nai mitzvah for over 30 years, and on occasion, super extenuating circumstances meant pushing off or moving forward the date of the bar or bat mitzvah.  For example, a very sick relative, a medical need, 9/11.  But that is rare.  Covid-19 had meant hundreds if not thousands of b’nai mitzvahs being postponed or reimagined.

So far, three families I work with have had to put off Israel b’nai mitzvahs.  One Kotel bar mitzvah turned in to a very well attended 120 person all-Zoom bar mitzvah, where the mother, father and bar mitzvah boy sat at the dining room table of their Manhattan apartment, and guests tuned in from their homes all around the world.  The other families have put off Israel for now and have other plans for marking the bar and bat mitzvah in the works.

Another family had planned a Shabbat afternoon bat mitzvah in May.  Instead of being postponed indefinitely, it was simply moved to the following Monday morning, when the same torah portion was read.  It is what I call a “partial Zoom” bat mitzvah.  For the somewhat shy girl, it was the best of all worlds:  Her mother, father, one rabbi, the cantor and I all wore masks in the synagogue chapel, appropriately socially distanced.  A computer sat on a cardboard box on the bima, sharing the simcha on Zoom for all to see.  It was the first time I had worn sort of nice clothes in months!

Several of my tutoring families have changed the date and location several times.  Some held out hope for a socially distanced bat mitzvah at a backyard in the Hamptons, or a bar mitzvah at an indoor restaurant in Manhattan.  But local laws and ordinances for number of guests, indoor vs. outdoor dining, etc. keep changing.  The bat mitzvah is on hold.  The bar mitzvah moved to Connecticut, where rules for dining are different.   Other families have moved their b’nai mitzvah to Western Mass—outdoors, with a homemade siddur and a rented torah.    

The great thing I am seeing is that the students are really good sports.  Their parents are as well.  All may be disappointed; some may be a bit relieved.  Everyone seems to have perspective—this is a happy occasion during a time when so many are experiencing sadness and loss.   It is not the time to travel to Israel but Israel will always be there—maybe next year! 

And I have learned that technology can be a wonderful tool for teaching b’nai mitzvah students.  Facetime has been a wonderful way to have lessons.  Perhaps students in very remote areas can now learn for b’nai mitzvah with experienced teachers, and Zoom may continue to be a useful tool for bringing people together, even when Covid-19 is but a distant memory. 

I look forward to a future generation of perplexed grandchildren, sitting on the laps of grandparents trying to understand just what a “Zoom bar mitzvah” or a “Zoom bat mitzvah” actually was?!  

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