Adult b’nai mitzvah Zoom to treasured milestone

UH Zoom Adult Bnai Mitzvot

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Judy Berger lost her husband, Leslie, on New Year’s Eve 2019, but he was very much on her mind during the second day of Hanukkah last Saturday. That’s when Berger, 73, achieved a milestone: her bat mitzvah.

“He was never bar mitzvahed, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this for him and for me,’ ” Berger said. “This was something I did for me and for my husband. It was always in the back of my mind, and the fact that I accomplished it at this point in my life, I’m glad that I did.”

Berger was part of a group adult b’nai mitzvah at United Hebrew Congregation that was conducted over Zoom. The six UH congregants ended a yearlong study program with the ceremony. 

It was the first completely virtual b’nai mitzvah for the congregation, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg said. 

“We’ve had b’nai mitzvah all along during the pandemic, but one person has always been present in the same location with the family,” Rosenberg said. “This was the first time nobody was together anywhere.”

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To ensure safety, each of the six b’nai mitzvahparticipated from his or her home via Zoom. Rabbi Adam Bellows and Cantor Ronald Eichaker were in their respective offices, and Rosenberg was on the bimah. Each participant had recorded their Torah portions, which were spliced together so it appeared seamless for the virtual audience. The livestream included each b’nai mitzvah leading prayers, handing off the responsibility to the next participant.

“It’s one thing to do a bar or bat mitzvah virtually with one student,” Rosenberg said. “We had six who needed to lead the service, and they had to really pay attention so they knew when to come in.”

Like Berger, each b’nai mitzvah had a special reason for going back to Hebrew school years after their 13th birthday.

“Actually, I’ve been waiting 64 years to do this,” said Stephanie Rinaldi, 77. “About 15 years ago, I found my Judaism, and this is part of finishing that circle of life for me. It felt amazing, like l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation). I felt like every generation was on my shoulders watching me. My brother had passed away the first week of COVID down in Florida. I wore his tallit during the ceremony. It completed part of the circle of life that I’m walking on my own, this is my own journey, and I can’t soak up enough.”

For Marilen Pitler, achieving bat mitzvah was a long held goal.

“It was always something I wanted to do,” said Pitler, 76. “I was always steeped in learning at various congregations. Continuous learning has always been something that’s paramount for me, and having this opportunity was great.”

Jethro Adams, 26, converted to Judaisma year and a half ago, and this was part of his plan.

“I naturally felt this was the next step for me to explore,” Adams said. “I already spent most of my time living Jewishly with my nose in some text, so I wanted to step my game up. Completing my [bar] mitzvah really solidified the feeling of belonging I have as a Jew.”

Susan Keyes, 69, said she never had the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah when she was younger.

“My friend in Cincinnati had a b’nai mitzvahlast year and it seemed like something I wanted to do and I could do,” she said.

The journey for the six b’nai mitzvah members began a year ago with a class led by the United Hebrew clergy. The curriculum was developed by Bellows. For the first two months, they met in person at the synagogue. Then the pandemic hit and the class continued without missing a stride, via Zoom.

“It was wonderful,” Keyes said. “With everything on Zoom, I’m taking a virtual Torah class and a Talmud class, so it kind of all has gone together with this b’nai mitzvah and my learning this year. It wasn’t the end of my education, either. It was a springboard to more education.”

Pitler said: “I really enjoyed meeting on Zoom. It felt like we were even closer. Most of us did not know each other before we met in the class. We studied together for two hours a month for 12 months. We had to learn our Torah portion, and mostly our focus was delving into the parashah itself and into the meaning.

“We’re not the first adult b’nai mitzvah class. But this is the first time they’ve done it on Zoom with multiple people, and it worked out beautifully. At the end we had a virtual oneg, and the guests were unmuted, we went on gallery view for 10 minutes. I have a girlfriend from Israel who was there, and another one from London, so we all had a chance to talk.”

Rinaldi also had supporters Zoom in, including some of her non-Jewish friends.

“They honored me,” Rinaldi said. “It felt amazing when I was done, and it opened the door.”

Berger said the experience was fulfilling because it continued a family tradition.

“My children were bar mitzvahed, my grandchildren have been bar and bat mitzvahed and I’ve been practicing Judaism forever,” Berger said. “I volunteer, and that has been very meaningful to me, but this was something I did for me and for my husband.”