Families face tough choices planning a bar/bat mitzvah during pandemic

On Sept. 7, Kenny Gould celebrated his bar mitzvah — the catch is it was during a pandemic. Planning such a big celebration was a logistical struggle, but in the end, Kenny said it was well worth it.

By Daniel Shanker, Eighth grade, Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School

COVID-19 put the world on pause. Businesses had to shut down, schools had to go online and towards the beginning, cars were scarcely seen during rush hour.

A wrench has been thrown into everybody’s plans, meaning that people celebrating their b’nai mitzvot, in addition to the endless stress, anticipation and hard work, have to navigate the troublesome path of hosting a major event amid a pandemic.

People have reacted in a variety of ways. Some simply canceled their b’nai mitzvot entirely while others have gone virtual and some others have used combinations of Zoom and in-person services.

Kenny Gould, an eighth grader at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, had his bar mitzvah at Chabad in early September, albeit virtually, in large part.

“Since there’s a pandemic going on, we had to find a way to do a bar mitzvah in a slightly different way so that it was done safely,” Kenny said. “It was a bit stressful because there were a ton of other things going on: People needed to take pictures, people wanted to watch me and I still needed to read Torah. We didn’t have a lot of people that could do jobs because we couldn’t have many people there.”

Obviously, Zooming can be a difficult compromise. “We didn’t really ever have an exact plan for a while,” Kenny said. “We knew that we wanted to at least let my friends and teachers and people see the bar mitzvah, so we knew that it was probably going to have to be somewhat online.”

That’s the beauty of the internet. When people can’t physically gather together, technology has given us the ability to just pick up a device, open Zoom and have everyone together in one place.

With the entire world stuck at home, people can still see others’ faces. And, at times when these faces need to be seen most, the ease of the internet has made it ever so convenient.

As convenient as Zoom is, though, some things just can’t be made up for online. Families celebrating a b’nai mitzvah had to ask the difficult question of if it’s worth having grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives and friends watch one of their loved one’s biggest religious moments via a video camera.

“I did have my family in person, so [the service] was kind of small there,” Kenny said. “[After services] we had a little brunch with my family. I got some of my presents there, so that was exciting. [At the brunch they] gave everyone a seating chart [to limit interactions].”

While services are often the main component of a bar mitzvah, the parties might be even more anticipated. Even under normal circumstances, parties can be difficult to coordinate, but during a pandemic, it’s all the more complicated.

“With the idea of a trivia night, we thought that would be the perfect thing we could do online,” Kenny said. “We wanted the party to be a little bit more than just trivia. Since we weren’t able to do the biggest of parties, we were going to have to do some other things.”

In addition to the party itself, baskets with sweatshirts and other goodies were sent out to guests.

Evan Oglander had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaare Emeth in early October, when small gatherings were allowed to convene. As a result,  Evan and his family took a different approach and hosted an in-person party.

“[There was] a DJ, dancing, trivia, ping pong and cornhole. The guests social distanced, they also had masks on and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. And the place was really big, so everyone was able to spread out. We had to limit it to 50 families,” said Evan, a seventh grader at Crestview Middle School. “When [the guests] were eating, obviously, they could take [their masks] off. The food was in individual boxes.”

The varying approaches to b’nai mitzvot fall throughout the pandemic-friendly spectrum: Zoom, in-person and everything in between. There’s no right way to do it, so it’s up to the families to decide.

As for the services, the combination of in-person and Zoom seems to be a popular approach.

“There are 20 people allowed in [the shul], and it was only my family,” Evan said. “There was also a live stream, so they sent the link on the invitation.

Wearing masks and remaining physically distanced have become “the new normal,” so it didn’t bother Evan.

“When [people] were up with me for the Torah part, they still had [masks] on and they were socially distanced while handing out the Torah and touching it,” he said. “The rabbi lifted the Torah and then some of my family [came] down to the bottom of the bimah, socially distanced. They each touched it but no one paraded around.” 

B’nai mitzvot are an incredible experience, and in 2020, people are finding ways to hurdle the obstacles and ensure that the big day is as great as anyone could hope. And, in the excitement of the moment, one crucial part is easy to overlook.

“I did all my training virtually, too, with the cantor and the rabbi,” Evan said. “Sometimes I would have network issues, which was frustrating. I also couldn’t do a rehearsal in the temple.”

Overall, though, celebrating b’nai mitzvot during the pandemic doesn’t seem to be all that disappointing. Not just anyone gets to have their bar mitzvah under circumstances as strange as these. It will undoubtedly be a story to look back on in time.

Given the situation, it’s a difficult task to match the experience of having a traditional b’nai mitzvah, but there are some positive components of celebrating online.

“One of my good friends who moved to Israel watched it that morning,” Evan said.

COVID-19 completely changed b’nai mitzvot in 2020, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a bad experience.

“It was better than I expected,” Evan said. “I did it well and it was still fun.”

Added Kenny: “I thought it could have just been a complete letdown. In the end, I’m completely happy with how it turned out. It was so much more fun than I assumed. I had all my family by me. A lot of people told me that they had fun and that made me happy.

“[One guest said], ‘Zoom bar mitzvahs need to happen more, I just love being in my pajamas on my couch getting to watch a bar mitzvah.’”So who knows: Broadcasting might be a tradition that carries on.