‘Let’s say yes!’ and other lessons from our Zoom Mitzvah
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We were invited to not one but three Bnei Mitzvah on March 21, the first Shabbat in serious lockdown mode. One family postponed; one pioneered the Zoom-Mitzvah for our synagogue and set a brilliant example of adaptability; and I can’t for the life of me remember what happened to the third.
What I do remember vividly is thinking: thank goodness ours isn’t until Nov. 21, so we’ll be able to have a “normal” celebration.
What a difference eight months of the new normal makes. We, of course, also ended up having a Zoom-Mitzvah — hybrid, actually, but more on that later — and I am honestly so glad.
At some point in the late spring, after dialing into a dozen Mitzvahs, I found myself almost worried about how awkward it would be if the twins ended up being among the few in their cohort to have a big party. And with the simcha now in the rear-view, I feel strongly that we ended up with a life-cycle milestone that was more meaningful and more memorable than it would have been without the pandemic.
Most importantly, it was more focused on the Mitzvah — our kids, Lev and Shayna, were deep into learning their Torah portions and drafting their D’vars before my husband, Gary, and I had our first conversation with the caterer.
Actually that’s not quite right. We had booked a hall in January. On Feb. 29, we attended a Bar Mitzvah with a D.J. we really liked, and got his card. We kept our March 30 meeting with the caterer — carefully scheduled after the March 21 event that was not to be where we had hoped to see her in action — but after that initial chat, we put all party-planning on hold until the kids actually turned 13 in September.
What we ended up with was a beautiful, modest, special, individual very 2020 Mitzvah: my parents, our siblings and all but one of their kids with us (and our amazing rabbi, Marc Katz) in the sanctuary; hundreds of Zoom-guests dialing in from our former hometowns of Chicago, Brooklyn, Boston, Long Island and Jerusalem as well as London, Los Angeles, Seattle, South Florida, Texas and beyond; our closest friends coming in SignUp Genius-scheduled shifts for a tailgate-style open house in our backyard, with custom-masks and individually packaged s’mores by the fire pit.
I realized afterwards that it had truly been the best of both worlds. A modest, intimate in-person experience where I felt totally present and not like the whole thing flew by, where I got to talk to every guest without worrying about the logistics of seating or who was being left out of an already-too-long candle-lighting ceremony. And a big, lively, interactive Zoom, preserved forever on YouTube, that included surprise guest-musical appearances from friends including Cantor Paul Zim, who also sang at my own Bat Torah, 37 years ago this week.
Here are some of my takeaways:
Don’t try to mimic a pre-Covid event. What we didn’t want was for the twins to feel they had what their cousins or friends had — only so much smaller. Hence, no printed invites, no DJ., no “theme” beyond coming-of-age (which we would not have done regardless), casual clothes (L & S logo sweatshirts, natch) for the open house. I did end up, very last minute, ordering those M & Ms with the logo on it, as another surprise. But otherwise, different is better.
Do mourn what you’re missing. At several points during the year, like when we were told we’d be limited to 15 sanctuary guests and that singing aloud would be discouraged, the kids got super-sad. We cried about the Bnei Mitzvah we wouldn’t have, which left us readier in the end to fully enjoy the one we did have.
Invite everyone. No worrying about how many people you can afford to host, or whether you know so-and-so well enough to ask them to shlep all this way. And no deadline! We were adding email addresses to the Paperless Post up to a few days before. Zoom meant we could have our dear friends from Jerusalem, Rabbi Levi and Paula Weiman-Kelman, recite the Prayer for Israel from their home in Israel.
It also meant we could easily include Mike, the guy who runs the church food pantry where Shayna has been volunteering for her Mitzvah Project; last night, he asked her for a copy of her D’var Torah because he found it so inspiring.
Use the chat! One of my favorite things that Rabbi Katz has done to adapt services is during Birchot Hashachar, the morning blessings where we thank God for all manner of things, he asks people to post whatever they’re grateful for in the chat. Along with health and family, someone inevitably says “technology that allows us to connect like this.” Amen.
I loved reading the chat aloud to the kids the day after the Mitzvah (and love even more than we can do that again the year after, and the year after that). Among the highlights: as our twins were talking about the biblical twins Jacob and Esau in their parsha, Toledot, the writer A.J. Jacobs, who is also a father of twins, noted that in some cultures, the twin who emerges second from the womb is considered older, presumably having been conceived first. This proved of great interest to the many twin-families in the crowd.Respect people’s Covid protocols — and your own. There were a few close relatives and friends who did not feel comfortable coming to the open house despite what we thought were significant safety precautions. We missed them — and we tried very hard to focus on the people who did come. Wear sparkly shoes. I admit stealing this from one of our closest friends, Eliza Larson, whose Bat Mitzvah was three weeks before, and just rocked her footwear. I asked Shayna if she wanted to copy Eliza, and we quickly searched Amazon, but I was the one who ended up with the green sequined sneakers, and boy am I glad.
The most important lesson can be applied not just to pandemic Mitzvahs but to pandemic life — and, really, life life. It’s a lesson I learned from my Jerusalem friend Paula, who reminded me of it this week, as I turned 50 (thanks, Politico!). She and Levi had made some new friends when they were all deep in middle age. The friend had asked, “Can we really ever be as close to each other a we are to people we’ve known for decades?” Paula responded, “Let’s say YES.”
I’ve been trying to do that ever since.
Your Weekend Reads
Click here to download and print a PDF of the following stories from the Forward this week.
Today is the last day (not) at the office for Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, who over the last three years as the Forward’s Life Editor wrote some of our most memorable feature stories, especially about many aspects of Orthodox Jewish life that often go uncovered.
Avital, who moonlights with the more-than-fulltime job of rebbetzin, bravely took on so many community taboos — as in this 2018 piece in which Orthodox women shared their abortion stories. She wrote powerfully in the first person, as in this essay about her husband and son being subjected to antisemitic harassment on the street, and in May penned this prescient profile of Jacob Kornbluh’s intensifying battle with his Haredi community over coronavirus restrictions.
We will miss Avital’s unique voice in the report and in our virtual newsroom, but we hope she will continue as an occasional contributor,
Join the conversation
I am really excited about the event I am hosting next week with Joan Garry, author of the amazing “Nonprofit Guide to Leadership”, which she has reworked into a second edition rooted in the experience of 2021. We’ll be joined by Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the URJ, and Gali Cooks of Leading Edge for a frank conversation — its titled “Innovate or Die,” after all — about what’s ahead for Jewish organizations in 2021. It’s a 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday and you can register here to get the Zoom link (or the video afterward).
We’ve also got two film screenings with director Q/As, a panel on homelessness in Los Angeles, and interviews with Rep. Ted Deutsch of Florida and Rep. Max Rose of New York — all the details of these and more, as well as videos of past Zoominars are alway findable at forward.com/events.
Jodi Rudoren is Editor-in-Chief of the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, or email [email protected]