I’m not used to sitting during services, but this day was different. It was my daughter’s bat mitzvah and for one Shabbat I wasn’t the rabbi, I was the dad.
I’ve been officiating at b’nei mitzvah ceremonies since the beginning of the pandemic. What started out as Zoom ceremonies has transitioned to outdoor, socially-distant, masked Shabbat services with plexi-shielded podia, liturgy and choreography adapted for this unique time.
A brave and resilient group of 13-year-olds around the country have stayed the course, completing their tutoring and rehearsals virtually and sometimes, encountering the physical Torah for the first time only on the day of their bar/bat mitzvah. My daughter was one of those students.
Just two days before her service, regulations and restrictions kept changing in Los Angeles and yet, we soldiered on. What resulted was one of the proudest days of my life. As a result of my daughter’s ceremony and others, I’ve learned a few things from these pandemic ceremonies. I can relate to the challenges that arise for families and students as they navigate through concerns of spotty internet, absent family members, ever-changing restrictions, and anxiety about health and safety. But because of these challenges, I have found a deeper appreciation for the fortitude, resilience, and creativity of our Jewish tradition and most important of all, a return to the core values of b’nei mitzvah.
This pandemic has caused a return to intimacy. For decades, we have feared that synagogues have become “b’nei mitvzah factories” with ceremonies that feel cookie-cutter and impersonal.
I spend more time with b’nei mitzvah families to plan these unique COVID-19 era ceremonies than I did before the pandemic. The day of the service, when I look out at the masked faces, I see only the most important (local) people in a child’s life. As both a rabbi and a parent, the service feels carefully calibrated to each family’s needs and limitations.
The new reality of b’nei mitzvah has also encouraged global connection and participation.
My father and step-mother live in New York and therefore, could not be with us in Los Angeles for Ella’s ceremony. They did, however, participate via a pre-recorded aliyah incorporated into the service and viewed on a screen for all to see. Other family and friends around the country joined the service via livestream and joined a post-ceremony ‘Zoom Schmooze’ where we saw all their smiling faces and heard the shouts of “Mazel tov!” Many wrote notes of support in the chat, showering us with love. The synagogue webpage that hosted the live-feed of the service also provided a way for people to share pictures of themselves watching the service and a form where they could write a blessing for the bat mitzvah. In a surprisingly real and meaningful way, more people were able to participate in my daughter becoming a bat mitzvah than in “normal” times.
In this new age, the ceremony takes center stage. I’m sure my wife and I are not the only ones able to let out a big sigh of relief that we did not have to throw a big party for our daughter. Not only is this helpful in a time of financial strain for so many, but it also shifts the focus back to what matters - the ceremony itself. When the frustration and drama that come with party planning, table assignments, swag bags, decorations, and so much more fade into the background, it leaves emotional room for families to focus on making the religious part of it all far more meaningful and personal. In the end, most kids are just as happy, if not happier, without all that party drama. Ella’s party consisted of an afternoon car parade with 60 cars slowly crawling down our street while a DJ played music from the front yard. She saw friends and family in a safe way and felt completely fulfilled.
A passage in the Talmud states, “Just as the olive only yields oil for light when it is pounded, so are people’s greatest potentials realized only under the pressure of adversity.” The resilience and optimism of the students and families that decide to go forward with b’nei mitzvah ceremonies during this pandemic are an inspiration to the entire Jewish people. In the midst of global pain and fear, they have returned us all to the heart of what it really means to become a bar or bat mitzvah.
I hope it will have profound implications for b’nei mitzvah long after we emerge from this viral nightmare.
Joel Nickerson is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.