From Hurricane Katrina to COVID-19: Blueprints for Re-envisioning Jewish Life Cycle Moments
By Jodie Goldberg
We are currently witnessing thousands of Jews, each with unique stories of lost milestones. I feel the pain of loss; loss of life, control, structure, and loss of life’s most precious moments. As a New Orleanian, the events of Hurricane Katrina remain a deep part of my community’s collective memory. While we mourned the loss of physical structures and, in some scenarios, loss of life, I was confronted with the possibility of losing a Jewish milestone of my own, my Bat Mitzvah. My personal milestone was scheduled for September 3, 2005, five days after Hurricane Katrina touched down in New Orleans. While my family had the opportunity to re-create a Bat Mitzvah experience for me in three days hundreds of miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio, this pandemic has left so many wondering what they can do to commemorate these experiences for themselves and their loved ones.
In the midst of the global pandemic, B’nai Mitzvot are live-streamed, weddings become elopements, and funerals are reserved for only family. The pandemic has challenged us to redesign moments from what is modeled, to what is meaningful, forced us to relinquish control and to exercise nimbleness, and has taught us to push past exhibiting poise and learn to embrace vulnerability. Although built out of tragedy, we have the opportunity to redesign life cycle moments to embrace new meaning. Based on my experience redesigning a Jewish lifecycle during a moment of crisis, I outline ideas of how we might re-envision life cycle experiences in the future.
Shifting from Model to Meaning
How might we reimagine life cycle moments, by designing the blueprint, instead of implementing one that has been designed for us?
As my extended family hurried to plan a Bat Mitzvah for me in Cincinnati, where much of my extended family lives, they were challenged to re-envision my chosen reception theme of “hot, hot, hot” in a city which didn’t embrace the humidity levels or spice contents of New Orleans. The original intent of “hot, hot, hot” was a color scheme of red, orange, and yellow, connoting a sense of vibrancy, and yet the vibrancy stemmed mainly from the pace, rather than the derived atmosphere. While my family had outdone themselves in unimaginable ways, the entire experience was a symbolic attempt to capture the day. The only expectation set was that I would fulfill the mitzvah by conducting the service and reading from the Torah. The rest was guided by a theme and imprinted by the imagination.
Now in my career as an educator, I know that no two learners are the same and that we must approach how we educate with a learner-centered model. Moving forward, we must flip the orientation from a one-size-fits-all model if we want to continue to create meaningful life cycle moments. I saw this demonstrated as thousands of people hosted Passover Seders during this new reality. For the first time, we were challenged to go “off script,” and think about our own families and what would constitute a meaningful Seder experience for them. For some, it was sticking to halachic traditions, and for others, it was replacing the four cups of wine with four blessings of gratitude. No matter the medium, whether virtual or in-person, each event was filled with an injection of new meaning, because we were forced to commemorate a Seder with no pre-existing model. What makes Judaism powerful is its ability to adapt throughout time. If we want to continue to create meaningful life cycle moments, we must reorient ourselves to a learner-centered approach, by designing the blueprint instead of having one designed for us.
From Relinquishing Control to Exercising Nimbleness
How might we relinquish our sense of control, and adopt nimbleness, when planning personal life cycle moments and attending life cycle moments of loved ones?
In order to have my reimagined Bat Mitzvah, my immediate family had to relinquish our desire to be in control and adopt another mantra: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Our sense of control was tested early on as my aunt had the lofty goal of securing kippot, reading “Jodie’s Bat Mitzvah,” in three days for my Bat Mitzvah. The employee from Westside Judaica in New York City laughed at the request and replied, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Sure enough, the kippot were delivered in time to Cincinnati.
As we think about how we rebuild Life Cycle moments, we must shift our practice, to let go of what we cannot control and embrace what we can. My Bat Mitzvah day was filled with many details we could not control, however, one question that plagued my mind; who would show up? To my surprise, over 300 celebrants took a chance on our family and showed up to celebrate our families’ journey. That day, I never felt less in control and yet, I never felt more empowered.
During the pandemic, I have seen people show up for each other in unprecedented numbers; whether it is to celebrate birthdays of old friends, reunite for a virtual camp Havdalah, or attend Zoom funerals of someone they did not know. We are finally freed to show up for one another because we have relinquished our sense of control over our daily lives. We must learn to adopt nimbleness as we plan and commemorate life cycle events for ourselves and others. The pandemic has reminded us of the power of connection. When we return to life sans restrictions we must continue to show up for one another when we are at our best and our worst.
From Exhibiting Poise to Embracing Vulnerability
How might leaning into vulnerability help us better understand the meaning behind life cycle moments?
The moment I remember most vividly from my Bat Mitzvah was not the way I read from the Torah, but the moment when I was at my most vulnerable. After the rabbi finished his remarks to the congregation, following my speech, we embraced with tears streaming down both of our faces. The tears represented fear, growth, and a true understanding of what it meant to assume the responsibility of becoming a Jewish adult.
I was awestruck to discover that this transformational experience had also occurred to a girl whose Bat Mitzvah took place during the Global Pandemic. She chose not to broadcast her Bat Mitzvah, and instead, performed her entire Bat Mitzvah prayers, Torah portion, and d’var Torah in bed, with close family, to prove she could do it. She recalled this moment as one in which she was completely overcome with emotion, and yet, she claimed it was the moment that showcased the essence of what it meant to become a Bat Mitzvah.
The global pandemic has not gifted us time to remain poised, instead, exposing every inch of society’s, and our own personal, vulnerabilities. While fearful, we have been challenged to re-discover the essence of our own lives. As we think about crafting Life Cycle events moving forward, we must shift our focus from exhibiting poise to embracing vulnerability. We must lean into moments of fear and responsibility, and begin to lift our mask of poise and showcase the ways we have grown.
After spending nine months away from New Orleans after Katrina, we returned to the city. My family and I still divide our lives into two eras; events that happened pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. The post-Katrina city came back more resilient but changed in monumental ways. Change from this pandemic is inevitable, but we can shape the kind of change that will help reclaim our most poignant moments. As I am in the midst of planning a lifecycle event of my own, my wedding to my beloved, I am struck by how much I, too, needed this deep reorientation to what it means to commemorate life’s most precious moments. We are trying so hard to make sense of this mess. While we all try to put this personal era behind us, may a transformed observance of milestones help us physically and spiritually rebuild our lives.
Jodie Goldberg is a Teen Engagement Consultant at The Jewish Education Project. She holds a dual Masters degree in Jewish Education and Hebrew Bible from The Jewish Theological Seminary.