Has Covid Finally Killed the Bnei Mitzvah Party?

By Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein

I remember my Bar Mitzvah party well, not because of how big it was, but because of how small. As a middle class child going to a wealthy suburban Jewish day school, I knew how outlandish some of the parties could be – large halls, DJs, and five course meals. Even the invitations were big, arriving in the mail with intricate packaging as a signal of just how expensive the affair would be. One of my classmates was carried out on a throne to begin the festivities.

For me, it was terrible. I actually had to go to the guidance counselor for support. My parents tried hard, but all they could afford was a small band and a buffet style meal. As a 13-year-old, I was mortified.

The competition has only grown fiercer over the years. Keeping up with the Steins was funny, not because it was satire, but because of how close it was to reality.

In the age of Covid, all of that has been thrown out the window. Replaced by small outdoor gatherings in the family home, that is if the weather cooperates. Early on in the pandemic a family had wanted to use the synagogue parking lot to host a social distant gathering, complete with food trucks and a sibling musical act. Even that seemed outlandish.

Both as a pulpit rabbi and a father of an upcoming Bat Mitzvah student, I must say I am relieved. The battle over family status and bragging rights has grown old. While Bnei Mitzvahs where I live in Western New York tend to be a little more subdued, they still can wreak havoc on the family budget. Not only that, they take away from the real purpose of the event, to celebrate the accomplishments of a young woman or man becoming a Jewish adult.

During the past eight months, I have witnessed the most meaningful B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies in my career. Despite the obstacles, the students and their families have risen to the occasion, overcoming great odds to demonstrate their commitment to a four thousand year old faith. Whether via Zoom or in person, the look they have given me after it is all over has been priceless.

At my niece’s recent celebration in Philadelphia, my sister-in-law remarked at how meaningful it all had been, even more so than those of her other children. I have to agree. Not because the others didn’t do an amazing job, they did, but because this one had to be earned. Reading Torah and Haftarah in an almost empty sanctuary was far from ideal, but it helped remind everyone why we were there in the first place.

As we prepare for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah later on in 2021, I have to ponder if this will become the new normal. Even after the vaccine has arrived, can we please take stock of the new rituals that have been developed and never look back.

Alex Lazarus-Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Shir Shalom, a dual affiliated Reform and Reconstructionist Congregation in Buffalo, New York. He is currently a participant in the fourth cohort of the Clergy Leadership Incubator: Training Visionary Spiritual Leaders for the American Jewish Community sponsored by Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability.