Thinking About B’nai Mitzvah in the Time of Pandemic
By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel
The coronavirus pandemic has created a national and worldwide crisis of huge and, as yet, fully unknowable proportions. As the death toll rises and the virus spreads, we remain sheltered in place praying for health and safety for the entire world.
In this perilous time, synagogues around the globe have reinvented themselves as everything has gone online. In American synagogues in particular, the pandemic has created a huge challenge: to reschedule or not to reschedule bar/bat mitzvah dates. It is well known, if not fully admitted or embraced, that bar/bat mitzvah is the engine that drives much of American synagogue life. Congregations across the denominational spectrum devote significant resources to the bar/bat mitzvah experience. To reschedule or not to reschedule thus became a pressing question. Can you actually celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah in online worship? What about the family reunions and the parties? Can these be left behind?
At Temple Micah, we unanimously made the decision early on to keep to our bar/bat mitzvah schedule. In not rescheduling these b’nai mitzvah we have learned a great deal. There is something very religious and deeply Jewish here for all of us who consider the great bar/bat mitzvah pandemic question. If bar/bat mitzvah, in our American Jewish context, still represents the beginning of a new phase of life and a step towards adulthood, facing the difficulties and disappointments imposed by the reality we are in, while certainly not desired, is honest and real. As we considered the possibility of changing dates for the students in the class, we came to realize that if we were to do so, we would, in some profound sense, be denying the impact of that which we are all experiencing.
Our online Shabbat experience has been far beyond what any of us expected to be possible. The worship is moving and uplifting. Through the wonders of the internet, we see each other’s faces on our screens. Page after page of them. Shabbat morning with bar/bat mitzvah simply adds to the joy. Since week three, of what we now call Pandemic Shabbat, we have safely delivered a Torah scroll to the bar/bat mitzvah home and we all watch our students proudly open the scroll and chant their parasha from their living rooms. We are then right there one week with the grandparents on the West Coast, another week with the aunt and uncle in Israel. We see the pride on their faces as they chant the Aliyah blessings. The scroll travels from bar/bat mitzvah home to home each week and our computers have become the conveyers of a new format for Shabbat gathering.
No one would have wished for this online bar/bat mitzvah but they are powerful and galvanizing in a way almost palpable even through our computer screens. At Micah, we see that we are giving our children an amazing gift in understanding and experiencing resilience. They are seeing that reading and interpreting Torah, connecting to our ancient past, and bringing that past alive to our far-flung virtual present really is the essence of the bar/bat mitzvah, just as we all strive to teach. Our community is giving these students the gift of always knowing that each of them made a sacrifice of their own personal vision of what their celebratory day would be in order to keep their family, relatives, friends and all of Micah safe. This lesson of sacrifice at this moment in history feels huge on many levels.
When the students in this class someday look back and write their own personal histories, they will always remember how they became bar/bat mitzvah during a difficult time for their family, their community, and the world. They will remember it as a uniquely special event held against the backdrop of something dangerous, tragic and historic. Their personal stories will be linked forever to the epic and transformational.
Contemporary computer technology, in the meantime, allows for a new and different kind of togetherness and intimacy. We are all in the family home. The Torah is there. Judaism is alive. The families will never forget the experience of having their homes become true sanctuaries filled with prayer. All this while the Micah community and beyond witness thirteen year olds dig deeply and embrace the moment in a far different way than any of them ever anticipated. This is truly bar/bat mitzvah as rite of passage. It is beautiful. It is sacred.
Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel is the senior rabbi at Temple Micah, Washington, DC.