Rethinking Our Bat Mitzvah
in the Age of a Pandemic


By Rachel Moses 

It’s amazing to realize that generations from now Hebrew school students will be learning about life (and B’nai Mitzvahs) during the time of Covid. Right now, my daughter Lyla’s closet should be filled with dresses waiting to be worn to her friends’ B’nai Mitzvahs. We should be finalizing aliyahs, going to print with invitations, making seating charts and ordering t-shirts for her own celebration. We should be… 

I remember getting Lyla’s Bat Mitzvah date in 2018 and being so excited that it was going to be on my father’s birthday, January 16, 2021. At the time, he was still fighting his battle with cancer but he was honored we chose his birthday as Lyla’s special day and promised to be there in body or spirit. Knowing his time was limited, we were able to film a little surprise for Lyla and everyone attending (…shhhh don’t tell her.) But the surprise was on us when Covid came, and the whole world changed.  

When faced with so many questions and absolutely no answers, I did what so many others in my situation did – consult the DIY Bar/Bat Mitzvah Facebook page and ask the masses. In some ways I felt lucky because Lyla’s Bat mitzvah date was so far away anything could be possible by January of 2021.  

My heart went out to all my friends who had to flip their plans at a moment’s notice. We watched a few Zoom Mitzvahs linked on Facebook Live through our synagogue, Beth El. We were so impressed with their flexibility and technology prowess as well as their thoughtfulness of including the whole community via Facebook Live.   

Ultimately, it didn’t matter how much research I did about what others were doing because it wasn’t anyone else’s day but Lyla’s. And, though we needed to be logical and reasonable, we also wanted Lyla to have a say in the matter. 

Lyla had just started her Bat Mitzvah lessons in January 2020 and, just like I did in 1987, she was being tutored by my aunt, Sandy Winters…L’ dor v’ dor (generation to generation). Yet a few weeks later, in-person lessons stopped as the world went on lockdown. Working in hospitality marketing, I paid attention to projections and felt in my gut that we wouldn’t be able to have 100 people in a room by January 2021. I knew I needed a plan B. 

If you know me, you know I’m nerdy-quick at planning events. The same week we received Lyla’s original date in 2018, I’d called and booked my friend the photographer, my friend the DJ and set a meeting for the venue of Lyla’s request. All other things could wait until later, but the big things needed to be booked early. 

So here I was, April of 2020, and weighing the options. Should we move Lyla’s whole Bat Mitzvah or just the party? Should we move it a few months or a full year? Will our older family members live to see the Bat Mitzvah if we move it a full year to keep the parsha (weekly Torah portion) the same? Should I at least research all our options to give Lyla the opportunity to have the day as she imagined it? She was already making Pinterest boards for dresses, favors, décor and more. Oy, Oy, Oy!  

My first step was to call Beth El and see what they thought. Everyone was so accommodating and helpful – Amy Goldberg and Andy Shankman are total rock stars!

Apparently, I was the first one to ask if we could move the whole Bat Mitzvah a full year just so we could keep the parsha the same. I guess it pays to be nerdy-quick sometimes. We put a pencil hold on 1/22/22 (cool date, right?) and then I called the venue. Another pencil-held date, and off I was contacting the photographer and DJ. With all my ducks in a row, I was able to go to Lyla with real options. 

The first decision came down to Lyla’s comfort level. She was adamant about not wanting Zoom and wanting her day the way she imagined it with everyone together for Havdalah and a reception following. So, we sat all summer with bated breath, watching the news and finally firmed up those penciled-in dates at the end of August. 

 

The Bat Mitzvah Season 

September 5 was the official beginning of Lyla’s “Mitzvah Season.” The Bar Mitzvah boy was supposed to have a Havdalah service at his synagogue and a party in a hotel ballroom.   

Instead, we all Zoomed in from our homes and had assigned time slots for a socially distant ice cream party on their front lawn. It was a beautiful service, Lyla’s friend did a fabulous job, the yard looked lovely and everyone wore masks outside. The parents of the Bar Mitzvah boy were thrilled with the outcome but the lead up was a hugely stressful time for so many reasons. 

I told Lyla I’m only moving her date the once. If by 1/22/22 (I just like writing it that way because it looks so cool) we still can’t give Lyla the Bat Mitzvah she’s imagining, she knows we’ll have to pivot and again be flexible.   

Will we cancel everything and have a Zoom service with a hot cocoa party on our driveway with winter hats or scarves as giveaways? Will we have to cut the list to 25 people and change the buffet to a sit-down meal? Only time will tell, but at least I can feel comfort knowing my creativity will prevail and my community will be supportive.  

One thing I haven’t yet changed is the hotel room I booked for the night of Lyla’s original Bat Mitzvah date. Nobody knows what will be by January 16, 2021, but it’s nice to hold hope for a little something special. 

 

Lyla’s Take 

Before Covid I expected my Bat Mitzvah party and service to be full of my friends and family. Now things are different. I’ve been to two Covid b’nai mitzvahs so far and am getting ideas for in case my postponed date still can’t be the big event I imagined.   

The most recent Bat Mitzvah I went to was basically like a normal Bat Mitzvah. The services were on Zoom/Facebook Live, but the family was in the large sanctuary at Beth El. The party was outside. There was a photo booth, henna tattoo artist, candy bar, catered buffet, games for the kids, an adult section with a bar, and instead of a DJ, there was a digital playlist and a small speaker. There wasn’t any dancing, but we had a lot of fun.  

I’m talking to my grandmother and mom and thinking that there’s a slight chance I might have to have an outdoor event even in January 2022. I’m picturing s’mores and hot chocolate on my grandmother’s yards; everybody dressed in warm comfy clothes and not fancy.  

 

How to Help Your Child Navigate this New B’nai Mitzvah Season 

The lack of opportunity to celebrate traditionally, doesn’t mitigate the significance of the events. Here are a few tips from Stacey Meadows, Manager, Child Therapy Services, at Jewish Community Services, on how to overcome the disappointment of not having an in-person b’nai mitzvah.  

  • Spend time listening to your son or daughter and ask them how they feel about the change in b’nai mitzvah plans. Help them process their disappointments, validate their experiences and discuss new traditions that would make them feel that this is still a special occasion in their lives.  
  • Make sure they are involved in the decision as to how to celebrate this milestone in this new environment. Do they want a Zoom party; a family gathering, etc?  
  • Talk about the meaning of the teachings from their b’nai mitzvah readings in terms of our current world. Discuss how to read the text differently:  how can we apply it to our situation; what is the significance of being part of a community; how can we think about resilience … and more.  

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