Bat Mitzvah Planning In A Pandemic
How do you have a bat mitzvah ceremony when you can’t even have 10 people in a room together?
On the last weekend of February, our family pretty much did what we do every Shabbat lately. We sat home reading books and going for an occasional walk. My youngest daughter, however, should have been leading services and reading Torah at her bat mitzvah. While our family doesn’t typically have large b’nei mitzvah parties, her Hebrew birthday (and bat mitzvah) fell on Purim, so we had planned to have a big Purim party full of family and friends after her ceremony. She was so excited to celebrate with her friends and family and to show her non-Jewish friends what a bat mitzvah is like. The pandemic, however, changed all of that.
Traditionally, the date of a bar or bat mitzvah is determined by a child’s birthdate on the Hebrew calendar. Chabad even offers a calculator where, based on a birthday, it tells when a bar/bat mitzvah date is and what the Torah parsha will be that day. Although some congregations let families pick any date after the child’s 12th (for girls) or 13th (for boys) birthday. When our youngest was very small, I checked when her bat mitzvah date would be. We booked it with the synagogue as soon as we could and have been ready to go ever since. We’ve been prepared for that date and that Torah parsha for years.
Then everything changed when the coronavirus attacked. Services, which had previously been at the synagogue every single morning, were available exclusively via Zoom or live streaming. Those members who could master the technology joined in from their own homes. No one was together in person. This, however, created two major problems for services including ceremonies.
First and foremost, traditional Jews don’t use technology on Shabbat. While some groups weighed the options and declared it was okay in certain very specific circumstances, more traditional groups kept technology restricted. We don’t use electronics on Shabbat. In the before times, just about every Saturday, you could find my family at shul early for morning services. Once, we missed two Shabbat services in a row due to illness and injury. The next Saturday at services, a friend ran over and hugged me. She said, “I was worried. I knew that for you to miss that many services, you had to be either sick or dead.” Now, since we don’t use technology, we haven’t been able to be in Shabbat services in over a year.
The second problem is a rule that’s meant to help others find comfort in physical presence. Certain prayers require a minyan — a group of 10 Jewish adults. I’ve written previously about how those prayers that require a minyan are being adapted or removed from services during Covid-19. Much of what is done at a b’nei mitzvah ceremony, including reading from the Torah with appropriate blessings, requires a minyan. We subscribe to the traditional idea that people must be physically together for it to constitute a minyan.
A child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah on their Hebrew birthday (12 for girls, 13 for boys). A ceremony isn’t actually required. However, it’s typical for the bar/bat mitzvah child to take part in services and for families to host a lunch and/or party after to celebrate. During social isolation, some families have opted for Zoom b’nei mitzvah ceremonies. In more recent months, some have opted for very small ceremonies with only immediate family, grandparents, and clergy. Some families are postponing ceremonies and waiting to see what happens. However, each Shabbat has a different specific Torah and haftorah portions. So postponing means a good deal of extra work for the student. They have to learn completely different Torah sections which are sung in Hebrew.
Very early on in the pandemic, I asked my daughter what she wanted to do about her bat mitzvah. “What is the most important thing to you?” She immediately told me that being together with her friends and family was what she cared about most. We consulted with our cantor and decided to postpone, but, with no clue when it would be safe to join together again, we were left anxiously waiting. For a year, we considered other dates only to realize they wouldn’t be possible. Through suggestions from a clever synagogue staff member, we just recently found a date that would work. It’s nearly a year and a half after our daughter’s original date, but by that time, it should be safe to gather together.
There’s a Hebrew song that’s often sung at the beginning of Friday evening services.
“Hineh ma tov uma na’im
Shevet achim gam yachad.”
It’s from Psalms 133:
“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together!”
Coming together is at the very core of Judaism.
The b’nei mitzvah ceremony is about celebrating the child becoming an adult and welcoming them fully into the community. My daughter decided that community was the most important part of becoming an adult. That is a very Jewish value. So too is ensuring the health and safety of others. So we learn from our Jewish values and move forward in bat mitzvah planning and life in hopes that we’re finding a way to honor both.
Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories and someone who’s best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.