by Shelley A. Sackett
Despite Covid-19 and the unpredictability of surges, declines and shifting Massachusetts social gathering rules, eight Shirat families celebrated Bnei Mitzvah over the course of this past year. Five held services at CSH with fewer than 25 guests; two held services in their homes with clergy support online, and one family held the service in their home with Rabbi Michael present.
Nat Mahler had the distinction of being CSH’s first Covid-19 Bar Mitzvah. Scheduled for March 21, 2020, it was exactly eight days after everything in the state shut down, including CSH. The Mahler family decided to have the service in their living room. They borrowed a Torah and siddurim from CSH and Rabbi Michael officiated. Nat’s paternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins attended and everyone else connected via Zoom, “which was a novelty back in the day!” Sara joked. For Kiddush, Jay’s parents brought bagels.
They were saddened that Sara’s family couldn’t travel from out of state, that the service could not be in the synagogue and that the evening celebration had to be cancelled. “At first I felt disappointed, but I soon realized that I had to rise to the occasion and do my best,” Nat said. Fortunately, he was able to have all his Bar Mitzvah lessons in person. “Studying for my big event went well and I was more than prepared thanks to my awesome tutor, Jan Brodie.”
For Sara and Jay, having an actual Torah in their house was very special, a flip side of Covid-19 restrictions. “Also, the service was very intimate, special and a unique experience that will stand out in everyone’s memory,” Sara said. “And, our cat Pepper was able to attend!”
At first, Jeremy Sorkin, whose spring Bar Mitzvah was postponed until October 11, 2020 was worried that he might have to learn a new parsha when his original date was moved. But when Rabbi Michael suggested he keep the original parsha as an importance part of maintaining the significance of his Bar Mitzvah, he was greatly relieved. Although it was difficult to continue his lessons virtually, his tutor Jan Brodie and Aunt Nancy Sorkin spent countless hours preparing him during the fall. “This gave me so much confidence for performing the service on my big day,” Jeremy said.
When Jeremy’s parents, Amy and Jeffrey Sorkin, moved the original May 23, 2020 date to Columbus Day weekend, they never imagined they would be having a virtual Bar Mitzvah, but as the date approached, it became evident they would. In October, there was a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings, and their immediate family could be accommodated with friends and family watching from afar. Even with the technical challenges of shulcasting, Amy and Jeffrey were able to find a silver lining. “Our family was able to focus on what the true essence of a Bar Mitzvah celebration is- a very meaningful service conducted by Cantor Alty (Rabbi Michael was sick), a thought-provoking Dvar Torah by Jeremy and dancing the hora with our close family. It was truly a memorable experience for our family,” they said.
Two weeks later, on October 24,2020 Hannah Schwartz also celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at CSH with a small family group and more than 100 others watching on Zoom. The weekend included a Shabbat dinner in an indoor/outdoor setting, a hybrid service Saturday morning, a drive-by parade after the service for local friends, a boxed Kiddush lunch outside, a Saturday night festive dinner and Sunday brunch- and lots of careful quarantining, testing and masking for those participating in person.
For Hannah’s parents, Janna and George Schwartz, the biggest challenges were the unknowns every step of the way, and they are grateful to everyone at CSH who helped them navigate the unchartered waters. While they missed many people, they felt blessed to have been able to integrate many personal elements into the ceremony, from Hannah’s sister Vivian playing Siman Tov on the piano to her cousin’s receiving an in-person Aliyah to her grandparents presenting her with her tallis. “Jews have endured carrying on our traditions despite difficult circumstances throughout history. This was ours- and one to be cherished,” Janna said.
For Hannah, though, the virtual experience was disappointing. “Not everyone was there. It didn’t feel like a ‘normal’ Bat Mitzvah, but it was a special family gathering and we made the most of it,” she said.
Liora Ragozin, whose September 25, 2020 Bat Mitzvah also took place in the CSH sanctuary with many others watching and participating virtually, missed having her cousins with her, but said that because her family (including her parents, Rabbi Michael and Sarah Ragozin and siblings Noam and Aliza) and friendship circle are small, “it felt good to celebrate the way we did. My favorite part was giving my Dvar Torah. I enjoy public speaking – when it’s in English!” she added.
Jake Dubow initially felt let down that his December 12, 2020 Bar Mitzvah didn’t turn out as planned. “For my whole life, I had been talking with my family about a big Bar Mitzvah and party,” he said. Instead of the 400-guest in-person ceremony in the sanctuary, sleepover with all his camp friends and a celebration at Boston’s Hard Rock Café, he had a small service with 17 guests in an open-sided tent in his Swampscott yard without his paternal grandparents, who couldn’t make it from Canada and Florida. Even the clergy were zoomed in.
Jake had started studying with Jan Brodie before the pandemic and felt grateful for the in-person lessons prior to having to shift to virtual tutoring. “Studying was hard work, but I was very diligent. Although I was nervous, I was also excited to show off my hard work on my Bar Mitzvah day,” he said.
For his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, the vagaries of Covid-19 were even more daunting. Rachelle grew up with a mother who was (and still is) a professional event planner and a grandfather who was a kosher caterer, so celebrating simchas in a “big” way has always been in her blood. They had already shifted gears, with plans to still celebrate on Jake’s actual Bar Mitzvah date (also Shabbat of Hannukah) at CSH with Rabbi Michael and Cantor Alty, but with only 17 live guests and the rest of their friends and family virtually. Then, on December 8, CSH indoor rules changed, prohibiting any gatherings in the building. The Dubows pivoted to the tent, hardly missing a beat.
The family Kiddush was shared on Zoom, with Jake and his younger brother, Charlie, leading the prayers, followed by an outdoor pop-up and drive-by for well-wishers. “We had music playing and an amazing vibe going, so despite being outside and masked, it felt like a slice of normal,” Rachelle said.
Her biggest challenge was missing her in-laws and sister and her family, but the many rewards softened that blow. Because of Zoom, many friends and relatives were able to join from Israel, France, Canada and the US. The Wednesday before the Bar Mitzvah, two Torahs arrived at their home. “Just having those scrolls in my home elevated us spiritually in a way that is hard to describe. But most of all, it was the pride, the immeasurable, indescribable pride we had in our son who had worked so hard and handled all the pivots and little disappointments with such grace,” she said.
Like his fellow Covid-19 Bnei Mitzvah celebrants, Ned Jefferies was at first disappointed that his January 9, 2021 would be on Zoom instead of in the sanctuary, and then he was doubly disappointed that instead of Zoom (where he could have seen those watching), there were so many guests that they had to use Zoom Webinar. “It was cool seeing everyone’s messages in chat, though,” he said.
For his parents, Cat and Tom Jefferies, the event was actually wonderful, with Tom’s family in England and their friends all over the world able to join them. “For many, this was the first Bar Mitzvah they had ever been to. We were really touched by how meaningful they found it and it felt wonderful to be able to share it with them,” Cat said.
Although Cat admits they were nervous about the technology, J.R. Young, Rabbi Michael, Cantor Alty and Barri Stein all advised them. Family members were able to Zoom in and read Torah, take Aliyahs and read prayers “from California to Canada to England – and it all went smoothly!” Cat said.
Kiddush was Ned’s favorite dish, pesto pasta cooked by his grandmother, Jennifer Mazur. The eight family members sat around the kitchen table and then ran out to do a Mitzvah drive-by at CSH.
Having the Torah in their home was very special and a highlight of the weekend and a true family event. They set it on a 19th century tablecloth that had travelled to the US with Cat’s grandmother, and placed one of Tom’s paintings behind it. “We could really feel the love of our family, friends and the congregation during this momentous occasion,” Cat said.