By Deanna Schwartz
For Laura Hacker, nothing could stop her bat mitzvah — not even a global pandemic.
Hacker, a teacher from Silver Spring, recently celebrated her bat mitzvah at 29 years old. Hacker’s age wasn’t the only unique aspect of her bat mitzvah: it took place in Israel, and entirely online over Zoom.
Hacker was inspired to have her bat mitzvah during her Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship, a 10 month program that places recent college graduates in schools around Israel to teach English to children.
“Growing up, I wasn’t really part of any Jewish community,” Hacker said. “When I came to Israel, part of my motivation was to explore my Jewish identity. When the opportunity to have [a bat mitzvah] came up, I decided that it was what I wanted to do.”
After her graduation from Towson University with an education degree, Hacker decided to participate in the Masa program as a way to figure out her next step in life.
Hacker spent seven months teaching in Bat Yam, working with students from first grade to sixth grade to improve their English skills. “It was very satisfying to know I was making a difference in their lives,” Hacker said. “For a Hebrew speaker, knowing English is very important.”
Seven months in — when the COVID-19 crisis became dire — Masa Israel Journey gave their fellows a choice of whether to stay in Israel or come home. Out of 7,500 total fellows, about 5,000 stayed, according to Masa. Hacker decided to come home, but not before she celebrated her bat mitzvah in the holy land.
Hacker’s bat mitzvah prep consisted of several Jewish learning sessions and small group meetings with the other five fellows studying for their b’nai mitzvahs.
“[The bat mitzvah prep] really helped me learn Hebrew,” she said. “Coming to Israel, I knew barely any Hebrew. It helped me learn how to read.”
In the three weeks leading up to her bat mitzvah, Hacker had to rearrange her plans multiple times. She originally planned to still have the ceremony, just with a smaller crowd than planned. When the venue became unavailable due to higher education institutions closing, Hacker had the choice to move her bat mitzvah online or postpone it.
Out of the group of six, Hacker and one other fellow went through with their ceremonies online — the others postponed theirs.
“At that point, I was already mostly sure that I was going to be coming home, so I decided that it would be better to just do it online — like, why not? It’s kind of a cool story,” Hacker said.
The ceremony was held over Zoom and organized through a PowerPoint created by the organizer of the Masa b’nai mitzvah program. The other Masa fellows from her city and Hacker’s family back home were able to tune in and celebrate with her.
“Basically, a lot of the people that I cared about being there were able to come. Even people who were still in the States were able to come,” Hacker said.
When the pandemic is over, Hacker plans to move to Israel and make aliyah.
Reflecting on her unique bat mitzvah, she is glad that it happened this way. “It wasn’t the way it was planned, but I was ready for it, and I’m glad it happened while I was still in Israel.”
Deanna Schwartz is a freelance writer in Maryland.