When the world shut down last March as fear spread that the coronavirus was as lethal as it was unknown, Ben Pollack was days away from his bar mitzvah. Everything was set: services on March 28 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington and a big dance party the following evening. A typical bar mitzvah.
“We were called on March 13 and told that the synagogue would be closed through March 29,” said Becky Reed, Ben’s mother.
Ben’s bar mitzvah was off.
Of course the synagogue was closed much longer. What followed were seven months of confusion and replanning. That synagogue service and dance party were rescheduled for Oct. 24. But as October grew nearer, it became clear that a typical bar mitzvah was still out of the question.
So the family opted for a havdalah service via Zoom. Having it after Shabbat let family members who are Sabbath observant attend virtually.
“We shifted how we imagined the bar mitzvah, because by October the devastation was very clear and a party really couldn’t happen,” Reed explained. “We just wanted whatever we did to match the spirit and the tone of what was happening in the community.
“It does really focus you on all the things that matter,” she said of trying to create a simchah, a joyous event, amid a pandemic. “What matters is this incredible transition that kids have at 13 from childhood to a march toward adulthood. It’s quite striking and beautiful.”
Other families interviewed for this story agreed. Even though a bar or bat mitzvah is difficult to pull off right now, it’s definitely doable, they said. And no matter what, it’s going to be just as meaningful as it was before.
If you’re contemplating planning a bar or bat mitzvah, or have a date set, it’s important to figure out your top priorities early and then find a way to make them happen. Focus in on the things that are the most important. And no matter which route you take, it’ll still end up meaningful. And likely unforgettable.
Alexis Cohen began planning for her son Isaac Gantsoudes’ June 12 bar mitzvah three years ago.
“I was actually done planning when COVID hit,” she said.
A year later, it looks like Isaac’s service will be able to take place in the sanctuary at Congregation Olam Tikvah, in Fairfax, and the family is hoping to host something resembling a pre-pandemic dance party outdoors.
“We have three options,” Cohen explained. “We’re either going to have tents outside at the hotel in the parking lot and then there’s two options at home. One is catered and one is food trucks.”
She said there are 150 people on the in-person guest list. Still, the number of people who will be able to attend depends on orders from the governor’s office.
“We don’t even know if people want to come or if they will come,” she said. “I don’t have any answers for June and I don’t really know what my next steps are, so I’m just trying to prepare for every scenario.”
One scenario involves cicadas. The Great Eastern Brood of the noisy insect is due to reemerge after 17 years.
“They’re going to come out in May, whether you like it or not. So it’ll be loud. We’re going to have a deejay, so hopefully you won’t even hear them.”
Cohen’s goals are to be flexible, maintain a sense of perspective and understand that Isaac’s bar mitzvah will happen on June 12 no matter what.
“People are trying to put a 2019 party into a 2021 environment,” Cohen said. “I just want to celebrate my son. The people who are trying to wait this thing out are going to be really surprised with how long they have to wait.”
Ups and downs of pivoting
Lauren Schrier’s bat mitzvah was on Feb. 6 at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. It took the family time to come to terms with a small havdalah service and car parade instead of a country club blowout party.
“You know what? It was awesome!” said Lisa Schrier, Lauren’s mom. “We just kind of embraced it and said we’re just going to have to deal with it and we made the best of it. It wasn’t about the party. It was more about the meaning of why we’re really doing this.”
The 18 guests at the service each had a COVID-19 PCR test and were quarantined before the ceremony. The parade, with 100 cars full of Lauren’s friends and family, lasted an hour and a half. And because nobody wanted her party dress and high tops to go to waste, Lauren, a soccer player, also had a photoshoot with her dress on a soccer field.
Canceling the original party meant wrangling with the vendors. Schrier said that some were willing to give back the deposits. Others disregarded their contracts and refused to return deposits, even if they didn’t provide services.
Other elements of the bat mitzvah maintained a sense of normalcy. The Schriers sent paper invitations to their guests, and the 90 kids who RSVP’d received logoed sweatshirts and kippot. Being able to do regular bat mitzvah things meant a lot to Lauren, Schrier said.
“You have to get out of your mind what it’s supposed to be and pivot and make it happen,” Schrier said. “Embrace the service and the meaning of what becoming a bat mitzvah means, and that change to adulthood.”
Decide what’s important
William Zimmet’s bar mitzvah was delayed for almost a year by the pandemic. Originally scheduled for last April, William’s ceremony is now planned for March 27 at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.
Ohr Kodesh doesn’t allow Zoom services on Shabbat, said William’s mother, Gilda Zimmet. But it was important to the family to have the service in person at Ohr Kodesh and for William to read from the Torah.
At most, 30 people will be able to attend the service, which will be followed that night by the first Passover seder.
“We can’t really even have a party because our house will have been cleaned out of all non-Passover foods and people will be in a hurry to go home and get ready for their seder,” Zimmet said.
Instead of a party, William will have a couple close friends over on the Thursday before.
“It’s important to think about what your priorities are and your tolerance for technology,” Zimmet advised, echoing some of the other parents. “Whatever plans you make should be plans that can change on a dime.”
Before the pandemic hit, the Zimmets had already booked vendors and caterers, and ordered kippot (with a date on them that the coronavirus made obsolete). “No matter what,” Zimmet warns about customized swag, “I would suggest not putting the date on.” The Zimmets are putting what they’ve learned to work as they look forward to William’s sister’s bat mitzvah, scheduled for November 2022.
“Just use the experience as a learning tool in terms of your teenager understanding that sometimes we think we control everything. Here’s the perfect example of something that’s completely out of your control and you just have to be flexible and do the best you can.”