A bar mitzvah during a pandemic

We took many things for granted at our oldest son’s bar mitzvah, which was back in November 2019.

He read from the Torah during an afternoon Shabbat service followed by Havdalah, where all the youth present were invited up on the bimah with glowsticks – unmasked. Family members from California, Vancouver, Nevada, Texas and New Jersey gathered together after the service for photos. Next, as we as a family made our “entrance” into the party room after being introduced by the DJ, the bar mitzvah boy and his brothers high-fived guests as they ran through the crowd with big grins on their faces. We all joined hands and danced in circles to “Hava Nagila,” without any hand sanitizer in sight.

The 2021 bar mitzvah boy at his brother’s bar mitzvah in 2019. (Photo by Molho Photography)

We even had a discussion days earlier, when contemplating the smaller afternoon crowd in the large sanctuary – maybe we should rope off the outer two rows of seats so guests would be encouraged to sit closer together in the middle of the sanctuary.

We had much different discussions a few days before this year’s bar mitzvah service.

This year’s discussions included mask requirements, hand sanitizer, whether it was safe to have a Kiddush buffet, physically distancing in the sanctuary and a Facebook live stream.

We’ve learned to be grateful for many things since March 2020, when life as we knew it came to a standstill at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and I’m definitely not complaining. When we selected our son’s bar mitzvah date this past January, we knew the likelihood that our celebration would differ from the last one. We decided to move forward anyway because the date we chose was our son’s actual 13th birthday so it felt very meaningful to have him become a bar mitzvah on that day, whether it meant a Zoom bar mitzvah with only a minyan present or whether we’d be celebrating in-person with family, friends and the synagogue community. At that time, vaccines had just become available and we were hopeful that the situation would improve by August, but were also prepared to deal with however it worked out.

We didn’t begin making concrete plans until May, about three months before the bar mitzvah, not counting the bar mitzvah lessons with the cantor, which began in early February. After the past year of practicing the “we’ll see how things develop, it’s hard to know how things will be” mentality, we just moved forward, knowing things could change anytime. I sent a save-the-date to out-of-town relatives, which included a note indicating that there would be an online option if it wasn’t feasible to travel.

Around May, when it looked like perhaps a Kiddush lunch after the service might be possible, I made plans with the caterer at the synagogue, with the understanding that it could be cancelled at the last minute.

In June, I ordered 60 red personalized yarmulkes from A1 SkullCap Co., the kind with a little slit for clips inside to prevent it from falling off during the service. We also contacted Molho Photography, who did the photography for our older son’s bar mitzvah party. Although we weren’t planning a similar celebration this year, we wanted to get some family photos so they came to our rehearsal to take photos (including the one at the top of the post, which was not taken on the day of the ceremony because cameras are not permitted in the sanctuary on Shabbat). To prepare for that, we needed to get some new suits that fit for the younger two (Z somehow still fit in his bar mitzvah suit) and Jadon got his haircut (he donated his long locks to Locks of Love). The photographer used to teach Hebrew at the boys’ school years ago so it was fun to see his reaction to Jadon’s Hebrew during the rehearsal. (He was very impressed.)

During the rehearsal, the cantor joined us on Zoom because he was in quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID. (Fortunately, he tested negative for numerous tests in the days leading up to the bar mitzvah.)

The rabbi showing Jadon how to put on his tallit. (Photo by Molho Photography)

At the end of June, we started making plans for his bar mitzvah project. Since Jadon likes books, we initially thought of doing a book drive for Vista Colina, a homeless shelter for families in Phoenix, which is the focus of our synagogue’s social action projects for the upcoming year. We thought maybe the kids coming into the shelter would enjoy receiving some books. However, the shelter said that what they really need is school uniforms for the children since they usually don’t have the clothing they needed for school when they arrive at the shelter.

After we worked out some of the details, we started publicizing the drive in July and in early August took a tour of the shelter.

The week before the celebration, we were still finalizing the honors sheet since I still wasn’t sure who would be able to be there. I put together a little pamphlet that listed his bar mitzvah project and lots of pictures and finished up the honors sheet and made 50 copies the day before at a nearby Kinkos.

About a week before the bar mitzvah, I still wasn’t sure what to do about the centerpieces. The day after the bar mitzvah, the synagogue was having a school supply drive for the shelter so I thought it would be nice to combine the two. I purchased little red buckets from Amazon, along with some school supplies, wrapped them in cellophane and added a note about how the school supplies were going to be donated to the drive. I also ordered Hershey kisses with red foil to be sprinkled on the table along with the bucket of supplies because chocolate makes everything sweeter.

My sister flew in from Dallas the day before and even though her first flight was cancelled and her second flight was delayed, she made it. My aunt drove in from Henderson, Nevada, with her grand-daughter (my cousin’s daughter) and they joined us for the service and party. The original plan was that my sister and my aunt would also join us for Shabbat dinner, but their travel plans didn’t end up allowing that. We can only control what we can control and we enjoyed our meal with my dad, Ron’s mom and a couple who is like family, as we kept tabs on our family members’ travels. We also celebrated our older son’s birthday, as he turned 15 on the day before the bar mitzvah. Other relatives watched the Saturday service on the Facebook livestream, either live or by catching up later that weekend.

Jadon and his brothers during the rehearsal. (Photo by Molho Photography)

J did an amazing job leading the Shabbat service and with his Torah reading and Haftorah. Going along with our synagogue’s bar mitzvah tradition, we threw candy from our first few rows after he finished the Haftorah reading. (That was another last-minute discussion – was it safe to pass the candy around? Usually the candy is passed around during the Haftorah reading and then as soon as the after blessing is said, guests throughout the room throw the candy – to wish the bar mitzvah a sweet life – and then the kids scramble to the bimah to pick up all the candy. This time, to follow the physical distancing guidelines, we opted to throw the candy (individually wrapped Sunkist Fruit Gems soft candy) from the first few rows and then leave the rest on the Kiddush tables for guests to enjoy.)

It was the first community bar mitzvah service at the synagogue in over a year so it felt really special to be celebrating it with the synagogue community (the same synagogue where the boys attended preschool) along with family and friends. Everyone wore masks during the service and we also requested people wear masks during the Kiddush when they weren’t eating. We were grateful that everything turned out the way it did for this special time in our son’s life.

For his celebration, J told us that he wanted to have some of his close friends at our house that evening to play video games. That’s not quite what we did, but we did have video game decorations and they had about a half hour of video games. We kept the guest list very small and most of the party was outdoors, to keep within CDC guidelines. We rented a giant waterslide, a snow cone machine and a giant Connect-4 game. (For those seeking similar ideas, AZ Party Oasis was incredible to work with, dropping off, setting up over our rocky landscape and picking up the equipment at times that accommodated our schedule.) We kept the food simple, with pizza, pasta and snacks. It was like an elaborate (for us) birthday party, which was fitting since it was J’s birthday. Toward the end of the evening, we all gathered in the living room for birthday ice cream peanut butter pizza and a video featuring pictures of the honoree’s life. He had a great time.

Although we knew we ultimately had no control how things would develop by the time of his bar mitzvah, we did what we could to make it special for him and safe for all involved. By the following Shabbat, the synagogue went back to having take-out snacks for the Kiddush rather than a full, sit-down Kiddush because of a spike in cases of the Delta variant.

Next week the synagogue plans to hold High Holiday services in person, with masks required, as well as offer a live-streaming of the service. Last year all services were streamed from the sanctuary so that’s an improvement (though of course things could change before then).

As we have learned during the course of the pandemic, you can make plans, but when things change, you just have to go with it. We’ve tried to focus on the good elements, appreciating the time spent with family, friends and community as we moved forward with plans and hoped for the best.

We are so appreciative of the support from family, friends, clergy and the synagogue board and community for making it such a special time and for helping us keep guests as safe as possible. We also in awe of the generosity of all of those who donated school uniforms and funds to purchase school uniforms for Jadon’s bar mitzvah project.

Jadon on the morning after his bar mitzvah, at the synagogue school supply drive with some of the donated uniforms.

Several other families at our synagogue are planning a bar or bat mitzvah in the next few months and we look forward to celebrating these milestones, as well!

Jadon during the rehearsal (with the cantor on Zoom). Photo by Molho Photography

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