On that occasion, these children become adults in the eyes of their religious community. Their bar or bat mitzvah day (b’nai mitzvah is the plural) is the culmination of significant preparation; children are typically assigned b’nai mitzvah dates about three years in advance. Planning soon begins for 5he service and, usually, a big party. Everything about the event, from its religious significance to its social elements, is time-stamped.
The covid pandemic, however, overrides everything. It has called for families to find creative workarounds, since the date cannot be readily changed. “This is a life-cycle event for a child,” says Heidi Hiller, who runs a D.C.-based event planning company, Innovative Party Planners. She knows how long families await these days; she has made “My Bar Mitzvah Will Be In 2033” baby onesies. “These are things that are planned for a long time.”
So are sweet 16 parties and quinceañeras, other birthday and anniversary celebrations, weddings, confirmations and the like, but postponement in those scenarios is less of an ordeal, because the b’nai mitzvah entails an overarching, difficult religious experience. First you need to learn to read Hebrew, then how to read from the Torah, which is harder — like learning English, then cracking Shakespeare — and then learn a reading from the Book of Prophets. You also need to master those readings’ particular melodies. B’nai mitzvah students also write and deliver a sermon, often connecting that week’s reading to their own life. All of these pieces correlate to one specific day in the Jewish calendar.
So what’s a family to do? “I know that’s something parents have struggled with,” says Rabbi Susan N. Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation, whose younger daughter, Evie, had her bat mitzvah in December. “How do we preserve what is special and celebratory about this day when there is so much disappointment?”
Washington Hebrew allowed students with assigned dates in spring of last year to read their prepared portions a few months after the fact, once the synagogue and larger community had adapted to our new covid-normal. “For centuries, rabbis have … recognized the way in which life impacts what we do,” Shankman told me. “We were not asking our students to start over.”
Washington Hebrew’s services are held on Zoom. There’s a silver lining to the virtual version: More family members can attend from far-flung locations. For a safe sense of ceremony outside the sanctuary, the Torah is brought into the celebrant’s home.
At Tifereth Israel Congregation in D.C., 25 people — distanced and seated by pod — are allowed in the room at one time. For the benefit of virtual attendees, the sanctuary has been equipped with cameras and a sound system. However, notes Rabbi Michael Werbow, some more observant families won’t use Zoom on Shabbat and are holding out for a post-pandemic service. “The hardest thing is … just not being able to truly show the joy through giving a hug and being close to somebody,” he says. “That really is a lack. I think that just the shattering of an image of what their celebration was going to be like, there’s sort of a mourning process that they go through.”
Amid that understandable sorrow, Shankman says: “I would say it’s been very affirming … to watch and witness as parents continue to transmit their values and tradition to their children. It’s certainly something that’s happened before in Jewish history: There have been outside forces that made it challenging to continue forward. [Now it’s] a different type of bravery and courage, but we’ve witnessed a sense of commitment and a sense of connection.”
When it came to the post-service party, however, Hiller says that “families were paralyzed.” Many who’d planned events for the first half of 2020 had put down a deposit on a venue, paid a caterer and booked a DJ. “That money is gone,” she says. Families who’ve had more time to adjust are imagining these events anew. “The questions we’re getting now are: I’m not postponing the party. What can we do, creatively?”
The go-to pandemic choice is a drive-by: The celebrant hands out goody bags in front of their house to a car parade of friends who shout mazel tovs out their windows. But Amanda Levine wanted something unique. Her daughter, Maya, attends a Jewish day school in Baltimore. When the pandemic hit, one of the first things the parents worried about was how their children would handle missing out on “such an important year for friendship-building.” “It took me a long time to embrace that this year has to be different,” Levine says. “Our other two girls had a big DJ party and fancy dresses and hair and makeup and the whole business, and she wasn’t going to have that.”
Levine and her husband were adamant about keeping Maya’s assigned date: Jan. 16, 2021. “We felt like: The ritual is what’s important here, and the ritual is not affected by covid. If we pushed off the whole thing because we can’t have a party, what we’re saying is, the importance of a bat mitzvah is that you have a fancy party.” (Not to offend anyone who did postpone, she adds. “It just wasn’t right for us.”)
Levine’s husband is the president of a major hospital and serves on the health and safety commission for their synagogue and school; whatever they did would have to be 100 percent covid-safe. So Levine and Hiller cycled through a hundred ideas. In the end, they rented a tent, fire pits, a couple of games and a grilled-cheese food truck. Guests signed up to attend eight at a time in 15-minute shifts, with masks on. (They grabbed their grilled cheese on the way out.) Though it wasn’t exactly what anyone hoped for, “that’s sort of the covid way,” Levine says. “I wish it could be normal, but this is good, too.”
For a small group of families with more extravagant visions, things are playing out differently. Event planner Andrew Zill works mostly with “socialites and society people, businessmen, philanthropists”; his clients, he says, can spend “up to millions.” In his world, families are not canceling. They are postponing. And postponing. One family was supposed to hold their event in March 2020; they’ve pushed it back four times. Custom-made swag for guests has been donated to charity. They’ve printed multiple save-the-dates and redesigned invitations.
Is it kosher to postpone a lot? Not really. But he doesn’t serve a super-religious set. “I tend to work with families that are not extremely traditional,” says Zill, who will happily put bacon-wrapped scallops on the menu. “They don’t always adhere to Jewish law, so to speak.”
For kids who’ve been forced to radically alter or cancel their plans, Hiller hopes that going without the b’nai mitzvah they expected during this strange, cruel year will bring them closer together: “They will have shared this experience and that will connect them automatically.”
Shankman’s daughter Evie felt more comfortable leading services on Zoom than she might have in person — and, with her feet hidden from the camera, she could swap out her high heels for Doc Martens. (Had they been in the synagogue, “I probably would never have let that happen,” Shankman says. Evie: “I think I could have swayed you.”)
Maya’s service was inside the temple, with extremely limited attendance: her immediate family of five people, the rabbi and the guy running the Zoom meeting, which was beamed out to all their other family and friends. Their synagogue, Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, Md., allows no more than 25 people inside at a time.
At first, Maya told me of her bat mitzvah, “It felt pretty bad, because this is something you wait for your whole life, and then you just can’t do it. And it’s really disappointing.” But when we spoke about a month later, after she’d had time to reflect on the experience, she said: “It sucks, but no one has ever done it before. It feels cool to be the first to do something, you know? And we are going to have much better bat mitzvah stories to tell than our siblings.”
Jessica M. Goldstein is a contributing writer for the Arts & Style section
and the magazine.