May 16, 2020, was supposed to be a traditional bar mitzvah for Zack Siegel, as it had been for his sister Zoey three years ago. Terminal West and Added Touch caterer were on point as RSVPs were rolling in.
Dad Philip said, “In March and even April, I couldn’t admit that Zack’s bar mitzvah might be rescheduled. I thought, ‘No way this is going to change.’ Friends were calling me naïve.” Mom Debra said, “Phil finally canceled kicking and screaming. I was more light-hearted about it.”
As April 30 rolled around, Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal, Ahavath Achim’s senior rabbi, offered three options: keep date and Zoom, tentatively select an August date, or put it off until 2021. Debra and Phil thought of Zoom factors: Can he read from a Torah or his practice papers? Will there be standard blessings? If we postpone, will he have to relearn a new maftir [last Torah reading]? Ever the practical attorney, Phil made a decision to look for the silver lining.
He recalled, “I got on Facebook, super proud to share with the world and not just those on the original invitation list, to sign in on the original date and Zoom. Also, on the positive side, this allowed many of our parents’ friends who would not have been included to tune in. Many of them had not ever Zoomed before.”
On Saturday morning, 197 Zoom monitors joined, representing about 500 viewers. Some were in spirited groups, like a tailgate of families set up at Chastain Park. “Yes, there was grieving when the original plan was ended,” Debra said. “We feared a ceremony of loneliness. Would 10 people Zoom in? Would we lose the feeling of connection?”
Phil countered, “The opposite occurred. It was the furthest thing from that. The birds were chirping in our yard, the weather was magnificent, and the participants were all in sending private chats. Our community showed up for us!” He added that joy came through the screen, “This was more intimate and dynamic that I had ever imagined.”
In the Siegel yard were both sets of grandparents who, in lieu of the traditional l’dor v’dor Torah passing, recited their own custom-written presentations.
“I wore a dress from Amazon and Phil wore jeans,” Debra said. “Some Zoomers were in their PJs sipping coffee. We were all present, unrehearsed, and in the moment.”
Zack, a student at The Epstein School, waited until the Wednesday prior to write his d’var Torah speech. The avid baseball and basketball player admitted that he was sad initially when faced with the cancellation, but noted that in retrospect, he shouldn’t have been.
A segment from his remarks: “We had a lot of uncertainty these last two months and didn’t know if we were going to go forward this morning with my bar mitzvah service. I neglected my d’var Torah. Not only have I learned a lesson in procrastination, but I now recognize that a relationship with G-d is not a last-minute attempt. Many of us, including myself, find ourselves praying to G-d or seeking help when we want something or want to apologize. Having a relationship with G-d should be a regular event if we plan to reach out in a time of trouble or desire, or celebration.”
Debra summed up the experience. “We all knew that it was not about getting lost in a fancy party or flowers. We will remember this bar mitzvah for many years to come. By Zooming, we could see everyone’s face. Not like looking out into pews. We were indeed super-connected. Zack became a bar mitzvah and everything else is icing on the cake.”
The vendors have agreed to move everything forward and the celebration is planned for Dec 5.
“Zoom services have created a bridge between public spirituality and the spiritually intimate that hasn’t been done before,” Rosenthal said. “For our b’nai mitzvah, there has been a very special project that families have been able to partake in – the creation of a sacred prayer space.
“In rabbinic terms, this a macom kavuah (set space) or a macom kadosh, (holy space), both of which are important for prayer. Being ‘Zoomed’ into people’s homes has encouraged our families to create a mizba’akh, a special prayer altar where they conducted services. … For many years, these families will see their front foyer, living room or poolside as the holy place their children celebrated their b’nai mitzvah. This is a special practice, which has the potential for future sacred creation.”