Despite the global health crisis, the Lipson family refused to postpone 12-year-old Rory’s bat mitzvah. While not the destination bat mitzvah originally planned, they got creative to make those attending by Zoom videoconferencing April 6 feel as if they were attending a synagogue service instead of watching a well-dressed family orchestrate the coming-of-age ceremony in their Toco Hills foyer.
“I thought I’d have Jerusalem stone as the backdrop,” said Rory’s Mom, Leslie. Rory’s bat mitzvah was supposed to be in Israel with 18 people. When the Jewish state began restricting visitors, requiring them to be in quarantine for two weeks upon arrival into the country, the Lipsons cancelled those plans. Next, they considered a bat mitzvah on Amelia Island, Fla., where the family had vacationed before. Social distancing rules prevented that from happening either, so they resigned to continue the ceremony in their home – with a little ingenuity.
Postponing the event was not an option, Leslie Lipson said. “Part of it is our religious belief that when it’s the 12th birthday for a girl or 13th for a boy you are a bar or bat mitzvah. Also I wanted to teach our kids that it’s not an obligation or opportunity to put off. We don’t know what the future holds,” she said. “I was sure we could figure out something meaningful.”
The tongue-in-cheek email invitation, alone, was enough to elicit a chuckle from those invited, not to mention setting the mood for the event. “Please wear bright, spring colors. Think of this as the dress code for the event. Please download the Zoom app on the device you plan on using to participate in the service … Think of this step as mapping out the directions to a new synagogue. Please join this Zoom link at around 10:50 a.m. ET. You will be placed into a virtual waiting room until right before 11 a.m. ET. Think of this as getting to the service early enough to get a good seat or find parking.”
There are similar instructions for muting and unmuting (synagogue etiquette), the downloadable guide (siddur), request to take selfies (roving photographer) and use the chat function to leave messages for Rory (signing a guest book or signing board).
What those who tuned into the Zoom ceremony saw was the family of four – Rory, Leslie, Aaron and Karen – dressed in their synagogue finest at a table with a raised platform flanked by floral arrangements. It was a scene similar to what you might see on the bimah for a traditional bat mitzvah. “We were going for a more formal look, not just FaceTiming on the couch having a bat mitzvah,” Leslie said.
By setting the scene through the email invitation, not just a 10-minute video, she hoped the guests felt like they were really attending the ceremony. “This is the dress code, parking, getting a siddur, … the goal was to enhance the experience by making it analogous to a synagogue service.”
In addition, the family added a few prayers appropriate for the times about unity, health, hope, doubt and remaining positive during a pandemic. Leslie said she received comments about the Zoom bat mitzvah afterwards that the ceremony was “what the community needed.” And “it changed the outlook on a COVID Monday.”
Unlike a traditional bat mitzvah, the technology allowed a more personal connection with guests. At the end of the service, Rabbi Adam Starr of the family’s synagogue, Congregation Ohr HaTorah, offered a d’var Torah and guests could give a blessing for Rory.
“I was disappointed at first,” Rory said last week, a few days after the ceremony. “I really wanted to celebrate with family and friends and read from the Torah. It wasn’t the same” having a ceremony in her home, she said. But she felt greatly supported by the more than 200 people who witnessed her reading her Torah portion, while not from the physical Torah. “I really thought it was a meaningful experience.” And she’s looking forward to having a party in 2021 with her friends and family. Of coronavirus, which preventing her from experiencing Israel over spring break and having a more traditional bat mitzvah, she said, “It’s pretty disappointing, but we are making the best of it. It still brings me joy to have quality family time and I try call all my friends twice a day. They are supportive and kind.”