My wife and I had known for well over a year that our granddaughter Clara was going to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, in Newton, Massachusetts, this past April 18, just two days before the annual Boston Marathon.
Little could we have imagined back in the early winter of 2019 that the Boston Marathon would be the least of the logistical complications.
As 2019 slid into 2020, the first cases of COVID-19 showed up on the West Coast, and within a matter of weeks, our nation was in the grip of a frightening pandemic. Clara’s parents soon realized that they would need to scale back plans for Clara’s “big day.”
First to be canceled was the Saturday night party for Clara and her friends. Not long afterward, they realized that it would be unsafe to serve the traditional Kiddush lunch following the worship service.
As April 18 approached, and the coronavirus seemed to be spreading out of control, they curtailed the plans even further: there would be a small service at Dorshei Tzedek, led by Rabbi Toba Spitzer. Only Clara, her parents, her brother and sister, her Uncle David and her aunt Gabi – if they could find a baby-sitter – and Sandy and I would be physically present.
But even limiting attendance to 10 people proved to be overly optimistic.
In early April, Rabbi Toba told the family that the only remaining options were to hold a virtual Bat Mitzvah on April 18 or to postpone the service to some undetermined later date.
April 18 dawned with a surprise blanket of heavy, wet, soon-to-melt snow covering southern New England. Rabbi Toba was at the bimah in Dorshei Tzedek, along with an off-screen technical assistant to help with what was to be the rabbi’s first Zoom Bat Mitzvah.
The Torah from which Clara was to chant had been safely delivered to her family’s home in Cambridge. Clara and her family would be participating in the worship service from their dining room. The table was set up to receive the Torah, which was being kept in its living room “ark,” separated from the dining room by pocket doors.
I have attended hundreds of B’nai Mitzvah, both as officiating rabbi and guest, but Clara’s was the first such rite of passage I have experienced in the zone of Zoom – with Clara and her family in Cambridge, Rabbi Toba in Newton, and Sandy and I in Providence.
At first, Sandy and I were saddened that Clara’s Bat Mitzvah would be so “diminished.” But, much to our surprise, at its peak, 193 separate households were linked together by Zoom; in the “gallery view” option, almost eight screens were filled with those attending the service, with 25 individuals or family groups per screen.
When Rabbi Toba was leading the service, she was center screen, and when Clara was leading the worship, she and her family filled the screen. With great dignity and self-assurance, Clara led tefilot (prayers), chanted Torah, chanted her haftarah, and delivered a thoughtful and thought-provoking d’var Torah.
She bore on her young shoulders the weight of hundreds of fellow worshippers who were logged in from Maine (my brother Bill and sister-in-law Pat) to Florida (family and friends) to California (former Temple Habonim members who have known my daughter Karen since she was an infant) to Israel, and even to Ireland. So many lives to lift up and bind together in love and light during the darkness of coronavirus-caused social distancing.
Though throughout most of the service, the focus shifted back and forth between Rabbi Toba and Clara, the joyfulness of the moment, the simcha, was enhanced during those several occasions in which various combinations of Clara’s immediate family joined together in spontaneous dancing. Sandy and I had our own special moment when we read responsively a prayer/poem blessing our granddaughter, a golden link in the chain of Jewish tradition.
I confess that I am not a fan of social media. It is not because I am antisocial that I have refrained from setting up accounts with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, et al. To the contrary, I am vigorously pro-social. I cherish the opportunity to have personal encounters over coffee or lunch with friends, acquaintances, and – under certain circumstances – with total strangers. The social interactions I prefer are face-to-face, not text-to-text, not computer-to-computer. Ernest conversation, conversation that breathes life, that demands that cellphones be turned off, that hand-held electronic devices of all types be stowed out of sight and out of mind. Only then are we “free to be you and me.”
Nevertheless, we can’t always get what we want. Especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must learn to make the best of what we happen to get.
In the case of my granddaughter Clara’s Bat Mitzvah, our family and friends did not need to “make do” or to “settle for.” Despite being physically separated by, in some cases, thousands of miles, Sandy and I heard again and again – at the Zoom “schmooze sessions” following the service, as well as in ensuing days – that people felt vitally connected even while practicing social distancing.
The necessity imposed by the pandemic proved to be the mother of magical and celebratory invention. Clara’s Bat Mitzvah, despite some minor technical glitches in the Zoom rooms, turned out to be a miracle of intimacy.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.