Max Leber’s bar mitzvah by Zoom begins with a flurry of relatives checking in from living rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms around the United States and as far as Israel. Some of them are dressed up for the occasion in suits and tailored dresses, there are toddler cousins tossing balloons in the air. “What happened to Stewart?” one relative asks, searching for one of the bar mitzvah boy’s grandfathers on the sea of boxes popping up one by one on people’s screens. “He’s coming,” assures his wife Joan Mitnick, Leber’s maternal grandmother, who gushes, “Max, you look so handsome.”
Max Leber is wearing a navy suit and a matching tallit, a ritual prayer shawl, lined with silver and royal blue stripes. Both the suit and tallit were carefully chosen for this day months before, along with the University of Michigan kippa he is wearing (a nod to his favorite college football team).
Everything about his bar mitzvah had been planned meticulously. The date for Max Leber’s bar mitzvah had been chosen five years ago and he had spent the last two years preparing for it. He and his family did not expect to have his bar mitzvah alone in their dining room, a decision the coronavirus crisis thrust upon them, as it has for so many Jewish families with children marking their bar and bat mitzvahs in this unprecedented time.
At first the whirl of changing plans was disorienting – and deeply disappointing. But Julie Leber, Max’s mother, said they found it moving and profound in unexpected ways. And the family took heart in their rabbi’s words: that by choosing to have his bar mitzvah by Zoom, Max was taking his first real step as an adult joining the Jewish community, which is what the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony mark. He was thinking beyond himself and thinking of the health of his community and of the world as a whole. “We felt the love and the smiles and the warmth was filling the room, even though in person it was just the five of us,” says Leber, referring to herself, her husband, Max and their two younger sons. “We were so focused on each other and everyone with us. As someone there said, it was something like a bar mitzvah stripped to its core. You take out all the hoopla that surrounds it – the balloons and the flowers and the fanfare.”
“This bar mitzvah took place no matter what, we were not going to let this weekend go without having it. And it was really special – a lot more special than I thought it would be, given the situation,” continues Leber, 44, a teacher, from East Brunswick, New Jersey. She jokes that she wonders what will happen on his wedding day, noting his brit milah (circumcision ceremony) took place 13 years ago in the midst of a massive ice storm just after the building housing their synagogue burned down.
Focusing on gratitude helped the family move past the dream of the day that was to have included a festive Sunday brunch with a band. “We told ourselves that we are so lucky, people are fighting this virus. We are healthy and we will be able to share this bar mitzvah with others and we have the technology to do it,” she says. For Max there was also an upside: “I got to have my parents next to me when I was doing it, so I was not so nervous.”
Max’s bar mitzvah took place last Shabbat in March as did the bar mitzvah of Alissa Poderis’ son Jacob in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kramer says the process of deciding to resort to Zoom all happened very quickly – only about a week and a half before the event. She describes the quickly changing plans, saying it, “went from a well-planned celebration with family and friends joining us from Las Vegas and coming in from out of town, to the ceremony with no kiddush luncheon, to a ceremony with just immediate family, then no ceremony. The daily changes to the process made things extremely stressful, especially since we were still working full-time and adjusting to Jacob’s new on-line schooling. We were in contact with out-of-town guests daily once things started to change and notified everyone about a week and a half before the bar mitzvah date that it was cancelled.”
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She and her husband wondered if they would regret having the bar mitzvah by Zoom. “We decided not to delay to a future date because we have no idea when this pandemic will come to an end or when people will be comfortable traveling or congregating in large groups. Also, I did not think it was fair making my son learn a new Torah portion,” Poderis wrote by email.
Like Julie Leber, she was taken aback by how powerful the experience was.
“We did not think we would feel that connection, but we did. Zoom would sometimes flip through pictures of those watching and listening which helped. After the service, the rabbi told everyone to stay on which most did. It was so great catching up and seeing family from all over the country,” Poderis wrote.
After Max Leber finished chanting both his Torah portion and his haftorah portion, a selection from the Bible’s book of Prophets, he gave his own commentary on the Torah portion focusing on the message of humility in leadership. He connected it, in part to the world effort to fight the coronavirus. He concluded with: “Thanks for logging in to celebrate my bar mitzvah with me.” His family and friends broke out in singing “Siman Tov and Mazal Tov,” the traditional song of congratulations.
A rabbi’s message
Rabbi Eliot Malomet, the rabbi of Highland Park Conservative Temple – Congregation Anshe Emeth, where four generations of the Leber family belong, officiated the bar mitzvah. Speaking in front of background of the synagogue sanctuary, with its blue stained glass windows and empty pews, he told the bar mitzvah boy: “I think you are now demonstrating, the ultimate meaning of being a bar mitzvah: to be responsible not only to yourself, your family, and community. By enabling us to suspend the usual bar mitzvah celebration, we are doing our part in easing the transmission of this terrible virus and in very, very concrete ways, diminishing the possibility of overwhelming the services that need to be employed for the very, very sick right now.”
The rabbi told him he had shown how, “one person makes a huge difference. You have made a huge difference in everybody’s life today. This will be an experience everyone remembers when they think about this time, when they think of this moment. This moment will pass, we hope soon, and we will remember we celebrated this moment on line with this remarkable bar mitzvah, with this remarkable family, together.”
This was the first bnai mitzvah Malomet had conducted by Zoom, but he expects there may well be others held this way in the weeks ahead. Malomet told Haaretz in an interview that while it’s impossible not to avoid disappointment at having to forego a long planned event, the sting might be less sharp when the focus is on the meaning of the ceremony, rather than the party. “When it’s only about a party, that’s when there’s likely to be more of an emotional crisis.
“The unexpected upside was that this could be done in a very meaningful way despite the lack of venue. And to recognize that we are in a unique moment in global history. The message is that Jewish people will be okay, we will sustain ourselves – the ultimate message of a bar or bat mitzvah is survival as we look at the child as our future.”
“The message bar and bat mitzvah children can take, he says, is, “You are not just you yourself, this is not just about you, you are part of something larger and you can take this opportunity to learn this lesson now. A lesson that others often take a lifetime to learn.”
A bat mitzvah girl prepares
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Clara Engels and her family are trying to adjust to the new reality that her April 18th bat mitzvah will be held in her home, not their synagogue. The family’s living room is full of supplies for a planned luncheon and party to celebrate Clara’s bat mitzvah – including stacks of dairy creamer, Doritos, bottles of Coke and cookies and so many balloons. Now Clara is planning to make decorations and use the balloons to fill up the dining room where her bat mitzvah will take place. A Torah scroll will be delivered from the synagogue and read from the dining room table.
“Well I have always loved decorations. So I’m going to decorate everything and make it festive. The great thing about having the bat mitzvah at my house is that at the temple we cannot cover the bima in balloons,” she says, referring to the synagogue stage. “We’ve got some fairy lights too. It’s going to be the most blingy bima ever.”
Clara Engels is also looking forward to having more guests. Instead of the 125 guests who were expected to come in person – there will now be some 200 friends and family expected to attend virtually. And she is planning to celebrate with her guests in person at the party, now rescheduled for September.
Her mother Karen Engels says, “I’m using it as a chance to practice being mindful, which has never been my strength. I’m reminding myself there are the things I can control, and there are things I cannot control. And to practice gratitude, thinking how many other people are suffering through much more serious obstacles and get some perspective on this.” Of her daughter, Clara, she has this to say: “I am very, very proud of her. I think she’s shown that she really understands what the ceremony is about at its core. It’s not about being celebrated, as much as it is about making a commitment and sharing that commitment publicly, which she can do from her home.”