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Zoom bar and bat mitzvahs offer meaning, connectivity during the pandemic

BY MICHELLE COHEN ON JULY 30, 2020


The date is set, the Torah portion is learned--then the world pauses for a pandemic. What happens to bar and bat mitzvahs planned years in advance?

"Although we had the option of postponing, [we] agreed that it was important to honor this milestone now, even if it would look drastically different than what we had envisioned," said Hillary Coustan, mom of bar mitzvah boy Eli Coustan reimagined Eli's bar mitzvah service on Zoom, including figuring out options for people who do not use technology on Shabbat; adapting cherished traditions like passing the Torah down the family line; and ordering takeout to their families' houses for a Zoom kiddush. 

Eli Coustan with his parents, Charles and Hillary, during his Zoom bar mitzvah ceremony. Along the top are friends and family, including the Rabbi (Eli's aunt), Andrea London.

She and her family received feedback from guests that they were more engaged with the service due to its more intimate setting. Coustan agreed: "In some ways, the tightened restrictions ended up being a good thing in terms of us feeling our community embracing us during the service," she said.

Trying to find the positives in this complicated situation also helped Maya Freedman and her parents, Jessica and Ross, make the best of the situation. When they heard that their synagogue's sanctuary would be closed, "we were adamant about wanting to keep the date" and figure something out, Jessica said.

Rabbi Aaron Melman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook lent the family a Torah scroll from the synagogue's ark and Maya's grandfather, Rabbi Victor Mirelman, performed the service over Zoom. The family created an entire virtual Saturday morning service followed by a special kiddush with bagels flown in from New York City.

Maya's father, Ross, managed the technology to ensure the day went smoothly. "At first, we didn't think she was going to have the same experience she should have had, but I don't think we lost anything," he said. "The bat mitzvah went so well that we felt it was just as special as it would be in person."

Chaya Leah Carlsen felt similarly about her son Tzvi Meir's bar mitzvah. "It was a really good learning experience for him to see that sometimes things in life don't always work out the way you're hoping, and you have to be able to roll with it," she said.

Tzvi Meir made his virtual bar mitzvah special by creating matching sweatshirts with the logo from his bar mitzvah and sending them to friends and family, as well as completing his mitzvah project by collecting and donating toys to Chai Lifeline from quarantine

The Carlsens pre-recorded the service on the Thursday before, which came in handy when they experienced problems with Zoom on the big day. Even with the complications of changing to Google Meet, Chaya Leah described the day as "very manageable and easy to maneuver.

Adapting to change was also important for the Hartman family and their daughter, Juniper. The family ended up driving to be closer to family, conducting a socially-distanced backyard service, and streaming the service on Zoom

Juniper designed a special service, including a video montage of photos and music and a presentation of art based on her Torah portion. Mom Anna felt like the family took ownership of the service in a way more traditional services don't allow, for both the in-person and virtual elements

One particularly special element was the video recording of the service: "On the day of, it was a challenge to be present in the moment," Anna said. "I wouldn't have videotaped her bat mitzvah [before], but now I have this great Zoom recording that enables me to relive it."

All four families found deep meaning in services that looked very different from how they were originally planned. "On the surface, our son's virtual bar mitzvah looked very different from an in-person one," Hillary said. "Yet, in every way that mattered to our family, the day exceeded our hopes and expectations."


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