Brooke Radner learned five hours before her bat mitzvah last Friday night that her service at Temple Israel would be limited to immediate family because of the coronavirus. The empty seats didn’t bother her; she was ready. Family and friends watched the service live online. (Courtesy Radner family)

Local families’ celebrations are now in flux during the pandemic.

Normally, as spring approaches in Metro Detroit, Jewish families in the area find themselves venturing outside, preparing for Passover and maybe even planning a wedding or b’nai mitzvah celebration.

This year, things are different.

As COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, spreads through the United States, Metro Detroit families are feeling its impact. Most local synagogues have closed their in-person operations through Passover. Schools are closed, and restaurants have now moved to offering only take-out and delivery. With each day comes new information about the virus’ spread — and new guidelines on how to prevent it from reaching disastrous levels.

For many families in the area, this means long-anticipated events must be altered or postponed.

Plans Changing Fast

Brooke Radner had been looking forward to her bat mitzvah, planned for Friday, March 13, for years. As of Wednesday, March 11, her family knew there were cases of COVID-19 in Michigan. But everything seemed contained — they figured Brooke’s service and party would be able to go on as normal.

Things started to change March 12 as sports leagues, amusement parks and restaurants began to close operations. Knollwood Country Club, where the Radners planned to host Brooke’s party, was still willing to host, but Melanee Radner, Brooke’s mom, said she started to have second thoughts.

“How could I have a party knowing all this was happening, even though Knollwood was going to accommodate me?” she said.

Local families’ simchahs, Pesach plans are in flux during the pandemic.
Jacob Friedman, right, with his brother, Max, left, on the bimah with Assistant Cantor Leonard Gutman during his bar mitzvah service at Shaarey Zedek, which was attended only by immediate family because of the coronavirus. Courtesy of Friedman family

The Radners of West Bloomfield decided to postpone the party later that day. That night, Temple Israel called and asked if the family could narrow the number of guests invited to the service. Then, at 3 p.m. March 13 — only five hours before the service — the West Bloomfield synagogue decided to limit the service to only immediate family, and to livestream it so the rest of the guests could watch.

The family considered postponing the service as well, but Brooke didn’t want to wait. She’d been looking forward to this moment, and she was ready.

“I was really, really excited,” Brooke said. “[During the service], I felt weird, looking up and seeing only my close family. But after…it made feel relieved because my service was over and all I had to look forward to was my party.”

Melanee Radner said she also felt strange, looking up at Brooke on the bimah in an almost-empty sanctuary. But when the service was over and the family turned their phones back on, they were flooded with messages of support and congratulations from friends and family who had watched the livestream.

“It was a very happy, proud, emotional moment when it was all over with,” she said. “I said, ‘Brooke, this will go down in history.’”

The family plans to throw a party for Brooke on either June 12 or Sept. 25, depending on when large gatherings become safe again.

Similarly, Jen Friedman’s son, Jacob, also had his bar mitzvah last weekend. Friedman, who lives in Huntington Woods, began to realize it was going to look different than originally planned when friends and relatives from out of state began to feel unsafe traveling. Some even started to self-quarantine.

Then her synagogue, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, closed. Eventually it was decided the bar mitzvah service could continue in person, but only Friedman’s immediate family would attend. The service was live-streamed so relatives and friends could share in the simchah.

Friedman said her son took the whole situation in stride and helped to make hard choices, like whether to postpone his party.

“It was hard when I had to say, ‘Look, your cousins aren’t coming in from Miami’ — he was really disappointed … but he’s a rational kid,” she said. “We talked about having to make hard choices in life and being grateful for what we do have and not what’s being taken away from us.”

It’s not just b’nai mitzvahs being affected by COVID-19. With synagogues closing in-person operations and large gatherings being discouraged — and now temporarily banned in Michigan — weddings are also in limbo.

Heidi Budaj has been helping to plan the wedding of her daughter, Marcy Fischgrund, scheduled for April 18 in Chicago. When Budaj talked to the JN on March 12, she was still planning to hold the wedding, even if it had to be a limited celebration or live-streamed to guests who couldn’t make it.

But by March 17, Budaj’s daughter and her fiancé made the difficult decision to postpone their wedding.

Local families’ simchahs, Pesach plans are in flux during the pandemic.
Heidi Budaj says she’s received positive responses from more than 220 people to come to her daughter’s wedding in Chicago. The simchah was set for April 18 but was canceled last week. By Jeff Budaj

“As the world changes daily, our wedding plans seem to change hourly,” Budaj told the JN last week. “Currently, the plan is for Marcy and Scott to have a small, intimate wedding with immediate family once it is safe to do so. We have no idea when that will be. We have reserved Friday, Oct. 2, to have a reception/party at the original location in Chicago.”

Her son, Mark Fischgrund, and Meredith Zale have a wedding planned Aug. 29 in Aspen. Budaj says they are moving forward with those plans.

Synagogues Find Ways to Help

At Temple Israel, all in-person activities have stopped through at least April 19. Rabbi Jen Lader told the JN that on March 12, she had to call a couple having a 350-person wedding that Saturday and tell them she couldn’t officiate. She said the synagogue was nervous about how people would react to their reduced operations, but the community has been more than understanding.

“Every single person we’ve spoken to has been understanding and wonderful,” she said. “Everybody understands this is not business as usual, that we’re not canceling lifecycle events to punish them or to be mean.

“These things, we’re doing because we feel we have a moral obligation. As Jews, Pikuach nefesh, to save a life, is the most important thing any of us can do during our lifetime.”

Although it hasn’t been easy for synagogues in Metro Detroit to cancel and postpone lifecycle events, it has allowed them to find creative ways to help. At Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, catered meals for 11 canceled events were instead delivered to people in the community.

“Paul Wertz [caterer at Dish Kosher Cuisine] had a kitchen full of food,” said David Goodman, Beth Ahm’s executive director. “What we decided to do as a congregation was to purchase that and distribute it throughout the community as a way to help him, and as a way to help those folks who are either food-insecure or do not want to go out in public now to have fresh food at home.”

Wertz also does individual orders and has already fielded requests for Shabbat dinners, Goodman said. He will also be fulfilling take-out orders for Passover seders and additional kosher-for-Passover meals.

Passover Plans in Flux

Passover, which begins April 8, provides another challenge for local Jewish families.
For many young adults who now live out of town, Passover presented a great opportunity to come home and see family and friends. Nate Lawler, originally from Farmington Hills, now lives in Portland, Oregon. When he saw the price of plane tickets drop after the outbreak began, he considered going home to surprise his family for the holiday.

Then he started thinking about the risks of travel. He didn’t want to contract COVID-19 on the plane and bring it to his relatives.

“That’s especially because my mom has pre-existing conditions, and some of my [other] family members do. The disease could be worse for them,” he said.

Lawler also knew he couldn’t guarantee he’d be able to return to Portland in a timely matter.

“I’m afraid I might get quarantined back home, or … something might happen, and I’ll have to wait an extended period of time just to get out,” he said.

Lawler thinks he’ll now try to find a way to celebrate Passover in Portland.

Susan Feber’s family had just started to plan their annual seder when COVID-19 became a serious concern in Michigan. She said her family hasn’t decided what they’ll do about the holiday yet.

“We were just in the planning stages, with the extended family deciding who was going to have the seders and where they were going to be. We said we’ll play it by ear,” Feber said.

“We’re all on the same page.”

Feber of West Bloomfield is grateful this isn’t one of the only times her extended family gathers throughout the year — that might make a decision to nix the large seder easier. For now, though, they’re all just taking it one day at a time.

“If people are still sick and it’s continuing and the curve hasn’t flattened, then we’ll have to determine if we do it with just immediate family or broader than that. And I think we’ll all make that decision when the time is right,” she said.

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