Some Jewish families get creative during lockdown rules.
Jodi Michaelson’s youngest son was scheduled to have his bar mitzvah on May 16, and even when the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring, Michaelson knew she didn’t want to reschedule it.
“From day one, I said, ‘We’re Jews. We can do this somehow,’” the Huntington Woods resident said.
But with social distancing precautions in place, she had to get creative to make the day special for her son, Daniel, and the rest of their family.
After finding out they could have Daniel’s service in the Congregation Shaarey Zedek sanctuary — Michaelson is a member of the synagogue’s board of trustees — she decided to make use of the synagogue’s large parking lot and throw a surprise drive-in bar mitzvah party for her son.
Daniel didn’t know about the party until he walked out of the synagogue after finishing his service, which was only attended by his immediate family and grandparents but broadcast to friends and family over Zoom.
“I’m walking out; I’ve got my mask down because I just got out and I see this huge amount of cars that are honking and … I am speechless,” Daniel said.
In an effort to mimic the Shaarey Zedek kiddush luncheons, Jodi ordered individual kiddush boxes from Bake Station for each car with a challah, some small beverage bottles and an assortment of Bake Station’s signature treats. She also hired Star Trax to control traffic in the parking lot and make sure each car was parked far enough apart.
The Michaelson family weaved through the parked cars, making sure to maintain a safe distance from all the guests, and hoisted Daniel up on a chair to do a parking lot horah.
“It was just a wonderful, marvelous, unbelievable celebration,” she said. “Everybody was just ready to sort of celebrate life again and celebrate good things, even if it’s socially distant.”
The Michaelsons weren’t the only family figuring out how to celebrate a bar mitzvah that weekend. Over in Bloomfield Hills, the Wittenberg family worked with party planner Julie Yaker to organize a drive-by party for their son Jonah’s bar mitzvah, also on May 16.
Yaker said they sent out invitations to Jonah’s bar mitzvah in mid-March, but by April it became clear that a party wouldn’t be possible. When the family found out that Jonah’s service had to be held at home instead of in person at Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, they decided to look for alternative ways to celebrate.
After looking at birthday party trends and seeing what people were doing for bar and bat mitzvahs in other states, Yaker and the Wittenbergs decided to do a drive-by party at the Wittenberg home with music, a balloon arch and even a company that handed out waffles on a stick to attendees as they drove by. Over 100 cars came through to celebrate Jonah.
“We wanted people to feel comfortable — if people wanted to keep their windows up and drive by, that was totally acceptable. If people wanted to jump out their sunroof and hold out a sign, that was great too,” Yaker said.
Stacey Wittenberg, Jonah’s mom, said she was grateful they were able to find a way to mark the occasion.
“It was a little bit of a letdown, especially for him, because it’s not how the day was supposed to look like,” she said. “But I think under the circumstances, it was really the best-case scenario.”
Yaker, who runs party-planning company EyeCatcher Events, said she’s worked with many clients this spring to re-work their celebrations for these unprecedented times — she recently worked on a Zoom engagement party. But several of her clients who had spring bar and bat mitzvahs decided to postpone their parties to the fall, and Yaker isn’t sure what those parties will look like yet.
Her advice to people who need to alter their celebrations due to the pandemic? Take time to mourn the original event and then focus on how you can still make it meaningful.
“I think we’re just all going to have to get really creative,” she said. “Find ways to stay safe and celebrate.”
Shannon McConnell, senior event director at Star Trax, helped with both the Michaelson and Wittenberg parties. She said they were the first two non-virtual events the company has worked on since Michigan’s stay-at-home order began in March, though they’ve been hosting events over Zoom.
“People enjoy celebrating so much, and it’s such a warm feeling for the friends and the families to be able to celebrate these big milestones. I can only envision and hope that sooner or later we’ll be back up and running in some capacity,” McConnell said of the future of party-planning.
In the meantime, though, any bit of celebration seems to go a long way.
“I think the thing I’ll remember most is … how special it is that I actually have people all over the place come to see me,” Daniel Michaelson said. “In the end, I feel like this was maybe better than a party. It was definitely more special than one.”