Shelli Liebman Dorfman recounts how her grandson celebrated his bar mitzvah in a safe way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This summer, after a literal lifetime of anticipation and a year of near-continual planning, my husband, Michael, and I shared in the excitement and pride as our grandson Zevi became a bar mitzvah. Only downside was, due to COVID-19 travel and health concerns, the small group that surrounded him that day did not include us.
Like many, our family has been though the gamut of frustration, anxiety and personal sadness during the pandemic. The bar mitzvah was supposed to be the bright star in an erratic, arduous and baffling time.
Though Zevi and his family — including our daughter and son-in-law Stephanie and Avi Beneson and Zevi’s siblings Rachel, 11, Akiva, 9, and Elisheva, 5 — live more than 600 miles away in New Jersey, we were there the day each of the children was born. We never imagined being home in West Bloomfield when Zevi was called to the Torah in, of all places, a grassy area between a swing set and a vegetable garden in our kids’ neighbor’s backyard in the Garden State.
In March, with the onset of lockdowns and prohibitions, nearly every single supposedly set-in-stone entry that had been checked off the extensive bar mitzvah list was in need of a major overhaul.
The only thing that would remain just as planned was the date. Zevi would become a bar mitzvah on his Hebrew birthday and would read the Torah portion he had been learning since last summer.
As our kids worked with persistently changing guidelines, our plans also fluctuated. Assessing it would be unsafe to fly since masks were not yet mandatory on planes, we would instead travel by car, making an overnight stop along the way.
At that point we canceled the post-bar-mitzvah-week trip to the Jersey Shore with our children and grandchildren, initially envisioned as a continuation of the celebration.
Even as Zevi’s synagogue service and kiddush for 300-400 guests became a plan for an outdoor minyan, and the catered meals turned into decorative, individually wrapped packages, we still thought we’d be there.
Mall and specialty store shopping became online suit, dress and shoe purchases, each accompanied by a specially ordered coordinating mask.
So Many Celebrations
By June, the guest list and search for the perfect invitation turned to email addresses and a Zoom link for online festivities to take place the Sunday before the Shabbat service.
That afternoon we logged on with more than 100 friends and family from three countries and seven American states, including those who disappointingly canceled travel plans, but with the perk of the presence of some who all along knew they would have been unable to be there.
The four-generation gathering — including Zevi’s other grandparents, Dr. David and Marci Beneson of Southfield, and dozens of others from the Detroit area — assembled for the traditional bar mitzvah party agenda: pandemic-style.
In a grid-pattern of faces, participants shared the screen to view a short music video, listen to Zevi’s inspirational d’var Torah and celebrate with speeches and toasts.
That week, I checked the gas and oil in my car in anticipation of our trip, which was to be the first time we would see our kids since Thanksgiving! And we were also tested for COVID antibodies, thinking a possible exposure might have given us a way to feel more comfortable about traveling, and were disappointed with negative results.
Two days after “Zevi’s Zoom” was his Hebrew birthday, the official date on which he became a bar mitzvah. That morning he was called to the Torah for his first-ever aliyah, in a congregation of classmates in his teacher’s backyard.
The afternoon was highlighted by a drive-by horn-honking, mazel-tov chanting, balloon-filled celebration with music, individual-family dancing and party favors for New Jersey friends who arrived in front of Zevi’s home in timeslots dictated alphabetically.
On Wednesday, when my temporarily “lost in transit” fancy, lace face mask was delivered, I was relieved it had arrived in time to be packed with its matching outfit.
But stories of rest stops and hotels in states along the way without enforced mask and social distancing guidelines mounted our concerns. We hadn’t even been inside a store or within 6 feet of our Michigan children or my nearby parents in almost four months. How could we take a chance on travel, being with strangers and possible crowds?
So, Thursday evening, we were still at home when we received a video of Zevi taken that morning at one of the many daily pop-up minyans that appeared in our kids’ neighborhood when small outdoor gatherings became permissible. We listened and watched as he read Torah for the first time, dressed in his COVID uniform of sweats, a T-shirt and royal blue Crocs but with the addition of his set of brand-new leather tefillin.
As Shabbat got closer, Zevi was stoic and understanding of the necessary changes and omissions in his celebration, and truly excited to be commemorating this milestone with friends. But there was still a sadness in knowing that none of the family — all of whom live in other cities — would be able to travel.
So, when our other daughter and her four children arrived in a squealing surprise Thursday night, following a 10-hour, practically nonstop drive from West Bloomfield, the weekend had new life and was off to a giggling, family-filled, staggeringly loud bang.
Watching the iPhone-recorded reunion, knowing how much fun they were having together and what it meant to our New Jersey kids gave us incredible solace.
Friday they all joined for self-described hysterical laughter and family photos, taken in a secluded section of a massive, forest-like park, with proofs immediately air-dropped to us. The two families then decorated the yards where the next day’s service and kiddush would be held. Later they shared Shabbat dinner in our daughter and son-in-law’s home, after which the Michigan guests socially distanced themselves to basement bedrooms.
Early Saturday morning, under a series of tent-like blue canopies, face-masked, local friends — along with Aunt Kim and cousins, 16-year-old Shira, 14-year-old Ari, 11-year-old Jake and 8-year-old Eitan from Michigan — came to hear Zevi as he read the entire weekly Torah portion.
In a modification of traditional aliyahs, those called upon accepted the honor from a distance, with only Zevi touching the Torah, on loan from a nearby synagogue.
The small congregation scattered throughout two adjoining yards behind the homes of our children’s gracious neighbors.
The peaceful summer morning’s unstreamed Orthodox service was highlighted by the conflicting ambience of a young man’s Torah reading and the sounds of a light rain, a lawn mower, a helicopter and a car alarm.
During the lay-led service, perched on a chair to allow for a better view, Zevi’s mom looked at her sister, laughed and said, “Yep, this is what I pictured today would be like 13 years ago.”
Following the Torah reading, Zevi fielded the tossed, small, decorative tulle bags I stuffed with soft candy and placed in Kim’s trunk for the occasion, as my small, personal inclusion in the day. A post-service celebration then took place in a shaded area of our children’s yard, in shifts, based on varied invitation times, with guests enjoying individually plated foods, each packaged with their own mini plasticware.
Just like the days following a traditional bar mitzvah celebration, ours are filled with memories, stories, videos, photos and sweet party favors. They bring way more tears of happiness than those of sadness and feelings of what we missed.
Being embraced in the planning and its various revisions kept us engaged in the treasured time throughout the recent, sometimes anxious months.
Along the way, nothing was “normal.” The unexpected was expected, but the traditional elements ensued in ways that were modified for the times and created unequivocally for Zevi. His party may have been on the sidewalk and street in front of his house and his out-of-town family may have cheered him on from tiny computer squares. His blue suit and complementing textured tie may have come in the mail and his bar mitzvah haircut may have taken place in his backyard. But, for this insightful, sensitive, NASCAR-, football- and baseball-obsessed, LEGO- and drawing-enthusiast, it will all go down in the books as the unforgettable, bright star we wished for.
We may not have celebrated with Zevi in person, but that doesn’t lessen the excitement and pride we felt for him. And instead of focusing on the fact that we were not with him, we like to think maybe we were just the most distant of his socially distanced bar mitzvah guests and that somewhere between the virtual and the vicarious, and in our hearts, we actually were.