Alexa Shurman realized in March 2020 that her bat mitzvah was not going to be the way she imagined.
The Main Line Reform Temple congregant had her date set for May 2, 2020, but the pandemic threw her family’s plans into question. Would anyone still attend? Would the rabbi be able to help? How could the ceremony take place outside the synagogue?
After much discussion with vendors, family and clergy, Alexa held her ceremony under a balloon arch on her porch with a handful of close family members spread out on the lawn. The rabbi assisted her while adhering to mask and distance precautions, and the cantor sang on Zoom.
Although Alexa was disappointed that she wouldn’t get to have a big celebration, she felt better when she realized all her peers were having the same experience. She also felt happy to have one of the first pandemic bat mitzvahs among her friends so that she got the uncertainty over with.
Alexa is one of many Jewish teenagers whose b’nai mitzvah plans were radically altered by the pandemic. Even in the midst of uncertainty, they are finding ways to make months of studying and preparation pay off with small ceremonies, virtual interactions with friends and meaningful mitzvah projects.
By fall, people were more used to the idea of having smaller celebrations with family and friends Zoomed in.
Elliott Bronner and his family knew he wanted to stick to his original date of Nov. 28, 2020, even if the celebration looked different.
“From the very beginning we felt very strongly that you turn 13, when you turn 13. So that’s when your bar mitzvah is,” mother Jill Bronner said.
The Bronners had the ceremony at their house with Elliott’s paternal grandparents and aunt and uncle present after everyone tested negative for COVID-19. The rest of his family attended virtually.
Elliott built an ark in his dining room by removing the shelves from a cabinet and using a quilt for a curtain. The Torah was borrowed from his synagogue, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, and the rabbi and cantor offered assistance via Zoom.
Elliott was excited to see his close family after months in isolation and enjoyed his ceremony. Attending virtual b’nai mitzvahs for his friends, however, just didn’t feel the same.
“I feel like they’re not as engaging, because you don’t celebrate as much,” he said. “People do still send cards or gifts in the mail or drop things off for each other.”
Max Livingston, who also attends Beth David Reform, was so excited for his Feb. 6 bar mitzvah that he awoke at 4:30 a.m. to put on his suit.
His family opted to hold the bar mitzvah in the synagogue itself. When it was time to head over, he saw that his mother had arranged a surprise limousine. That, he said, felt special.
“It’s only once in a blue moon you walk outside your house and your mom’s like, ‘Limo time!’” he said.
His two sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles were spread out in the sanctuary, with the rabbi and cantor attending on Zoom.
“At first, my husband and I were very disappointed about the clergy not being with us, but ultimately, it ended up really allowing our son to shine and really take over so many responsibilities,” Deborah Livingston said. “Our son blew us away with his ability to really run his service.”
Although Yosef Vessal attended many of his friends’ Zoom ceremonies, he was not able to host his own. He attends Congregation Mikveh Israel, an Orthodox synagogue that does not use Zoom on Shabbat.
Instead, he opted to have 20 family members sit six feet apart with party favor masks throughout the large sanctuary on Oct. 29.
“We also had rules. So not as many people were standing up on the bimah at the same time, only the rabbi, the person reading and the person getting the aliyah,” Yosef said.
He’s the eldest of his generation in the family, and he and his parents always imagined having a huge party in honor of his bar mitzvah.
“We were planning, like, this giant thing, but I’m so grateful that I got to at least have something in person,” he said.
For one teen whose celebration is coming up on May 22, the pandemic has provided the inspiration for a mitzvah project.
Jackson Calder of Huntingdon Valley started igotvax with his cousin to support two causes that have become urgent over the past year: vaccine awareness and food insecurity.
“I was struggling for a little bit on finding a project, because right now you’re limited in terms of what you can do,” Jackson said. “So I tried to come up with something that we could do virtually, and still help out people just as much as we would in person.”
Jackson knew he wanted to do whatever he could to support the vaccine rollout. He has an immunocompromised grandmother he wants to hug in person again, and he said he knows many people who have contracted the virus and died.
He is selling wristbands that read #igotvax to those who have received doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and asking them to post about their experiences on social media to encourage others to get the shot. The bands cost $5, and proceeds are donated to World Central Kitchen, which provides meals to people facing food insecurity due to the pandemic.
For the ceremony itself, Jackson is working with a traveling rabbi to study his Torah portion. He hopes to have a small gathering of friends and close family members in his backyard. Plans will depend on the progress of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout.
“We’re doing whatever we can to really make it as fun as possible,” he said.