Zoom Mitzvah Celebrations: What to Consider

torahreadingWhen COVID closed down everything from schools to offices and the NBA to Broadway, most people thought the shutdown would last a few weeks. We gasped when schools didn’t reopen after two weeks. Parents made last minute decisions to move spring Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to later in the summer. Many newly minted teens who had been studying their Torah portions were dismayed about their postponed services and celebrations, but the end seemed to be in sight.

As restrictions for gatherings remained in place for much of the summer, families started turning to other options for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Some turned to Zoom to allow their child to complete the ceremonial portion rather than waiting for the pandemic to end. In many cases, this meant learning a new Torah portion unless the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was postponed a full year.

Now, 14-months after the crisis hit, Zoom-mitzvahs are still standard. Even as small in-person gatherings are starting up again, both in the sanctuary and out, travel restrictions remain (by choice or by law) and celebrations of any sort are limited in capacity, so the Zoom-mitzvah is a nice alternative for those that cannot attend or are not invited to attend in person.

In this two-part piece, we will focus first on what families are doing or have done for their children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the last year. Then, stay tuned for our follow up piece on vendors for everything Bar/Bat Mitzvah related: logos, invitations, photographers, videographers and Zoom experts, montages, venues, tent rental companies, dresses, caterers, and the newly minted “mitzvah boxes,” or boxes of goodies sent to guests attending the service remotely. (Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.)

Whether you’re having the Bar/Bat Mitzvah at a synagogue or in your home, live streaming for guests not in physical attendance has become the norm in the pandemic. The benefits of using Zoom are that remote guests can interact with guests attending in-person as well as the child being honored. Live-streaming allows for one way viewing and the quality (both video and audio) tends to be higher with a simple web-cam or high quality camera. You can combine livestreaming with a Zoom, or even record people ahead of time participating in an aliya, for example, and play it at the time of their honor. You can manage things on your end (like splitting the screen and having the prayer book on the screen as well) or let people do it themselves.

Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El has been doing almost all services virtually since last March 2020. On April 17, they will begin in-person worship for up to 20 people outside. It will be a hybrid model until things are back fully in-person. The synagogue arranges the Zoom for Bar/Bat Mitzvah services, removing that burden from the parents.” I think the clergy are Zoom experts at this point,” said a mom of a newly Bat-Mitzvah’ed boy. Rabbi Jeffrey Brown seemed especially proud of his congregants. Families are accepting this “…with warmth and strength. Everyone understands the uniqueness of this moment. Each of our families has made the experience their own,” he said.

Rabbi Brown’s words should not be taken lightly. Though some expressed doubt that the service and celebration would be meaningful, many hosts, guests and honorees have found a deeper connection in a Zoom Bar/Bat Mitzvah than anticipated. A mom of two from Edgemont said she found Zoom services to be just a special as in person. “The service had all of the same components in it, so it didn’t feel that different,” she said. “Plus, they tend to be shorter and I can dress casually, so those are some nice perks of the Zoom service.” She added that she hopes Zooms will continue as they allow for out-of-town guests to be a part of the big day.

A mom of three from Edgemont has attended several remote services and agreed. “We watched from the comfort of our living room and appreciated the Bar Mitzvah boys’ effort, especially his speech,” she said. “We loved seeing the video screens of other friends watching and found just as much meaning in it as we would have in person.” A third mom felt like in-person COVID restrictions actually benefited her son. “He has anxiety and didn’t want a crowd or party in the first place,” she confided, “so this really worked out well for us. We were at home and both the Cantor and Rabbi were remote. Everything went better than expected. For us, having family of different generations be able to participate from all over the world was a silver lining. My son’s great grandmothers were both able to join remotely, and this never would have happened pre-pandemic.”

Many people I spoke with loved seeing a video montage at the end of the service and recommend including this for both the in-person attendees as well as the remote guests. We will have suggestions for self-creating a montage as well as hiring someone to do it in our follow up piece.

Restrictions on large indoor parties have allowed people to be creative with their celebrations for the Bar/Bat mitzvah honoree. Some people have had food trucks come to their driveways with limited guests in attendance and kept everything outdoors. “It was nice for my son to be a part of these small celebrations,” said one mom. “There were limited guests, it was all outdoors, and it felt both safe and fun. One celebration included 10 kids for 90 minutes, then another 10 kids for 90 minutes and there was food, a DJ and games for both sets of kids. A crepe truck and a hot chocolate bar were both hits with the kids.” Another parent is planning to host a small outdoor dinner party for 50 at a local country club after the service. A third family is planning to skip any sort of party altogether and will use the money they would have spent on that to make donations to organizations that are meaningful to their son.

Other trends? “I love these care packages people are sending out,” said a mom of an upcoming Bar Mitzvah boy. “A friend from San Francisco sent boxes with kippahs, candy, and other goodies ahead of time. It was such a nice surprise!” One mom sent Nutella babka from Martines Bakery in Scarsdale Village to remote guests. Another soon-to-be Mitzvah Mom said one host asked guests to email a picture of themselves watching the zoom service. “They will make an album out of that which will make for a beautiful memory.” Videos from guests using Tribute or Vidhug also seem to be popular ways to include remote guests in the celebration.

Are people feeling comfortable with indoor celebrations now that many adults are vaccinated? Most people I spoke with said no to indoors at this point but outdoors, probably. “We plan to seat people in pods and follow all safety protocols,” said a parent who is planning a dinner celebration for 50, outdoors, with some entertainment. “A family can have a table for four. Vaccinated people can sit with other vaccinated people they choose or others if all are comfortable. My goal is to ensure that everyone feels safe and is safe.” The club she’s hosting at is flexible with tables and they’ll plan seating last minute to accommodate requests.

What about gifts? We have no exact answer except that it’s important to feel good about your decision to gift. One parent felt confused about when to give a gift. “Last Fall, host parents were saying that the party was postponed but still happening sometime in the future after the zoom service. So, some parents of guests felt that giving the gift now was like saying ‘right, as if there’s going to be a party,’ and then if there is, do you show up empty handed at the party? Some hosts were using the Zoom with no party as a way to invite the entire grade in Edgemont,” she added. “On one hand, it’s inclusive and that’s lovely, on the other hand, it’s confusing from a gift-giving standpoint.”

Without a big party do you still give the large amounts we’ve become used to giving? Are we moving away from the “plate cost?” On the other hand, shouldn’t we give the same whether there’s a party or not? “It doesn’t seem right to penalize the kid because they happen to turn 13 during the pandemic,” said a thoughtful upcoming bat mitzvah guest. Then there’s the question of being invited to a Zoom from someone who likely wouldn’t have invited you if in person. Do you give a gift if you don’t attend the Zoom?

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section regarding gifting, your experiences as a bar/bat mitzvah host parent or guest during the pandemic, what worked or didn’t for remote gifts as well as plans for in-person celebrations.