Virtual bar and bat mitzvahs have become de rigueur thanks to COVID-19. Happily, Moving Traditions, which runs leadership and community-building educational opportunities for teens, has compiled a handy guide to making sure your own remote event goes glitch-free, with plenty of tips for this strange new world.
In fact, there are silver linings.
“I think there will be some wonderful b’nai mitzvah ‘COVID-keepers,” says Pamela Barkley, the director of strategic implementation at Moving Traditions. “The biggest one is that family members who cannot attend in person for whatever reason will now always be able to join via some sort of link. I also think the b’nai mitzvah has had a renewed focus on the family because in many places, those were the only people in the room as the preteen chanted Torah. I think this feeling of ‘family first’ will linger with us.”
If you’re embarking upon a virtual celebration and feeling a bit overwhelmed, fret not. I talked to Amy Deutsch, director of the Ansin Religious School at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, who is implementing the Moving Traditions program in her own community. Here’s her advice.
Look on the bright side. You might be closer to relatives—even if farther away.
“One of the things that we always emphasize, at least at Temple Ohabei Shalom, is that though this is different, it’s no less special and that the families who have gone through this process with us have had truly meaningful experiences and often have been able to have family attend their bar or bat mitzvah who might not have been able to in the normal times,” she says. “Grandparents or great-grandparents are able to be right up close with the bar or bat mitzvah child, and that feels incredibly special. We really try to emphasize that feeling.”
Find new ways to make meaning.
Deutsch says that families have created drive-by hot chocolate stands and other fun pop-up celebrations to keep the festivities going even after logging off Zoom.
“Think about how to extend the feelings throughout a whole weekend so that kids feel like it’s real and parents feel like it’s real,” she says. Another family delivered a care package with a “bar mitzvah 101” explainer, small gifts and candies, as well as a sign to write messages to the bar mitzvah boy. During the service, everyone held it up.
“The family was able to flip through and see little faces in the corner behind their pieces of paper and just have this moment of really feeling the blessings that they would have felt at an in-person bar mitzvah,” she says. Everyone threw their candies at the screen in unison, too. Another family delivered bagels and egg salad to snack on while watching.
“It felt real, special and unique,” she says.
Embrace reduced stress.
One upside to pandemic bar and bat mitzvahs? Less pressure.
“I’ve heard from families that the great thing about this is that it’s no longer about the pressures of the party and the social components and all that stuff, because everything is over Zoom, and so all of that is taken away. And that’s kind of amazing,” she says.
Sometimes families set up breakout rooms afterward, so teens can visit with different groups and chat at a more leisurely pace—perhaps with less stress than a harried real-world greeting.
Appoint a tech support person.
One downside of virtual ceremonies? Unmuted guests, faulty connections and Zoom confusion.
“It depends on their synagogue and who the synagogue has; we’ve basically discovered that we need someone who is running technology and helping support throughout it. Our music educator is really gifted at this so he has been on every Saturday morning helping to support families,” Deutsch says.
It also helps to lay out some tech ground rules in advance. Do you want guests to be automatically muted (this might be helpful in case someone goes rogue)? Do you want an open chat function? Do you want to ask people to log on a few minutes early to avoid late, loud entrances?
Set expectations in advance.
The virtual world has blurred the lines between formal and casual. Lay out in advance whether there’s a dress code (“This is not the time for pajama pants,” says Deutsch), whether guests should bring anything to share on-screen and any other expectations.
Fill the awkward silences.
Deutsch recommends offsetting those awkward “log on” moments with activities. Play music, use word cloud apps like Answer Garden wherein people describe the celebrant, run a photo montage, et cetera.
Make a donation.
If you’re a guest at a bar or bat mitzvah and unsure when to give a gift—perhaps the child is hoping for a larger celebration post-pandemic—Deutsch suggests making a small donation at the moment of the event, either to an organization important to the child or to their synagogue, and then deciding about a larger gift later.
Finally? Roll with it.
“Mistakes are going to happen. Sometimes, people don’t really know exactly what’s going on. So the best preparation is wonderful, but also, be able to laugh when silly things happen and not have it throw off your whole day,” she says.