COVID-19 makes many of us feel like we’re treading water. Each day seems the same.
But for a dozen senior citizens at Revere’s Jack Satter House, recent months brought big changes: the opportunity to pursue their dreams of becoming bat mitzvah under the guidance of Rabbi Lior Nevo.
The class, which started in January, had to be conducted via telephone once the COVID-19 quarantine hit. In August, the residents participated in a (socially distant) b’not mitzvah ceremony.
As part of their preparation, the women studied a portion of the Mishna that addresses the theme, “If not now, when?”
It’s fitting for Paula Weiner, a resident who put the ritual off when she was a teenager.
“When I was younger, my parents asked me if I wanted to go to Hebrew school. My father was very religious, my mother was very traditional and I just didn’t like school, period. So, to go to another Hebrew school? I didn’t want it. Years and years later, I regretted doing that. I wished I had said yes,” she recalls. “I’m buying a frame for my certificate that says I was bat mitzvahed, and it’s just a nice feeling to have. I never had that Jewish learning, and it really was very inspirational.”
Nevo, the rabbi at Satter House for the past year, wasn’t planning on this undertaking. But she was approached by a resident eager to fulfill her dream.
Nevo was nine months pregnant at the time, so the idea was put on hold until she returned from maternity leave. But, of course, then came COVID-19. Despite the timing, more than 20 people had signed up for the program, which quickly went virtual. A whopping 12 residents persevered despite tech glitches, and they completed their lessons over the phone.
“They told me, ‘We’ve had bigger challenges in our lives. We can figure out how to call in.’ They’re amazing,” Nevo says.
And challenges continued: The residence was one of the first facilities hit by the coronavirus, and a woman from the group died.
“But actually having this bat mitzvah to focus on [instead of COVID-19] became even more meaningful,” Nevo says. “I know, for me, it had a big effect. I was home with three kids, but knowing that three times a week I had to just stop everything and join our bat mitzvah class was very meaningful for me.”
On the final day, residents gathered distantly in person to receive certificates and a blessing.
“That moment became just magical, because they hadn’t seen each other dressed all beautifully and with their hair done, and makeup. It was spontaneous, but that was very, very sweet for them to see each other and have that moment,” she says. Each woman spoke and shared a bit of her journey. Other portions of the service were recorded individually and edited into a video for posterity.
“They wanted to show that they could do this for generations to come,” Nevo says. “I feel that you’re watching your grandchildren and great-grandchildren working through this, and to show them that you’re doing it at this age is a choice, it’s something that you want to do, I think is meaningful. We learned that if we aim high, anything is possible. Seriously, I think a few months ago, I would have never believed that we could have had a socially distant group bat mitzvah that feels meaningful. And, somehow, it’s happened.”
And even a pandemic couldn’t dull everyone’s emotions. If anything, it heightened them.
“I don’t know if this even makes sense, but I know that I was Jewish all my life. But this is something that makes it even more special,” Weiner says.