Bar Mitzvah in the Time of Pandemic

Diana Kanter’s US-based cousin Ralph Ibson recounts …

What’s the experience of a bar mitzvah during a pandemic? Living in the United States, where states have set policies to contain the virus’ spread, we were uncertain for weeks whether my grandson’s bar mitzvah would take place, and, if so, under what circumstances. The date of May 2nd had been reserved for more than a year. Elliott, the bar mitzvah boy, had been working with a tutor and the cantor since last August to prepare for the ceremony. Invitations went out in March. 


Early on, it had seemed that religious worship could still take place with gatherings limited to no more than 50.  But when a subsequent order barred gatherings of 10 or more, this ruled out a minyan and seeming to foreclose Jewish worship altogether. But the rabbi, Jonah Layman, of Temple Shaare Tefila, a conservative congregation in Olney, Maryland, offered an answer.   

Rabbi Layman and the congregation’s cantor would hold Shabbat services, though without the Torah service, in a temple chapel. Elliott could read his Torah portion and haftorah with just his immediate family in attendance.  And so it unfolded, with 70 online guests viewing the ceremony through the congregation’s live-streaming portal. It wasn’t simply a unique experience, it was also very intimate, sweet, and at least as memorable and meaningful as if we’d all been seated together in schul. And if the bar mitzvah boy was disappointed at the necessary cancellation of the bowling party planned for the evening, he didn’t show it.  What we did see was his excitement when, during closing remarks, the rabbi directed his attention to his Hebrew School friends cheering him on from cars parked just outside – a “Car Mitzvah” they called it.

Photo: Elliott and his mother Miriam.