Have Torah, will travel: Zoom mitzvahs adapt an ancient Jewish tradition for the pandemic

Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

PHILADELPHIA -- Traditionally, a bar mitzvah is held near a boy's 13th birthday. In Jackson Rosen's case, a short delay seemed prudent.

"He turned 13 in February," his mother, Jodi Rosen said. "I was worried about a snowstorm, so I picked an April date."

Then, after a relatively balmy winter, their plans were scrapped, instead, by the coronavirus pandemic -- which, in addition to interrupting schools, restaurants, sports leagues and concerts, also derailed the voice-cracking, yarmulke-capped coming-of-age ritual that looms large in the life of Jewish tweens like Jackson.

Simply delaying isn't an easy choice, since boys and girls spend months or even years learning a date-specific section of the Torah, a sacred scroll that is read, a few paragraphs at a time, over the course of the year. (Many parents have invested similar amounts of time planning parties that cost tens of thousands of dollars.)

So, some are going ahead with small ceremonies, or with virtual festivities -- at a time when their congregations are already celebrating Zoom weddings, dialing in for Zoom funerals and gathering in mourning for Zoom shivas.

Others are postponing for months -- or indefinitely -- leaving kids to keep practicing the same Hebrew passages with their intricate melodies, or to reluctantly begin the process of learning new ones.


At Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, where Shabbat services have been suspended during the pandemic, one family opted to move the service to a weekday and stream it on Zoom -- all participants streaming from their respective homes. Others have postponed, shifting to the same time next year, or opting to start over and learn a new Torah reading.

"It's the idea of this being less about a milestone birthday and more about taking responsibility for one's place as an active member of the community," Rabbi Abe Friedman said, encouraging families to make their decisions accordingly. "What matters is the child having an empowering, affirming experience of taking their place as a leader in the community."

At Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, cantor Jen Cohen has been consulting with a congregant who happens to be an epidemiologist, and letting families put off making decisions as they monitor changing government guidance. Some who have ceremonies scheduled for May or June are still debating. If they go to Zoom, Cohen said, "We just want to make it joyful and meaningful and all the things we would be if it was in our sanctuary."

Aaron Nielsenshultz, director of the religious school at Congregation Beth Or, a large congregation in Ambler, said he decided to be flexible, allowing young people to recite the Torah portions from their original b'nai mitzvah dates. "It may not be the most traditional way to look at how you do Torah reading," he said. "But, this is not the most traditional time."


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