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My Son’s Pandemic Bar Mitzvah

July 12, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

As my son prepares for a smaller celebration, his siblings helped him cope with disappointment.

For years, my son and I would talk about the big Kiddush buffet he’d have in synagogue after services on his bar mitzvah.

He watched us plan his older brothers’ lavish bar mitzvah celebrations. He was there when his brothers led Shabbat services for hundreds of people and they read from the Torah in a packed synagogue. He heard us telling them speak loudly when they delivered their speeches so that everyone in the crowded room could hear.

Now, with coronavirus shutting down so much of Jewish life, including large-scale bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, he’s had to re-imagine his own bar mitzvah celebrations.

The Miller Kids

Instead of hundreds of guests, it will likely be immediately family only. He might be able to lead services in synagogue but only for a very small group of people. No speeches and definitely no Kiddush buffets or parties. Yet against all odds, my son is motivated to continue learning for his bar mitzvah. He even sets a daily timer on his watch to remind him to practice every afternoon.

What gives? How can he remain so upbeat about practicing and studying for what will be a small, socially distanced bar mitzvah?

I asked my son what keeps him going. Turns out, his siblings – all of whom already celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs – have been giving him some advice to keep him focused.

1. Becoming a bar mitzvah: no party required

The author with her son

“You don’t need a party to become a bar mitzvah.” That was my oldest son’s way of comforting his younger brother. No matter what coronavirus does to his bar mitzvah plans, nothing can take away the fact that when a Jewish boy turns thirteen, and when a Jewish girl turns twelve, they are finally able to fully participate in all Jewish rituals as independent adults. “Bar mitzvah” and “Bat mitzvah” mean being a son (“bar”) or daughter (“bat”) of the mitzvot – the Jewish commandments. No ceremony, party, or service is required.

2. Life-long skills

No matter what this crazy, pandemic-infused year is like, my son recognizes that the skills he’s learning for his bar mitzvah are one’s that he’ll draw on for many years to come, God willing, as he attends services in synagogue and also in his Jewish school, pandemic or no pandemic.

Abilities like leading services or reading from the Torah or giving a dvar Torah are skills they can always draw on, no matter where they find themselves.

3. Smaller celebrations at home

Anticipating a smaller celebration at home with just family members, there are some ways we can mark our son’s transformation into an adult in terms of Jewish practice. He'll be able to lead the Grace After Meals following a festive bar mitzvah meal. He’s also working on a speech to give at home to relatives and a few friends. It might not be the grand celebration we once had in mind, but we’re determined to make his bar mitzvah festive, beautiful and special – no matter how small the celebration.

4. Counting our blessings

“Count your blessings!” is the advice my son got from his older sister. It’s so easy to take having our family and close friends around us for granted – she reminded him that he’s lucky to be surrounded by people who love him.

My daughter is training to be a student docent at a local Holocaust museum, and that’s helped give her a different perspective on what’s truly important in life. Having enough food, having a safe place to live, being surrounded by people who love you – it’s so easy to overlook what truly is most important in our lives. In planning our son’s celebration, we’re trying very hard not to take the many blessings in our lives for granted.

5. Humor helps

So many aspects of our kids' lives have been upended by the pandemic. Online classes, cancelled graduation cancelled, months and months of no social events. And they've been coping by finding the humor in it all.

Watching my son smile and joke about his scaled-down bar mitzvah plans has made me hope that he’s able to react to other more serious adversities in his future with humor and grace as well.

6. “Come to Israel!”

Our oldest son is planning to spend the coming year in Jerusalem studying in a yeshiva and he had a great suggestion: if travel to Israel is possible later in the year, why don’t we celebrate our youngest son’s bar mitzvah with him and his classmates in the Jewish state?

It’s too soon to know what travel restrictions will look like, but it’s a suggestion that we’re taking seriously. Even if somehow things open up and we’re allowed to have a larger gathering, now that we’ve started brainstorming new ways to celebrate, a family trip to Israel sounds like the most appealing option.

What first looked like a limitation on our son’s bar mitzvah celebrations might wind up making them even more meaningful. Having to rethink our son’s bar mitzvah has helped us focus on what truly matters in life: our family, being together, and celebrating our son’s growing up and gaining new skills. Whether we’re able to celebrate in Israel or quietly at home, that’s a lesson I’m glad we’ve learned. We’re looking forward to our son’s small, low key – and very meaningful – bar mitzvah.

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