Bonus bar mitzvahs
PARK CITY, Utah. — At Park City’s Temple Har Shalom (THS), a record number of students are achieving the Jewish adolescent milestone of bat and bar mitzvah this year, the ceremony marking their entrance into Jewish adulthood. Bat is the feminine, bar the masculine, b’nai mitzvah is the plural. The movie Fiddler on the Roof sings about Tradition!, but Zoom b’nai mitzvah during a pandemic is far from tradition.
Almost no one beyond essential staff has stepped foot inside the building for 14 months as a result of COVID, though limited in-person services and events will resume in June. As a result, the 24 12-year-olds in the current cohort, the largest cohort so far, have not only been spending their nine months of preparatory study on Zoom, but each individual ceremony has also been moved out of the sanctuary and onto Zoom.
Michael Greenfield, Director of Education for THS, attributes this year’s larger cohort to prudent pandemic protocols. “The ceremony is all about community and connection, and things are now starting to open up. Even during the uncertainty of the pandemic, adaptations were made to connect families and erase distance for online ceremonies. Keeping the Temple community together even while physically apart became our central mission,” said Greenfield. “Though people sometimes think otherwise,” he adds, “Judaism is 3000 years of endless adaptation. Adapting ancient customs to the modern world is something we’ve been doing for a very long time.”
The Torah scroll, written in Hebrew calligraphy on parchment, is the central, treasured object in the sanctuary. During the ceremony, students demonstrate that they have learned to chant the section of the Torah that correlates, on the calendar, with their 13th birthday. During the pandemic, the Torah scroll started traveling to the b’nai mitzvah student’s home for the service. It’s a little, not a lot, like the Stanley Cup. For approximately the same amount of time the NHL season happens, participants prove themselves trustworthy and worthy to receive the most idolized item within the respective realm and be its keeper for a week, free-range and free-rein with comparable reverential trepidation.
Although some students feel a sense of disappointment for certain aspects of missing out, other aspects of their reality are unexpectantly celebratory and empowering. Rather than standing between Rabbi David Levinsky and Greenfield who can prompt them, if needed, students leading the service over Zoom need to be more self-reliant. Some are even relieved to be giving the speech they wrote – a personal reflection and interpretation on a section of Torah – without the audience right there. The congregation can sometimes number in the triple digits so speaking via Zoom lets them focus on embracing the message, the meaning and the moment deeper within themselves.
An unexpected benefit is that more extended families than ever have been able to participate since Zoom b’nai mitzvah services remove the barriers of travel. After the idyllic ceremony, lavish parties have given way to options like photo collage videos, intimate family gatherings or driveway-Hi car parades otherwise known as a milepost milestone.
Temple Har Shalom students have been gathering in person periodically, for example, they have the opportunity to volunteer at Jewish Family Service in Park City for warm-clothing drives with members of the Women of Har Shalom for baby-essential goods drives.
Beyond Park City, the religious school students hail from as close as Salt Lake City and as far as Vernal. Classes for pre-school through tenth grade are held after regular school hours and are in alignment with Park City School District calendar.
Along with being a Sundance Film Festival theater, Temple Har Shalom is planning its 25-year anniversary celebration.
On the big day of the modern-day b’nai mitzvah on Zoom during a pandemic, students opine that their experience is no less legit, no less holy, no less enlightening, no less ritualistic, no less enjoyable, no less honored, no less enriching, no less awe-inspiring, no less memorable, no less magical, just less of a tradition.