Reuben Friedman (right) with his father, Brad Friedman (left) and a sibling during his March 19, 2020, Zoom bar mitzvah. (Photo/Courtesy Brad Friedman)
Reuben Friedman (right) with his father, Brad Friedman (left) and a sibling during his March 19, 2020, Zoom bar mitzvah. (Photo/Courtesy Brad Friedman)

Coronavirus forces b’nai mitzvah ceremonies online

“It was a little different. It was weird,” 13-year-old Reuben Friedman said of his March 19 bar mitzvah in San Francisco.

He did his Torah reading from a book, rather than a Torah scroll. He was at home, instead of at his synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. And it was a Thursday, rather than the planned Saturday service.

“Saturday you’re not really supposed to use screens,” Reuben said.

So they went with Thursday, one of the other traditional Torah reading days, and like so many things in the age of coronavirus, the bar mitzvah took place over the video conferencing platform Zoom.

Reuben and his family were disappointed that they had to cancel the planned ceremony. Nevertheless, they ended up with something they could be proud of.

“It was really beautiful because we had such a big disappointment and we were still able to do something and have everybody smiling back through the screen,” said Reuben’s father, Brad Friedman. “And Reuben could still show what he had learned and make the best of a hard situation.”

Screenshot from Zoom of Zoe Dubois reading Torah at her bat mitzvah, March 21, 2020. (JOANNE SHAPIRO)
Screenshot from Zoom of Zoe Dubois reading Torah at her bat mitzvah, March 21, 2020. (JOANNE SHAPIRO)

While many families and congregations around the Bay Area are canceling or postponing b’nai mitzvah services and celebrations, a few have decided to push on and go virtual.

Zoe Dubois, 13, of Sacramento was determined to go ahead with hers. Indeed, Zoe had already written a d’var Torah on the subject of determination.

“All throughout the Torah portion and Haftarah portion, one of the things I admire most is the determination and how Moses, King Solomon and the Israelites kept going and they completed the building of the Mishkan [tabernacle] and the Temple,” she said during the teaching she shared with the family and friends who tuned in to her bat mitzvah.

Zoe’s bat mitzvah — done independent of a synagogue with the leadership of a kohenet (Hebrew priestess) from the East Bay — was all planned out. A Unitarian Universalist church was rented for the ceremony, and Kohenet Riv Shapiro had borrowed a Torah and left it with the Dubois family for a couple weeks in advance of the special day.

But things started to take a turn. The family’s out-of-town guests all pulled out. And 10 days before the bat mitzvah, the church canceled all programs. So they decided to move to Zoom.

Zoe’s mother, Beth Dubois, was determined to make sure the day was still as special as possible. “We asked people if they’d be willing to still wear their same clothes that they were planning to wear for the in-person bat mitzvah,” Dubois said.

There was even a photographer. Joanne Shapiro, who was going to take the photos at the bat mitzvah, volunteered to take screenshots.

Screen shot of Zoe Dubois (top left) looking at congratulatory messages from friends and family who tuned in to her March 21 bat mitzvah on Zoom. (JOANNE SHAPIRO)
Screen shot of Zoe Dubois (top left) looking at congratulatory messages from friends and family who tuned in to her March 21 bat mitzvah on Zoom. (JOANNE SHAPIRO)

Dubois also asked people to write positive messages for Zoe on signs and hold them up after the Torah reading. “Mazel tov, Zoe! I am proud of your dedication and accomplishments,” read one. “You’re awesome,” read another.

“The sweet words, the signs were pretty amazing,” said Zoe. “I didn’t know my mom told them all to make signs, so it was a pretty amazing surprise.”

Though she was initially disappointed, Zoe said it turned out to be a positive experience. “In the end, I didn’t feel like I missed anything. I felt like it was still all on the right track,” she said. “At a certain point, I just let it all go. I didn’t have any expectations, so I just went with it and I didn’t feel like I missed anything.”

She was even able to read her Torah portion from a proper Torah scroll. “It was pretty miraculous,” Zoe said. “We already had permission to borrow it for two weeks, so we ended up with it in our house.”

Zoe refashioned fabric that was to be used in the centerpieces for the celebratory luncheon into a cover for the Torah.

And their guests read the aliyot (portions of the week’s Torah reading) they had planned to read at the bat mitzvah from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.

It was such a positive experience that Beth Dubois contacted J. about it. “We wanted to share it to encourage other people to go ahead with theirs,” she said. “It was really moving and exceeded our expectations.”

As for Reuben, his family is still planning to hold a proper bar mitzvah when the crisis is over. Cantor Sharon Bernstein told Reuben he could still do the weekly Torah portion he had prepared for his planned bar mitzvah, even though it will not be the correct one for whatever later date they end up with.

But that’s not good enough for Reuben.

“I could learn another,” he insisted.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.