Instead of her planned bat mitzvah Torah service, Raizel Mahgel-Friedman will have a "Torah learning" ceremony streamed on Zoom on April 24. (Photo/Courtesy Nell Mahgel-Friedman)
Instead of her planned bat mitzvah Torah service, Raizel Mahgel-Friedman will have a "Torah learning" ceremony streamed on Zoom on April 24. (Photo/Courtesy Nell Mahgel-Friedman)

Orthodox Jews find creative workarounds for b’nai mitzvahs during pandemic

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in the Bay Area and around the globe are being streamed online, while others have been delayed until it’s safe for people to gather in a synagogue.

Often, synagogues – including Conservative ones – will allow b’nai mitzvah who have postponed their ceremonies to read the Torah or haftarah portion they studied on a later date.

But neither broadcasting Shabbat services nor reading portions out of date are viable options for Orthodox Jews. So local communities have found other ways to work around the situation presented by the unprecedented.

At Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, the Mahgel-Friedman family spent weeks considering what to do about the bat mitzvah of their daughter Raizel, scheduled for April 25.

“For a long time, we were just hoping that the prohibitions were going to be lifted,” said Raizel’s mother, Nell. “As it got closer, we just realized we [had] to talk about this more.”

Working with the synagogue, the family, which owns the Afikomen Judaica store, decided to hold a Torah reading on Friday, a day before the scheduled ceremony. Because no minyan will be present, it will not be a Torah service. Instead, it will be classified as a Torah “learning,” Raizel’s instructor, Maharat Victoria Sutton, told her.

“Other Modern Orthodox communities are doing similar things, [such as] moving it to a weekday,” said Sutton. “They can read some of their Torah portion, but it’s not a Torah service, per se.”

Synagogue leaders gave Nell and her husband, Rabbi Chaim Mahgel-Friedman, the key to the shul, and during the day on Friday, the immediate family of four (including Raizel’s brother) will go inside and take a Torah scroll out of the ark. Raizel will read a segment — one of the four Torah readings she learned. She will also give a shortened d’var Torah, a talk about the week’s Torah portion.

The family planned a dry run on Tuesday to make sure they could find the right starting place in the Torah scroll, which has not been used for weeks.

“At first we were surprised that [synagogue leaders] were not even going to be there” on Friday, Nell said. “But they just didn’t want to have too many people. And they trust us a lot.”

The entire event will be livestreamed to Raizel’s classmates at Oakland Hebrew Day School, which will suspend online classes, and to invited guests and synagogue members.

“It’s really a celebration of her moving into this other realm of life,” Nell said. “It’s wonderful that people are seeing it and welcoming her.”

But for many in the Orthodox community, a pared-down bar or bat mitzvah service is nothing new. The milestone is often celebrated with little fanfare. A girl becomes a bat mitzvah on her 12th birthday, and a boy a bar mitzvah on his 13th, whether they have a ceremony or not.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim, a 128-year-old Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco, recalled his own bar mitzvah in a recent phone interview with J. It was held on the night of his 13th birthday at his home in New York.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim leads a bar mitzvah service for his twin sons on Dec. 19, 2019. (Photo/Courtesy Zarchi)
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim leads a bar mitzvah service for his twin sons on Dec. 19, 2019. (Photo/Courtesy Zarchi)

“Family and friends gathered, and I gave a sermon — shared some words of Torah I had been preparing,” he said. For Zarchi and others raised in religiously observant communities, “many of us never had a bar mitzvah on a Saturday in a synagogue.”

Zarchi coordinated with a handful of b’nai mitzvah whose ceremonies were postponed because of the pandemic. On their birthdays, they were invited to use Zoom to deliver some “thoughts on Torah” but not Torah readings.

Regardless of whether a ceremony is held on Zoom, or not at all, “the spiritual dimension of what happens on your bar mitzvah birthday happens regardless,” he said.

A bar or bat mitzvah is “a spiritual transition. You receive a new soul,” Zarchi said.

“Basically, what is a bar mitzvah?” Rabbi Moshe Langer asked rhetorically in a recent phone interview. “It means the son or daughter of mitzvah. That’s what it’s all about.”

“It’s all growth from there,” added Langer, the son of longtime Chabad of San Francisco Rabbi Yosef Langer. “It’s not: ‘I reach my bar mitzvah, and now I’m moving on to [other things].’ It’s a continuation of reading in synagogue, helping out in the synagogue and in the community.”

For Raizel, her bat mitzvah celebration will look different from what she envisioned. But life in her synagogue community will still change in predictable ways.

“There’s just more … not work, exactly,” she said. “Just more. Like fasting. Now I’m going to have the obligation to fast, every fast.”

And she will be called up for weekly Torah readings at her school. “Before I couldn’t get [aliyot] because [I was not] bat mitzvah,” she said. “Now, if we’re in school, I would have that opportunity.”

Because of the scheduling change, her Torah learning will take place on her actual Hebrew birthday, which is fitting.

And as for her three unread portions — the ones she won’t get the chance to read on Friday — she still has plans to still make good use of them.

“Next year I’m hoping to read the rest,” she said, “and hopefully in years to come.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.