(From left) Kaitlin Brennan, Gabby Powell, Portia Kadlecek and Hannah Coleman celebrate their belated b'nai mitzvahs at Emanu-El. (Photo/Courtesy Lori Coleman)
(From left) Kaitlin Brennan, Gabby Powell, Portia Kadlecek and Hannah Coleman celebrate their belated b'nai mitzvahs at Emanu-El. (Photo/Courtesy Lori Coleman)

At Emanu-El, pandemic b’nai mitzvah teens finally get to party like it’s 2019

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For teens gathered in the Congregation Emanu-El’s sanctuary on May 5, the candies thrown from the pews must have felt like rain after a drought.

After three years of canceled events, bare-bones invite lists and ceremonies hosted on Zoom, 27 b’nai mitzvah kids — some now pushing age 16 — finally got their chance for a public “mazal tov” as the COVID-19 pandemic fades into the background.

“If your b-mitzvah service was affected by COVID in any way, shape or form, please stand in front of the bimah,” Cantor Arik Luck announced at the end of services that Friday night, using a gender-neutral term for bar and bat mitzvahs. “Maybe it was delayed, maybe you didn’t have a party, maybe it was in the courtyard, maybe we did it on Zoom. Come on up.”

Eva Richey, 14, was one of those teens. Though she celebrated her bat mitzvah at Emanu-El last year, the pandemic wreaked havoc on the event. She remembers that the plans for her January 2022 ceremony were going smoothly until the omicron variant started sweeping the country.

“We got bombarded with cancellation notes from friends from school,” she said. “I invited 23 [friends] and ended up with three. My grandma couldn’t come. We had to cancel the after-party because the ventilation wasn’t good enough.”

Her mother, Gina Silverman, recalled how the plans for Eva’s bat mitzvah unraveled in the weeks leading up to the simcha.

“The rabbi told us she wasn’t allowed to officiate [because] she couldn’t have the exposure,” Silverman said. “Then we were starting to panic about the party we had planned. Many guests were my parents’ generation, and we didn’t want to crowd people into a space. Then as we were getting closer to January 1, we found out we couldn’t open the space up, so we started thinking we’d have to roll back the party. Everything was suddenly COVID-y again.”

This was a great party. I got to meet new friends and have a celebration I’d unconsciously been waiting for for a year.

Marla Kadlecek recalls that back in early 2020 she was thinking ahead to her daughter Portia’s bat mitzvah when COVID-19 shut down the world.

“We were living a pretty good normal life,” Kadlecek said. “Our kids were involved in all kinds of things, and then everything turned upside down. Towards the end of summer 2020 was when we started talking to the synagogue about what was going to happen in February [2021] for [Portia’s] bat mitzvah. We did not want her to go through the effort of all the practice and commitment and trials to then be alone in a room on camera.”

Portia Kadlecek, 15, remembers the pandemic years as brutal. “It was really hard for me,” she said. “It was pretty miserable being stuck at home for a year and a half. I’d just started middle school when it struck.”

Richey felt similarly, saying the pandemic years “were a very hard time for me. I fell out of touch with a few people. It got harder and harder to plan around COVID. But it did help me knowing everyone else was going through the same thing.”

The idea for the mini-ceremony and party began with Rabbi Jonathan Singer, who is the co-senior spiritual leader of the Reform temple. Congregant Lori Coleman led the organizing and recruited Gatsby Events to donate the music and DJ for the party.

Marla Kadlecek said she felt “very gratified” to attend. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, not just for kids who may or may not have had a bar or bat mitzvah party, but anything that brings the young people of Emanu-El together,” she said. “They are the future of Emanu-El.”

The party included a taco bar, musical chairs and dancing to Jewish tunes in the social hall. “I was very excited about it,” Portia Kadlecek said about the after-party. “I had a really good time. We danced. There was good music.”

Added Richey, “This was a great party. I got to meet new friends and have a celebration I’d unconsciously been waiting for for a year.”

Portia’s mother, looking on from the sidelines, was arguably even happier about the turn of events.

“Finding joy and normalcy is what is most important at this stage,” she said. “This party is exactly that — joyful — and the kids will live out the experience they are supposed to have together, even if it’s coming a little later.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.