Ella’s Torah and Hebrew studies began in earnest over a year ago, right after her twelfth birthday. There were the usual protests: too much work, not fun, why me? Eventually Ella resigned herself to the fact that she was going to have a Bat Mitzvah—neither her mother nor I, her grandmother, had had one, so she would have it for us as well. I didn’t have one because I couldn’t or wouldn’t learn Hebrew; and, because I was a girl, my dad wasn’t all that concerned with my lack of orthodoxy. His two sons had celebrated their entry into manhood in style, with big celebrations and fanfare. He was satisfied. Ella’s mom reached the age of thirteen at a time when religious participation was absent from our lives, the result of my two marriages to non-Jews and my open hostility towards organized religion.
Rabbi Jean, our hippie-ish Reformed religious leader, took on the role of preparing Ella for her big day, and Samantha dutifully took her to Saturday morning services at the synagogue—a treat for the few elders who attended faithfully, she provided a minyon, the required number to conduct a religious Sabbath service, and a young voice.
“I’m leaving,” Rabbi Jean told us early last fall. “My husband has taken a job in Florida, and I am going with him.” Consternation and betrayal were my daughter’s first reaction, but then understanding and resignation took over as she and Rabbi Jean planned to continue Ella’s studies using FaceTime to meet weekly. Novel, I thought—virtual Hebrew education. Given my own experience with the language, I was a bit leery. Undaunted, my daughter continued planning decorations and the menu with the temple’s sisterhood for the reception at the temple. I bought a lavender tallit (prayer shawl) and a matching kippah (skullcap) in a Judaic shop in Miami.
Then came the pandemic! Ella’s middle school classes became virtual, Saturday morning services were Zoomed from the temple, and studies with the rabbi took on a normalcy we had never anticipated. However, no matter how normal virtual studies had become, the necessity of social distancing and sheltering in place demanded that we rethink a June bat mitzvah. “We could postpone it till fall,” Samantha said. “What if we are still in this mess in the fall? Then what?” I countered. There was grimacing, hand wringing and, of course, Ella’s typical teenage pronouncement that she was perfectly happy not to be bat mitzvah-ed. Well, that wasn’t going to happen—but what would we do?
In the end, we sent out email announcements to family and friends. “It’s Bat Mitzvah time! Although we are moving forward with Ella’s Bat Mitzvah, due to COVID-19 and the continued need for social distancing, the service will be presented virtually. Please join us . . . on the B’nai Shalom YouTube channel.”
Since sending out the announcements, I have made twenty lavender masks for the few people who will be in the temple with Ella. We will be in the large sanctuary, with room for five-hundred people—plenty of space for social distancing. Rabbi Jean will be with Ella on a large screen, while the new rabbi stands on the bimah (raised platform). I will stumble through my aliyah, (being called up to the Torah reading); even when it’s written in Hebrew transliteration, reading the Hebrew blessing is a challenge for me. And in the end, we will be swept up in the currents and flow of tradition, and we will rejoice in the blessings of family, even in the time of COVID-19.