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Jewish Ritual in the Time of Corona: Pandemic Bar and Bat Mitzvahs 

By Shana Sureck

A spontaneuous moment at Schneur’s bar mitzvah

I love photographing bar and bat mitzvahs. They are a blast because they are beautiful, joyful celebrations of kids, Jewish tradition, love, connection and fun. The images that are produced tell a story of who they are, and can be like a loving embrace to a child entering turbulent middle school years – showing them that they are loved by family and friends and by a community that has their back. And with the pandemic, came a whole new set of challenges, disappointments, and new options — outdoor services, Zoom ceremonies, car parades, food trucks and small backyard gatherings.

This year, I had the pleasure of witnessing many such events, modified to fit the times and to be true to the spirit and needs of the child. I felt so alive making images, because everything was fresh and new (and I was grateful to be in a sanctuary for a service, since my own synagogue has still not reopened for in-person services). My hope was to give back beautiful, storytelling images for each family to enjoy for a lifetime. Masked family photos on the bimah, socially distanced group photos at small outdoor lunches, sanctuaries that resembled sound studios with elaborate zoom set ups all scream of this unique time in our history, and will all be part of the unique story that kids becoming bar and bat mitzvahs will tell to their kids and grandkids who will look at the bar/bat mitzvah albums and ask questions. 

During the pandemic, 18 families held services and way smaller parties than initially planned. Others cancelled altogether and many changed dates, and changed them again. Some held services on the scheduled date but moved the party to 2021. I hold happy memories of each and every bar and bat mitzvah, every one so different from the next. 

In early June, plans for a large bat mitzvah service and party for Jordan were scrapped, replaced by a zoom service in the backyard with four members of the immediate family, service leader Alison Morse, zoom maestro Brian Bender and myself. 

Jordan reads from the Torah in her backyard bat mitzvah with only her family and service leader in attendance.

After the initial disappointment, her parents reconsidered the whole standard party concept. With another daughter having a bat mitzvah two years after Jordan, they crunched some numbers and decided that instead of spending on two parties, they could use their resources and get an in-ground pool in their backyard that the family and their friends would enjoy forever, not just for two nights! Jordan will have a pool party in 2021, a year after her bat mitzvah, and her sister will also have a pool party when it’s her time to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah. 

In Longmeadow, Schneur had his bar mitzvah while away at summer camp, but on Aug. 30, he celebrated with a car parade outside of his school Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy, and with a family photo session. While waiting with Schneur and his father for the rest of their family, I was doing formal pictures when the dad asked if he could put his son on his shoulders. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a wonderful, spontaneous moment! 

Completely unique was an outdoor bar mitzvah on Abundance Farm in Northampton on Nov. 12. The farm is part of the mission of Congregation B’nai Israel, which adjoins it, and part of the curriculum of Lander-Grinspoon Academy. It was a big change from the family’s original plan, but it also offered a silver lining of sorts. Tal’s mom Nili explains: 

Schneur hands out goodie bags at his bar mitzvah car parade.

“I really was disappointed at first. I was looking forward to having lots of family coming from out of town, from all over the world. I had a whole kiddush lunch menu planned almost a full year in advance. But on the other hand there were certain things we had not even allowed ourselves to entertain. We are a family that has always celebrated Jewish life in nature. But an outdoor bar mitzvah in November? With 300 people in attendance? An impossibility. Our synagogue would never entertain the notion, and our family absolutely would not have put up with it. But because of the pandemic, we got a bar mitzvah that was really reflective of who we are. And our family were so supportive, such troopers.”

As a photographer I delight in every event I cover, and I hope this doesn’t sound hokey, but the work I do feels sacred. The photos mark a moment in a young person’s life where they’ve just accomplished a huge task and are surrounded by love and connected to generations and generations of ancestors and shared tradition. They are a link in history, a G-d wrestler, a new adult member of their community. 

As the state begins approving larger gatherings, there might slowly be a return to what was once considered normal. On the other hand, there has been great beauty and meaning in the smaller gatherings during the pandemic – a simplicity and an intimacy. Going forward, I wonder if they will influence a trend towards smaller parties, or if, as the Roaring 20s followed the Pandemic of 1918, we’ll see a crazy rush to large! 

Shana Sureck Photography (www.shanasureck.com) is based in Easthampton, MA and Hartford, CT.

Main Photo: Tal, his parents, grandparents, relatives and invited guests at abundance farm.

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