“The hardest part was hearing how disappointed our kids were,” says Director of Youth Education Rabbi Rena Rifkin, who had to call 14 Religious School families in March to coordinate new b’nai mitzvah plans. “Our students spent a full year in tutoring and were getting so excited — but just as they were setting up for a field goal, the goal post moved back.”
Justin Fradkin had planned to celebrate his bar mitzvah at the Kotel, but his family had to cancel their mid-March trip when Israel locked down. A few days later, New York shutdown, too. “We decided that a hurried, virtual bar mitzvah was not what we wanted and so we postponed until we could do it in person,” says Justin’s father, Uzi.
Rabbi Rifkin worked with Justin and the other families to reschedule their dates — and keep them engaged in the interim. “I had a Zoom session every couple of weeks with Whitney or Rabbi Rifkin — and, as I got closer, I met with Cantor Singer and Rabbi Hirsch — to help me stay focused and keep everything I’d learned fresh,” says Justin.
Meanwhile, the Religious School staff had to keep up with all the other b’nai mitzvah students who were already on the roster. “We were most concerned that everything could get cancelled at the last minute,” says Pam Unger, whose daughter Hayden was excited “to finally become a real part of the Jewish community” and didn’t want to mess up when her big day finally arrived this fall.
“We’ve had to rethink everything we do and why we do it — and we’ve come up with some creative new ways of teaching that will impact how our Religious School students learn going forward,” says Rabbi Rifkin. “Our families, too, have had to reimagine what this lifecycle event means for them and focus on the essential experience. While it’s been tough, these have been some of the most joyous and spiritual events I’ve ever been to.”
When Justin was finally able to celebrate on November 7, it was a truly meaningful moment for him and his family. “In many ways it brought us even closer to the Stephen Wise community and it highlighted what’s important about the occasion,” says Uzi. “Our family and friends who attended virtually said they felt as though they’d been there because of the intimacy of the service and the warmth it radiated.”
“It was a really special experience for me,” says Hayden, who became bat mitzvah on November 28. “When we first started planning Hayden’s bat mitzvah over a year ago, this is not what we had in mind,” says Pam. “It ended up being a great experience. All the restrictions actually forced us to bring everything back to the intention of the day: the service. And we probably had more people tune in than would’ve been able to come in person!”