SWAMPSCOTT – Despite COVID-19 and social gathering limits, eight Congregation Shirat Hayam families celebrated b’nai mitzvah over the course of this past year. Five held services at the Swampscott synagogue with fewer than 25 guests, and three gathered in their homes.
Nat Mahler had the distinction of being Shirat Hayam’s first COVID-19 bar mitzvah, scheduled for March 21, 2020 – exactly eight days after everything in the state shut down, including the synagogue. His parents, Sara Ewing and Jay Mahler, decided to have the service in their Swampscott living room. They borrowed a Torah and siddurim from the synagogue, and Rabbi Michael Ragozin led the service. Nat’s immediate family attended and everyone else connected via Zoom, “which was a novelty back in the day!” Sara joked.
“At first I felt disappointed, but I soon realized that I had to rise to the occasion and do my best,” Nat said. For Sara and Jay, having an “actual Torah” in their house was very special. “Also, the service was intimate, special, and a unique experience that will stand out in everyone’s memory,” Sara said.
Jeremy Sorkin of Marblehead, whose March bar mitzvah was postponed until Oct. 11, was worried that he might have to learn a new parsha, but Rabbi Ragozin suggested he keep the original as an important part of maintaining the significance of his bar mitzvah. His parents, Amy and Jeffrey Sorkin, never imagined COVID-19 restrictions would still be in place in October, but as the date approached, a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings remained in place.
Even with the technical challenges of shulcasting, Amy and Jeffrey found a silver lining. “We were able to focus on what the true essence of a bar mitzvah celebration is – a very meaningful service, a thought-provoking Dvar Torah by Jeremy, and dancing the hora with our close family,” they said.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 24, Hannah Schwartz also celebrated her bat mitzvah at Shirat Hayam with a small family group and more than 100 others watching on Zoom. For her parents, Janna and George Schwartz of Swampscott, the biggest challenge was coping with the unknowns. Even so, they felt blessed to integrate many personal elements into the ceremony, from Hannah’s sister Vivian playing “Siman Tov Mazel Tov” on the piano to her grandparents presenting her with her tallis.
“Jews have endured carrying on our traditions despite difficult circumstances throughout history. This was ours – and one to be cherished,” Janna said.
Liora Ragozin’s Sept. 25 bat mitzvah was held in the Shirat Hayam sanctuary with many others watching and participating virtually. She missed having her cousins with her, but because her family (including her parents, Rabbi Michael and Sarah Ragozin and siblings Noam and Aliza) and friendship circle are small, “it felt good to celebrate the way we did. My favorite part was giving my Dvar Torah. I enjoy public speaking – when it’s in English!” she said.
Initially, Jake Dubow was unhappy that his Dec. 12 bar mitzvah didn’t turn out as planned. “For my whole life, I had been talking with my family about a big bar mitzvah and party,” he said. Instead of the 400-guest in-person ceremony in the sanctuary, a sleepover with all his camp friends, and a celebration at Boston’s Hard Rock Café, he had a small service with 17 guests in an open-sided tent in his Swampscott yard without his paternal grandparents, who couldn’t make it from Canada and Florida. Even the clergy Zoomed in.
For his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, the vagaries of COVID-19 were even more daunting. Rachelle grew up with a mother who is a professional event planner and a grandfather who was a kosher caterer, so celebrating simchas in a “big” way has always been in her blood. They had already shifted gears once, with revised plans to still celebrate at Shirat Hayam, but with only 17 live guests. Then, on Dec. 8, the synagogue began prohibiting any gatherings in the building. The Dubows shifted to a tent at their Swampscott home, hardly missing a beat.
They also borrowed Torahs from Shirat Hayam, and “just having those scrolls in my home elevated us spiritually in a way that is hard to describe,” Rachelle said. “But most of all, it was the indescribable pride we had in our son who had worked so hard and handled all the pivots and little disappointments with such grace.”
Ned Jefferies felt let down that his Jan. 9 bar mitzvah was held at his Swampscott home and not in the sanctuary. For his parents, Cat and Tom Jefferies, the event was actually wonderful, with Tom’s relatives in England and their friends all over the world able to join them. “For many, this was the first bar mitzvah they had attended,” Cat said. Family members Zoomed in and read Torah, took Aliyahs, and read prayers “from California to Canada to England – and it all went smoothly!” Cat said.