As anyone who has participated in one knows, a bar or bat mitzvah is a magical day filled with family, friends, and meaningful traditions.
In the age of COVID, however, new traditions have become common that most 12 and 13-year-olds would never have expected.
Jake Dubow had planned to be called to the Torah at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott on Dec. 12, 2020. As this date had been set in 2018, his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, had plenty of time to plan.
Or so they thought.
While the original plan included a Shabbat dinner for 150 guests coming from out of town and a gathering of nearly 400 for the service itself with a Havdalah party at the Hard Rock Café in Boston and a Sunday brunch for 100 at the Dubow home in Swampscott, the COVID shutdown called for drastic changes in plan.
“Everything we had planned got turned on its head,” said Jake’s mother Rachelle, noting that by May of 2020, it had become clear that the bar mitzvah needed to be restructured if Jake was to be able to enjoy the meaningful day at all.
“I was frozen,” Rachelle recalled. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around how to properly celebrate my son who had worked so hard and had such high expectations for a spectacular event to honor him and his hard work.”
At first, the Dubows though about postponing the entire event until August 2021. Once they had considered all that had gone into planning and preparing for the original date, however, they decided that, as Rachelle put it, “The show must go on!”
Unfortunately, due to travel restrictions and other issues, not even Jake’s grandparents were able to attend the service in person. Even those who technically could have come decided not to, fearing the risks involved with air travel.
“Their not coming was a wise choice,” Rachelle said, “as one week before the actual bar mitzvah, we got a call from [Rabbi Michael Ragozin] letting us know that the synagogue was closing down and not allowing anyone into the sanctuary for simchas – not even the 20 we were previously told we were allowed to have.”
As the daughter of event planner Donna Kagan, owner of the Elegant Touch in Marblehead, Rachelle was especially fortunate to have 40 years of expertise behind her.
“We converted our Friday night Shabbat dinner into a Friday night Zoom,” Rachelle explained, noting that as Jake’s bar mitzvah weekend fell during Hanukkah, the would-have-been guests were invited to join Jake and his family online to light the holiday and the Shabbat candles, and also were treated to a video montage about Jake. This not only presented an opportunity for Jake to be seen by and interact with his family and friends, it also allowed the Dubows to involve other members of the family in the simcha.
“My mother-in-law, Elaine Harris, lit her grandmother’s Shabbat candles and led the prayer,” Rachelle recalled. “My father-in-law’s significant other, Renee … lit the Hanukkah candles and said the prayer. And my mother said the special ‘Shehecheyanu’ prayer. We were so happy to incorporate all of the grandmothers into this special event!”
On Shabbat morning, Jake awoke to find a giant sign in his yard that said, “Mazel tov, Jake!” and a tent next to the house in which about 20 guests would gather.
“We created a Bimah from a high top table.” Rachelle said. “A side table held the two Torahs that the rabbi had dropped at our home the Wednesday prior, and a second side table held a big TV monitor so that we could see Jake’s paternal grandparents and my sister, Shari Robbins, and nieces, Laci and Callie, Zoom in to do their Aliyahs.”
Though the Hard Rock was out, the Dubows had plenty of food laid out in the tent so that their guests could all enjoy kiddish after the service. In an effort to include tikkun olam, the extra food and other items were donated to My Brother’s Table.
In addition to separating the guests into family “pods,” the Dubows also had prepared masks with “Jake” printed on them.
“There were many special moments during the service,” Rachelle recalled, “including Jake and his little brother Charlie leading ‘Adon Olam,’ the kiddish, and hamotzi together.”
By turning their yard into a sacred space and using technology to invite and involve so many others from so many places, the Dubows were able to make a meaningful day even without all the planned celebrations.
“By far, the most exceptional part of the service was Jake himself,” his proud mother said. “Jake not only learned his whole Haftorah and two Torah portions, but led all major aspects of the service, and did it with confidence and pride!”