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Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley and maintaining b'nai mitzvah during the pandemic

by Marvin Berris

April 13, 2021

Arizona Jewish News

Photo of Marvin Berris

Temple Beth Shalom is the only Reform congregation in the West Valley, and we have a multi-generational and egalitarian membership. We are proud of our history of inclusivity and that we are able to offer a full range of educational programming, community and social functions and religious services to our members and all Jews located in the West Valley. And we have worked hard this past year to continue as much programming as possible. B'nai mitzvah are one example. Despite the effect of the pandemic, we continued with our commitment to provide timely bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. During this last year of adversity, we successfully had three adult and five teen b’nai mitzvah. The stories that we can look to for guidance on how an institution such as ours is able to fulfill our responsibility to our students in the bar/bat mitzvah program are in fact thrilling. These candidates were able to become b’nai mitzvah from steadfastness to educational principals, ingenuity and innovation. We were able to perform a bat mitzvah for a woman turning 100 years old just two weeks after our temple had to shut down due to the virus in March 2020. We realized that at that age, time is of the essence and not just a cliché. She spent years preparing, learning her Torah reading, portions of the religious service for Friday night, and writing a marvelous speech. She had planned how to welcome her guests only to learn that the sanctuary would be closed to them. She had invited about 85 relatives and friends from all over the world to attend. When it became clear that she would not be able to celebrate in our sanctuary with her expected family and friends, it was decided to postpone the event. Time passed, something that a woman of 100 has learned to experience, but she also knew that the vagaries of life might eventually prevent her from demonstrating her knowledge and ability, so with the advent of Zooming services at our temple, her special day was rescheduled. Present with her in the sanctuary was just one of her sons and daughters-in-law, the rabbi, our educator and our cantor. The ceremony was held while the rest of her entourage watched attentively on Zoom cheering her on from their living rooms around the world with chat messages. Wearing masks, the few of us in attendance watched as she performed her parts brilliantly. Though this was not the ceremony that she had envisioned, nevertheless it was watched by over 100 people and was an extremely moving experience. We watched and listened as she gave a history lesson we will not soon forget. She spoke about how long she has yearned to have her bat mitzvah; her lifelong attachment to Judaism, first in the Chicago area and later in Arizona; and what the Jewish wisdom that she acquired through her educational and life experiences had contributed to her appreciation of life. We’ve pretty much continued to perform b’nai mitzvah for teenagers according to their previously determined schedule. The educator and director of our religious school, Andre Ivory, has been able through great effort, diligence and the cooperation of the students at the school and their parents, to do wonders at maintaining as normal a learning environment as could be expected during the pandemic. Students and families were given the option of attending in person or learning online. Our religious school has met in person most Sundays with occasional online study depending on the particular circumstances of the week as we monitored the virus status and the positivity rate — a new word in our vocabulary. Through studying recommendations of the CDC and Arizona health guidelines, we determined the limits of attendance in the sanctuary for services. Again, most people who would have attended in person had to attend using Zoom. This was a new experience for us and our membership. We had to learn as we went along, overcoming technical issues that interfered at times with the natural flow of the service. More importantly, we had to learn how to make the religious ceremony meaningful for both those in the sanctuary as well as those watching and, hopefully, participating through Zoom. We believe that we succeeded, and in so doing, provided a highlight to each child’s religious destiny when he/she completed their service and became a bar/bat mitzvah. B’nai mitzvah in the time of COVID will long be remembered by everyone who this experience has touched. This past New Year’s we had a double bat mitzvah. Two girls who met in our religious school became best friends. Their families joined together to have their bat mitzvahs as a unit, not only as a result of their friendship but the friendships of other siblings in the two families as well. It was quite an experience to watch as our temple family, “framily” as we colloquially refer to ourselves, watched and cheered for their combined demonstration of excellence in their preparation for and delivery of their bat mitzvah services. While we have all experienced the loneliness and isolation that COVID brought us over the last year, we also have learned to live with COVID, and for that we will come out better for it on the other side. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan has taught us to look beyond COVID and instead to look forward to celebrating life events, including b’nai mitzvah, in a manner consistent with what God has provided for us at this time and as God’s gift. As Jews we have learned to accept God’s will. We look forward to continuing our celebrations as we can, and adjust when necessary, for this is life and life is what God has provided for us. JN

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