Chicago native Debbie Steinberg never imagined she’d have to cancel her dream wedding celebration and move it to the living room of a friend’s house. But that’s exactly what she and her fiancé, Jordan Kagan did on March 16, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Within a few hours, they had gathered close friends, brought out a chuppah, dresses and suits, and filmed the ceremony on Facebook Live for family and friends.
“Everything was basically planned,” Steinberg told the Journal of her original dream wedding. “It’s devastating at first to put so much into something like that, but this was our time and we were ready, so we postponed the party and we gathered a few people, called the rabbis and made it happen.”
Steinberg and Kagan are among the growing number of people postponing or canceling simchas because of quarantine restrictions. However, unlike weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs can be more complicated to reschedule, given that b’nai mitzvah are assigned a specific Torah portion that is fixed in the Jewish calendar.
The latest Los Angeles County Department of Public Health directive on March 21 has now banned all gatherings. Even prior to the latest restrictions, Valley Beth Shalom synagogue had already canceled all in-person services, functions and b’nai mitzvah.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein said “We say to the kid, ‘It’s not that we don’t love you.’ But they get it because their schools are closed. The kids are handling it well. So far, everyone has been very understanding.”
Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe said “We’re delaying [b’nai mitzvah] and will do them when this passes. It’s better to have a fuller celebration when you can, rather than no friends and no extended families. We have canceled this for a month out, but I expect this will last longer than that. Once this passes, in addition to the regularly scheduled bar and bat mitzvahs on Saturday mornings, we’re going to do Mincha bar and bat mitzvahs every week [to make up for] the ones we had to miss.”
“There are a lot of other people in my position. It makes me feel better knowing it isn’t just me. Kids, not just in America, but all over the world are affected by this.” — Justine Gusman, 13
At Kehillat Israel, all b’nai mitzvah have been canceled until May. Thirteen-year-old Justine Gusman was supposed to be celebrating her bat mitzvah this coming weekend and reading from parashat Vayikra.
“I was so excited. I was ready for it,” Justine saidl. “All my friends had their bat mitzvahs already. There are a lot of other people in my position. It makes me feel better knowing it isn’t just me. Kids, not just in America, but all over the world are affected by this and so I feel bad for those kids, but I feel like that made it easier to handle.”
Justine’s mother, Jana Gusman, said she canceled the bat mitzvah early because she paid close attention to what was going on with the pandemic in Italy. She also has a friend who works at the L.A. County health department who warned her that the coronavirus outbreak would get worse by the time of the celebration.
“[Italy has been] ahead of us for months now, and I was already sickened. … I was panicking a little bit,” Gusman said, adding that she was worried about people flying in for the event and the kids who would be attending the party, all of whom would be at risk, which is why she ultimately decided to “pull the plug.”
Now, hundreds of simchas around the country have been canceled and many states have coronavirus lockdown orders.
Jessica Laderberg, who runs EVENTfull ATX, a full-service event planning company in Austin, Texas, said that a handful of events that were supposed to happen in the next few months have been postponed.
“When you hear that something has to be postponed, especially a bar or bat mitzvah, it’s just gut-wrenching” Laderberg said. “They will start planning as soon as they get their date. It hits you because it’s such a special time in their families’ life and a special time for that kid.”
But while many simchas are being canceled, some synagogues are offering virtual celebrations.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder said that although these are distressing times, it is important to continue Jewish life by welcoming new Jewish adults into the world.
“I’ve been saying to bar and bat mitzvah kids that we go forward; we livestream. To their parents, we talk to our kids about being resilient,” Leder said. “If you cancel, then that’s sending the wrong message. Many people have come to me to reschedule their child’s [bar or bat mitzvah] and I talk most out of it. I did a bar mitzvah on 9/12 . I did a bat mitzvah for a girl whose father died four days before. We don’t stop. It adds meaning; it doesn’t detract. This is not unprecedented.