Barmitzvah in the Time of Corona

Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. Photo by Adam Thomas

My nephew’s barmitzvah was scheduled for the end of March. Invitations were sent in January. Plans were made; but a phenomenon changing the world thwarted them.

How do you celebrate a barmitzvah in the new age of Coronavirus? Firstly, uninvite almost all the guests.  Cancel the venue, caterer, decorations and DJ. And then focus on what really matters: liaising with the Rabbi about bringing forward the event as soon as possible – that would be on his Hebrew birthday, on Monday 23 March. Invite only essential family (9 days ago in Australia we were still allowed to have a gathering inside although encouraged to distance from each other): grandparents, uncles, aunts and first cousins – twenty in total. Twenty of us dispersed in the vast space of the shul. We dressed in our best to pay respect to the event. And it was beautiful and unique. He leyned with confidence and delivered a thoughtful dvar torah so apposite on the meaning of sacrifice.

And we are sacrificing as my nephew stated. School is being dispensed on-line. Almost everyone is working from home if they are lucky enough to still be employed. Early this week it was reported that in Australia, over 1 million people became unemployed overnight. Small businesses and big businesses are closing their doors, some of them permanently. Visits to older parents and grandparents are done from a distance or via Facetime. There are restrictions on our purchases. Dispensations are being sought from Rabbis for Pesach seders over Zoom as families plan to conduct mini-seders of their own.

Personal sacrifice confronted me as I looked around the shul, seeing my children in the same space as their grandparents for the first time in two weeks. Knowing it would be many weeks until they shared the same space again. The simcha was remarkable for its simplicity, for at its core it was about a boy, coming of age, surrounded by those who loved him most. And the surrounding of him, our nearness (albeit not too near) felt almost overwhelming. A few weeks ago, I would not have been burdened by this reaction. We took proximity for granted. We took so many aspects of our lives for granted: raucous Shabbat dinners, enjoying the company of others, a quiet hug. We all knew that we had shared something extraordinarily special, indeed it is likely to be the simcha most remembered of all the family simchas.

In a few short minutes we would be forced apart, into our own spaces, not knowing when that space could be shared once more with our loved ones. Older sons and daughters allowed brief visits with their elderly parents, shopping left at the kitchen table, snippets of conversations exchanged, aware of the time spent in each other’s company, aware that it must draw to a close too soon. I want to cling to these moments, because they are fleeting moments now, breathe them in to draw upon later at home when I describe the visit to my children, the grandchildren who must keep their distance.

“Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” So wrote Gabriel García Márquez in 1985 in ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. Celebrating the barmitzvah in this manner was a wise choice. May we continue to make wise choices and not allow Marquez’s words to be the outcome of this crisis.

About the Author
Liora Miller is a project manager at an independent school in Melbourne Australia. She is the co-founder and managing editor of - a blogzine for Jewish women of all ages to write, reach out and connect.
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