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Despite Coronavirus, We Made Our Twins’ B’nai Mitzvah a Celebration to Remember

[additional-authors]
May 11, 2020
Sisi and Gabe Elkinson celebrating their B’nai Mitzvah in their home. Photo courtesy of Edie Elkinson

I have added many new credentials to my resume during this quarantine period. Last month, I became an at-home orthodontist, a mask seamstress, a dog groomer and a backyard referee. This past week I became a set designer, showrunner, photographer, caterer, event planner, talent manager, makeup artist and traffic director. You see, we decided as a family to move ahead with Friday night services for what would have been our twins’ b’nai mitzvah.

There is a well-known quote that has been misattributed for more than 100 years to Charles Darwin, and never could it have more applicability than now: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.” So much of our collective lives has changed, and so many milestone events have been altered, canceled or postponed. In April, we attended a Zoom bris, co-led a bi-coastal Zoom seder and have joined services online to watch their classmates become bar and bat mitzvah.

Ry Elkinson coloring the poster for the B’nai mitzvah.

Sisi and Gabe are part of Temple Akiba’s largest seventh-grade class, with back-to-back bar and bat mitzvah dates lined up from mid-March through the end of this year. By the end of March, the planned Simchas started falling like dominos, and with each day the prospects of our May 9 B’nai mitzvah grew dimmer. My husband Ken, a risk manager, eternal realist and self-proclaimed hypochondriac, had cautioned back in January that our event was in jeopardy because of the “Wuhan coronavirus,” as it was then known. I kept thinking so much could change in six weeks or a month. But once we were a month out, we realized that keeping the original date would mean doing this all from a distance. Everyone at Temple Akiba was incredibly accommodating, helping us and the many other families navigate these unchartered waters. Sisi and Gabe felt that having their B’nai mitzvah without their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends wouldn’t feel complete, and so we voted unanimously to postpone.

From left: Gabe, Sisi, Ken, Edie and Ry Elkinson stand together the weekend of May 8, 2020 to celebrate Gabe and Sisi’s B’nai Mitzvot. Photo courtesy of Edie Elkinson

Then, along came an option we hadn’t foreseen: Rabbi Zach Shapiro and Cantor Lonee Frailich discussed the possibility of Sisi and Gabe joining the Friday evening virtual Shabbat service as a placeholder for their postponed B’nai mitzvah, and an opportunity to bring some light to the community. We left the decision in Gabe and Sisi’s hands. Getting some Torah-reading experience under your belt without the added pressure of being  in front of so many people seemed pretty appealing, so they said, “Sure, why not?”

Then we had to figure out logistics and details. The usual quandaries  — what to serve at the kiddush luncheon, which tablecloth colors to choose — were quickly replaced by webcam dilemmas, lighting questions, tripod placement and audio feed.

The usual quandaries  — what to serve at the kiddush luncheon, which tablecloth colors to choose — were quickly replaced by webcam dilemmas, lighting questions, tripod placement and audio feed.

Sisi and Gabe found out that instead of doing their individual prayers the way they had originally planned, they would be chanting them in tandem. We have Shabbat dinner almost every Friday night in our house, and there has literally never been a week when Sisi and Gabe have sung at the same tempo. Hats off to Cantor Lonee for getting these two in sync.

But then we found out that in addition to us, the rabbi, cantor, rabbinic intern and cantorial intern, members of the choir also would be joining the Zoom that would be broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook. To further complicate matters on our ‘set,’ we had two cameras — one on our home bima and one on our piano. We practiced the stop video, mute, silence volume, start the video, unmute sequence so many times that I think I might still be doing that in my dreams.

Photo courtesy of Edie Elkinson

With about a week left to plan, and logistics pretty well sorted, we asked ourselves how we could infuse a little more personality into the occasion. We played on everyone’s strengths, and it became a real family affair. Ken, a musician on the side, offered to play Shalom Rav during the service. Sisi, a budding artist, designed and cut a paper flower bouquet for our bima, and she and Ry, our spirited younger son, fashioned an ark out of a wooden block container, some extra fabric and friendship bracelet string. To replace the Oneg, we decided to invite nearby friends and family to a “Drive-by social distance Oneg.” We baked and wrapped brownies and chocolate chip cookies with big bows that could easily slip over the handle of an extended pole. That’s where Gabe’s problem-solving skills came into play. He helped design a 6-foot pole from a Swiffer and extra-long shoe horn that we could use to safely transfer the treats through visitors’ car windows.

A friend of Sisi and Gabe’s who is virtually throwing candy following their service. Photo courtesy of Edie Elkinson

The icing on the cake, though, was having the drive-by visitors honking, waving and holding signs.

The service went off without a hitch, and I have to admit I was taken aback by the virtual kibitzing in the chat section on YouTube. We threw candy after Gabe and Sisi each had their aliyah, and friends and family took pictures and videos. The icing on the cake, though, was having the drive-by visitors honking, waving and holding signs. It was probably hard to see behind our masks, but we were smiling so much to see so many warm, familiar faces for the first time in nearly two months.

Photo courtesy of Edie Elkinson

We chose a new date for Sisi and Gabe’s official B’nai Mitzvah: May 8, 2021.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how so much can change in a year, especially for a teenager. Maybe by then Gabe will have caught up to or start towering over Sisi. Hopefully, Sisi’s braces will be a distant memory. Maybe Gabe will be the one with braces, then. Will they still like the idea of “Camp Elkinson,” our painstakingly thought-out party theme? How will their thoughts and speeches evolve in a year? While this all remains to be seen, right now I’m so thankful that Temple Akiba for giving us this chance to adapt, and create bonus memories while we all ride out this storm.


Edie Elkinson lives in Venice with her husband, three kids, dog and hamster and works in healthcare public relations.
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