SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Bar and bat mitzvahs are getting reimagined during the pandemic. Some congregations are holding these coming-of-age ceremonies online, as Shira Springer of member station WBUR in Boston reports.
SHIRA SPRINGER, BYLINE: Earlier this month, Temple Shir Tikva, just outside Boston, held its first Zoom mitzvah.
GABE SILVERMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).
SPRINGER: That's Gabe Silverman reading from the Torah. It's rolled open on a table in his family's living room.
G SILVERMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).
SPRINGER: The Torah service is the high point of any bar or bat mitzvah. It's the culmination of months, sometimes years of studying.
G SILVERMAN: For the Torah service, I was very nervous about, like, losing my place because it's so big and that all the letters look the same, basically.
SPRINGER: Gabe's sheltering at home with his parents and younger brother. For family and friends watching on Zoom, Gabe and the Torah occupy a central square flanked by Shir Tikva's rabbis and cantor. Rabbi Danny Burkeman calls upon a few family members. They temporarily appear on screen for aliyot - blessings over the Torah reading.
DANNY BURKEMAN: (Speaking Hebrew). And we call out Helaine Silverman, who will hopefully switch on her camera and will unmute.
HELAINE SILVERMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).
BURKEMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).
SPRINGER: Burkeman leads the service remotely from his synagogue's main sanctuary, making sure the ceremony follows tradition and monitoring all the technology involved.
BURKEMAN: And so our aim was to create for them as much as possible a digital bar mitzvah experience. And we use the word digital because it wasn't virtual. There was nothing virtual about it. It was real.
SPRINGER: Many congregations schedule bar or bat mitzvahs two to three years in advance. That makes postponing tough. Two weeks before the big day, the Silvermans decided to go forward with a Zoom bar mitzvah. Gabe explains two days before the service...
G SILVERMAN: Rabbi Danny just came to our drive with a Torah seat belted in the front seat.
SCOTT SILVERMAN: Wrapped up.
G SILVERMAN: Yeah, wrapped up, seat belted. And then he handed it off to my dad.
SPRINGER: At his bar mitzvah, as soon as Gabe finishes reading from that Torah, he looks at his parents, smiles, and noticeably exhales. For him, the toughest part is over. Soon the entire service concludes. Then Burkeman exhales.
BURKEMAN: And I felt really good that we'd been able to give him an experience. And you could see in his face and in the face of his family that this was meaningful for them.
SPRINGER: After the ceremony, family and friends turn on their cameras and unmute.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mazel tov!
ERICA SILVERMAN: Thank you guys so much.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mazel tov!
SPRINGER: Gabe's mom, Erica, is happy with the whole online event, but she knows it's not for everyone.
E SILVERMAN: I'm very compassionate for people who are making the other decision to postpone and do it in person. But for us, in that moment, it was, like, the right decision. And I don't want to take away from people who are making this decision, but it was more special because of the circumstances.
SPRINGER: Erica's sitting next to Gabe and her husband, Scott. The Torah is still there, a couple feet away on the dining room table.
E SILVERMAN: And I feel very complete by what we experienced.
SPRINGER: Erica and Scott wonder if they'll need to celebrate with a big bar mitzvah party when family and friends can gather again. And Gabe?
G SILVERMAN: I hope that we can have a party, but I can do without.
E SILVERMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).
SPRINGER: The pandemic has made the service - the actual religious ritual - the place where the most memorable and meaningful moments happen. For NPR News, I'm Shira Springer in Boston.