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Across 3000 Miles: Celebrating a Bi-Coastal B’not Zoom Mitzvah

Cantor Leah Shafrtiz

Over the past few months, in the midst of the pandemic, Rabbi Berry, Rabbi Abrasley, and I have been blessed to call five of Temple Shalom’s young people to the Torah as Bar and Bat Mitzvah. While this milestone moment in these family’s lives is currently not able to happen in our sanctuary, we have reimagined the experience over Zoom, with each student and family designing their virtual “Zoom Mitzvah” in a way that is meaningful and special to them, even in this new and different format. Our latest experience was even a little bit more different than you might expect a Zoom B’nei Mitzvah service to be—or in this case a B’not Mitzvah. 

Emily Smith, her parents Liz Matzkin and Eric Smith, and her sisters Abigail and Samantha were planning to be in Israel this summer,  traveling the country and, most importantly, celebrating  Emily becoming Bat Mitzvah. The trip was planned along with their longtime family friends who live in the Los Angeles area and have another Bat Mitzvah-aged daughter, Lila. The two families thought it would  be amazing to travel together to Israel and celebrate their daughters’ B’not Mitzvah (plural of Bat Mitzvah) together.  

But like many plans over the last several months, a trip to Israel simply couldn’t happen. Nevertheless, without hesitation, the Smith-Matzkin family reached out to the Temple Shalom clergy team to see if they could still celebrate Emily on the day they had anticipated, and asked if we might include Lila and her family, who are not affiliated with a congregation out west. Of course the answer was yes, and the bi-coastal B’not Mitzvah planning was underway. Rabbi Abrasley and I were thrilled to meet Lila’s family, to welcome them as honorary Temple Shalom members, and to work with both Lila and Emily as they prepared to lead their Zoom service. 

On the morning of July 13th, as Emily and her family gathered at their house on the Cape, across the country, Lila and her family gathered in their home in California. By the power of Zoom, two families, 3000 miles apart, were united in a virtual, sacred space. Surrounded by their families, both in-person, on the Zoom call, and watching over Live Stream, Emily and Lila led the service and chanted Torah with aplomb. They presented powerful calls to social justice in their divrei Torah (plural of d’var Torah – a teaching of Torah), and, while both young women expressed disappointment to not be experiencing this moment in the land of Israel, it was clear how much they’d risen to this unexpected moment with flexibility and strength. 

Some of the words Lila shared that morning speak for themselves: “For a while I was disappointed at the thought of having my bat mitzvah in my backyard, but I realized that it isn’t about where you are, it's about who you're with. I learned that there is no point in feeling sorry for myself but to find the good in the situation. Although I would have loved to be in Israel with my mother now I get to be surrounded by my entire family for this special occasion. In the future I hope to be able to look at other situations with optimism.”

The families plan to hopefully take their trip to Israel together next summer. Emily expressed in her D’var Torah that she is looking forward to “learn[ing] more about the land of Israel and our [people’s] history, and is “extremely excited to visit Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and some of the places [her own] family has come from.” She is also very much looking forward to experiencing the country through its cuisine and food markets.

The way in which both of these impressive young women turned a loss into an opportunity was truly inspiring to witness and is a lesson for all of us in this unique time in which we are living. While the world can feel dark more often than not these days, the promise of Lila and Emily leading the way for the future is a bright, beacon of light. As clergy, the Rabbis and I are so lucky to catch a glimpse into a bright future for our world every time a young person becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It may be over a computer screen right now, in the middle of a pandemic, but it really doesn't feel “virtual” at all—it is a very real moment of pride and hope.

Thu, August 13 2020 23 Av 5780