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Lessons from my 13-year-old son at his pandemic bar mitzvah

By Rabbi Haviva Ner-David


This pandemic is stretching us all in so many ways we had not imagined, and one of them is that it is breaking down assumptions about how celebrations need to happen. Is more always better?


“I had the best bar mitzvah of everyone!” my son told me last night. He is our sixth child of seven, and our only adopted one. And our only one so far to have his b mitzvah during a global pandemic.

There were 17 people at his backyard bar mitzvah, two of whom were under the age of 6, and 10 of whom were his immediate family (including one life partner of a sibling). The others were his best friend with his parents and brother, and his daytime babysitter (with her two young children) from when we adopted him at age 6 months until he was 2 years old.

Mishael’s bar mitzvah was scheduled for Rosh Hodesh Elul, which was last Thursday. We chose that date a year ago, having no idea then what August 20, 2020 would look like. But as the date drew closer, we knew it would not be our usual the-more-the-messier b mitzvah and began to discuss the options.

Mishael was very clear that he did NOT want a Zoom bar mitzvah. He hated — yes, that is the word he uses — the online learning before the summer break. So much so that he refused to participate in the online family celebrations we have had since the pandemic started: a cousin’s bar mitzvah, two newly-born cousins’ brit and naming ceremonies, a grandmother’s 80th birthday, and even a great aunt’s 100th birthday celebration!

Sitting in front of a computer is definitely not how he envisioned his bar mitzvah, even in the worst case scenario. He said he preferred a bar mitzvah with only his immediate family to a bar mitzvah with people from all over the world — as his father and I are the only people from our nuclear families of origin who live in Israel — but appearing as boxes on a screen.

I personally don’t mind — even see the benefits of — gathering with people online, but I also wanted to honor his wishes and feelings — even if it meant leaving some people out. We told him he could have 10 people in addition to his immediate family, complying with regulations — and what felt safe for me as a person at high risk of getting a bad case of the coronavirus. And we told him that he could choose who those 10 people would be.

In the end, he chose even fewer than 10. And it was a lesson for us all. We had the prayer service, Torah reading, dancing, speech and family song — for him it was Jack Johnson’s “Better When We’re Together” from his favorite childhood movie, Curious George — but without the masses of people surrounding us.

We even had the bagel brunch — not brought from outside professionals; but, rather, one of his sisters who loves to bake spent the day before making three dozen bagels from scratch!

As I do with all of my children before their b mitzvahs, I started working on a project with Mishael back in the winter, before COVID-19 hit Israel. We interviewed several adults who were adopted when they were children — in order to hear their stories and any advice they might have for Mishael.

Mishael Adar Binyamin Ner-David with Dor Hirshkovitz, otherwise known as Dor 3, the Israeli rapper and skater, who was one of the adopted adults we interviewed

At his bar mitzvah, Mishael and I presented the project, and afterwards, I sent our talk out on email to family and friends. The advice that these extraordinary humans gave to Mishael is instrumental for us all, whether we grew up with our biological or adoptive families. Especially in these challenging times. Here are some highlights:

  • Trust that everything happens for a reason.

  • Live in the present and make something of your life as it is, because that is your reality. Don’t get caught up in “what if” scenarios.

  • Be confident in yourself and in who you are. Do not let anyone or any situation take that away from you.

  • Stay connected to your feelings and do not be afraid to express them.

  • What matters most is that we are surrounded by love and people who want the best for us.

  • Know that the human heart is big enough to love and be loved by so many people. There is no limit to our capacity to love and be loved.

  • Know that you are a gift to this world.

This pandemic is stretching us all in so many ways we had not imagined, and one of them is that it is breaking down assumptions about how celebrations need to happen. Is more always better? One of my professional hats is as rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul, on Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live. This summer, I have had the privilege of accompanying several people in immersion ceremonies before their largely scaled-down weddings.

The common theme has been: this was not how we expected things to be, but, actually, it has made us appreciate what is really important about our wedding. One might expect that to be clear for an adult couple who has chosen to mark their choice to join their lives together in ceremony and celebration. The fact that this was also so clear to my 13-year-old son was especially touching to behold.

His beaming face when we lifted him on a chair and danced around him, and the sincerely felt words he expressed last night – “Ima, I had the best bar mitzvah of everyone!” — were proof that he has already internalized so many of the lessons learned by our coming-of-age project.

He knows what he does and does not want, is connected to his feelings and knows how to express them. He also seems to know how to adapt to reality and the options it presents. And he understands that he is loved by and loves many people (anyone with six siblings should learn that lesson early in life), even if they could not all be present at his celebration.

And he hopefully realizes what a gift he is to this world.

Mishael’s bar mitzvah experience has taught us all to trust in life as it is, live in the present, not get caught up in “what if” scenarios, and know that what matters most is that we are surrounded by love.

Sometimes a smaller, tighter hug can feel more embracing than a bigger and more expansive one.


Rabbi Haviva Ner-David is the Founding Director of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul at Kibbutz Hannaton, Israel. She is a post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi. Learn more on her profile page. Connect one-on-one with Rabbi Haviva by booking a Rabbi Connect session. This blog post is republished with permission from the Times of Israel.

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