There’s an old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and in this moment of pandemic uncertainty and cancellation, we mothers are inventing a lot! This weekend, we invented on-the-fly, a virtual bat mitzvah party.
A little back story: One day after the national state of emergency was declared, our families had planned to be in Boston for Shabbat to celebrate the bat mitzvah of dear friends. But due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the necessity of social distancing, our plans, like most everything these days, were cancelled.
Instead, on Shabbat morning, our families joined the bat mitzvah via live-stream of the synagogue’s Shabbat morning services. The bat mitzvah girl, her close family, and the clergy led a beautiful service with many touching moments, and modeled social distancing throughout.
Yet our community longed to be together and to celebrate the simcha. After texting with a few friends to kvell over the bat mitzvah and share our disappointment of being stuck at home, we hatched a plan: We would throw a virtual bat mitzvah party celebration that evening instead!
In just a few hours, we sent email invitations and crafted a virtual party. While there were a few technical glitches, everyone had a blast and the bat mitzvah loved the effort to make her feel special despite the disappointing circumstances.
As many of you will be forced to be equally creative in the weeks ahead, here are tips on throwing a pop-up, virtual celebration:
1. Send an invitation to set the tone.
Since a virtual party is novel, people need to know what to expect and how to participate. We sent an email with a fun message about the plan with a link to a Zoom meeting and told families what to bring. We suggested a havdalah set and celebratory beverages.
2. Limit the guest list.
We recommend keeping the party small-ish. While hundreds of people can theoretically participate in online sessions, if you want to see and interact with everyone, limit your virtual guest list to about 10 to 15 families. If it’s hard to choose whom to invite, consider holding multiple parties: one for family, another for school friends, another for family friends. Our party lasted less than an hour. You could easily hold three separate parties in one evening!
3. Dress for the occasion.
Confined to our homes, we all welcomed an excuse to get out of our pajamas and yoga pants. Set a dress code to set a festive tone. We told families to come dressed in all the best swag of previous b’nai mitzvah. People got in the spirit and arrived wearing sunglasses, hats, and light-up accessories of b’nai mitzvah pasts. As hosts, we wore cocktail dresses to make the statement that this event, despite being virtual, was special.
4. Designate a host and queue the music.
We appointed a 15-year old to be the host and DJ, and his job was to test out the sound and music ahead of time. The meeting host is responsible for integrating the flow of the party with the use of the technology, spotlighting computer screens at just the right time, and knowing when to mute and unmute participants. The host makes introductions, tells guests what activity on the agenda comes next, and has the music teed up and any other apps (games, videos, etc.) preloaded on their computer so it’s ready to go.
5. Set an agenda and embrace ritual.
A virtual gathering is not a work meeting, but just as a DJ has a schedule of events to create good flow at a live bat mitzvah party, the same is necessary for a virtual one. Consider sharing the program agenda with guests to know what to expect ahead of time. B’nai mitzvah parties have all sorts of rituals associated with them — think candle lighting ceremony, special dances, toasts. At our virtual bat mitzvah party, we sought to preserve the rituals that felt most important to the bat mitzvah and her family.
Our celebration agenda included:
Introductions and greetings.
Just like at a live bat mitzvah party, invite the DJ to introduce the bat mitzvah girl and her family while playing their favorite tunes. Our DJ used a feature of the online meeting to spotlight each family to allow them to offer best wishes and greetings to the bat mitzvah and her family. The greetings had the feel of a videographer circulating throughout the party capturing wishes all evening.
To end Shabbat, our DJ spotlighted a designated family who lit the havdalah candle with several wicks, blessed a cup of wine, and smelled sweet spices. Other families watched and/or participated in the Jewish rituals in their homes. If you gather at another time other than Saturday evening, consider what other Jewish rituals might sanctify the gathering.
It’s not a simcha if there isn’t a hora! As the DJ cues the hora music, invite each family to dance their own mini hora in their living rooms. At our party, the bat mitzvah girl’s family put her up on a chair in their living room! It was a great moment to let loose and to watch the celebrating on each square on the zoom.
Often at bat mitzvahs, the DJ engages the kids in games and online games offer a fun alternative. We played a trivia game with questions focused on the bat mitzvah girl using Zoom’s survey feature that invites people to vote on answers to multiple choice questions.
A photo montage.
An often poignant moment of a b’nai mitzvah celebration is when the family shares a slideshow of photos of their child over the years paired with music. This works beautifully to show online with Zoom’s screen sharing feature.
Even after the formal party rituals ended, people lingered to talk, joke and to just be connected. Leave time for this in your agenda.
6. Allow time to orient to the technology.
Hopefully you’ll have more time to plan than we did, but we highly recommend holding a dress rehearsal. Your guests may also need a technology orientation. We recommend inviting guests to arrive a few minutes early to adjust to the technology and use its functionality.
7. Record the event and share it.
A nice feature of many online conferencing systems is that you can record your meeting. We recorded our party and afterwards sent it to the family to preserve for posterity.
Celebrating life’s milestones, creating joy, and connecting with friends and community are Jewish obligations and must continue in spite of this deadly virus. A virtual bat mitzvah party is something we couldn’t have imagined even a week ago, but this moment calls for creativity. We hope our experiment can offer inspiration to other families as you plan to celebrate in these uncertain times.
Image by Peter Chernaev/Getty Images