Some Getting A Chance For B’nai Mitzvah On The Bima

Ritual events like Bar and Bat Mitzvah have been part of everyone’s lives that have been disrupted by coronavirus. While most synagogues have remained closed since mid-March, a few have taken a shot at giving families an opportunity to celebrate on the bimah, rather than their dining room.

Bet Shalom Congregation has been doing this the longest, offering families three options in July when COVID felt slightly more under control.

“We were looking for a way to say ‘yes,’” said Stephen Barberio, Bet Shalom’s executive director. “We found that it was important to respond affirmatively to family needs to be together for a B’nai Mitzvah.

Barberio said that they gave families three options: Have a Torah scroll delivered to their home for the B’nai Mitzvah child to read from; come to the synagogue for a tallit ceremony with clergy and immediate family – with the clergy around 10 feet away – before going home for a Zoom service; or having a small group of immediate family alone in the sanctuary, with Barberio and the clergy in their individual offices producing the Zoom feed.

“We have a coronavirus response team that is meeting regularly, and considering all the data and metrics coming through,” Barberio said. He said the synagogue’s coronavirus response team have been meeting to discuss whether the practice will continue.

“Most people have chosen [the tallit ceremony and the empty sanctuary] and have been very satisfied,” Barberio said. “It’s not the same as what was envisioned, but given the circumstances, they’re feeling good about it.”

Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul has also been allowing only the B’nai Mitzvah family in the sanctuary. Beth El Congregation in St. Louis Park started down that path, but have recently dialed back and closed the synagogues again. Temple of Aaron in St. Paul has started opening their sanctuary for limited-service attendance opportunities, by reservation, but announced it was also discontinuing that practice.

Generally speaking, Gov. Tim Walz’s “Dial Back” order that he announced on Nov. 18, places of worship are allowed to stay open at this point, although none of the non-orthodox synagogues have chosen to do so – opting for some version of online services. This has been the case since at least May when the Minnesota Rabbinical Association put out this statement, which read in part:

“The rituals and rhythms of tradition feel most alive in person. It runs counter to our every fiber to celebrate and mourn in any other way. But rabbis across our state know that re-opening our buildings rapidly in larger numbers will create stumbling blocks where none should exist. Staying safe now means life later. No matter how many precautions we take, open doors invite people to embrace, crowds to gather, and vulnerable populations to risk their lives in God’s name. Let us not put stumbling blocks where none belong, but instead bear witness to the pain of this moment and open our hearts.

Rabbi Aaron Weininger, who is the MRA co-chair, said that the organization is not an enforcement agency and, individual synagogues have to make individual decisions, regardless of the guidance provided by the MRA.