Elias Kirshner turned 13 on May 20. In a normal year, he would have been anticipating his bar mitzvah, scheduled to be celebrated this Shabbat, with a mixture of excitement and nerves, looking forward to a party with friends, and then basking in a sense of relief and accomplishment.
This year, however, where even the simplest of expectations have been confounded, his bar mitzvah will proceed somewhat differently.
He will not face a live congregation on Shabbat, his party for his friends will be postponed, and so will his subsequent trip to Israel to celebrate a second simcha there. The money that ordinarily would have been given to him as gifts will be redirected to food pantries here and in Israel.
Elias, whose parents are Rabbi David- Seth Kirshner, the religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and his wife, Dori, seems to be taking this in stride. Indeed, he is well aware that his Kesher Olam mitzvah project — a social action project required of all students in the year leading up to their b’nai mitzvah — is even more compelling now than it was a year ago.
“My project is raising money for food kitchens for people in need here and in Israel,” Elias said; he knows that rising unemployment and loss of income make food pantries more necessary than ever. “I’m concerned that the number of people who need food has increased rapidly,” he said. “Some people don’t have jobs and don’t have enough food. It makes me sad. If there’s no food, how will they be able to survive?”
In a letter to congregants informing them about the changes in Elias’s bar mitzvah plans and inviting them to his now-scheduled virtual bar mitzvah, Rabbi Kirshner wrote, “Sadly, this pandemic has made the need for Elias’ Kesher Olam/Mitzvah project even more acute. We ask you in lieu of any presents, to make a donation to either Pantry Packers in Israel or the Center for Food Action in New Jersey. Please partner with Elias and help feed the hungry. “
Elias said, “I always go to those two places, and it’s a meaningful experience, doing something for people less fortunate.” At the CFA, he said, “I have helped pack snacks for kids and families.”
So far, between the money Elias raised through his Kesher Olam project and his bar mitzvah presents, he has collected some $40,000 for the two pantries.
Having a virtual bar mitzvah will have both pluses and minuses, Elias said. “Being in shul with five to 10 people will be less pressure than facing 1,000. But on the bad side, you don’t get to see everyone, hug them, or thank them. It’s an adjustment.”
As his father wrote in the letter to his congregation, “The best parts of these simchas are always seeing family and friends, and you, our Temple family. While we are heartbroken that will not happen on May 23, we commit to making it happen to celebrate Elias and to celebrate life.”
Rabbi Kirshner said the synagogue has lost “lots of people” in the community to covid, and at times he has performed up to three funerals a day, for members and nonmembers. He noted also that since the synagogue has always had streaming, for those who are homebound or overseas, this is not a new phenomenon, “although the numbers have been pretty low.”
“Now the numbers have morphed,” he said. “Now we may have 10 in the building and between 200 and 2,500 people logged on to us. One bar mitzvah had over 3,000 online at one time.” There is a benefit to streaming, he said. Not only can people all over the world watch it, removing all geographical limitations, but once it’s done, “it can be viewed all over. It’s not limited to that one occasion.
“A pandemic changes guidelines,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “Our job is to bring Judaism and people closer together. I’m not saying to go out and eat shrimp, but we have to work around limitations.”
Asked what services might look like during the High Holidays, Rabbi Kirshner said it used to be that the synagogue could map out two weeks, two months, and two years at the same time. “Now it’s two hours and two days at a time. The High Holidays are four months from now. Last year we would have laughed at the idea of a lockdown. But look at where we are.”
Elias said that while the virus and the lockdown have been a big adjustment, “it will always be in my memory,” the way his father remembers the events surrounding 9/11. “It’s hard to go into a lockdown and not see friends. That’s sad, but we can’t do anything about it.”
As Rabbi Kirshner wrote in his letter, “There is a Yiddish proverb: Humans plan and God laughs. Covid-19 has brought that proverb to reality in unimaginable ways.
“There are some really challenging parts,” he said. “We’re social animals, and we want to be around other people, to be close to others. But some of the effects are really beautiful. It has given me two meals a day with my family, a 60-day streak of exercise, and a different perspective. I have a profession, a home, and electricity.” And that, he said, makes him realize how fortunate he really is.