It’s kind of amazing, really. New circumstances, new expectations, new rituals.
No, I was not discouraged or surprised when I rang someone up and was told they couldn’t talk because they were at a Zoom bar mitzvah. Indeed, I had just paid a Zoom shiva visit myself, preceded by a virtual lecture. Just another way of being busy, of keeping life going — and flowing.
Will new outreach avenues outlive this crisis?
“I don’t know,” said Whitney Blom, the youth director at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, “but they certainly help now.” Whitney is among those who are trying to maintain the interest and engagement of our younger cohort, though, she readily admits, “Between shul and Schechter and Ramah, they’re already pretty busy. While they’re limited in terms of mobility, their schedules are pretty full.”
One creative avenue of approach has been birthday parades — which are live, or as close to that as you can get. The birthday caravan apparently is gaining ground in communities throughout the area (and possibly the country).
“I spoke to my sister in Long Island, who was doing it for my 10-year-old nephew in early April,” Ms. Blom said. “I liked what they were doing, so I thought I’d bring the idea to shul.” She’s organized three in Teaneck so far, one for a girl turning 11, one for a fourth birthday, and one for her synagogue’s rabbi.
“We started a WhatsApp for families at shul at the beginning of the quarantine,” and she proposed the idea there, she continued. “The kids like it. It’s lonely during the quarantine. They see their friends from afar. We have birthday signs and decorated cars, and each time we’ve had between 12 and 15 cars. Some were age mates and some were from other families who wanted to be able to do something nice for someone. Just being able to be together in this limited way is better than not being there at all.”
So far, birthday celebrants have included Sima Cohen, Talia Picker, and Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky (who embraces the idea, he said, but wished they wouldn’t have fussed so much over him).
“Our four-year-old really misses her friends and seeing them on Zoom is just not the same,” said Sima’s father, Devin Cohen; Sima enjoyed a drive-by several weeks ago. “Having her friends — and ours — parade by in person to wish her a happy birthday brought a big smile to her face — and ours — and helped make the day special.
“What a tremendous community we have!”
Not only that, he added, but a Teaneck town parade for Sima also had been scheduled, and his soon-to-be-9-year-old daughter Amira will get her own parade as well.
Mr. Cohen said that he was able to negotiate the time of the event with Ms. Blom, watching the sky to make sure it wasn’t going to rain any time soon. Then, getting Sima ready, “we made sure she knew it was for her. We spent the day making it special, and we made sure to get her shoes on and get her ready for it. ‘This is for you,’ we said.
“There was a lot of smiling and Facebook conversation” about the parade, “and all kinds of emotions.” Afterward, he said, “one or two cars took a second lap to chat for a minute and one friend from school got out and stood on the curb.
“It’s a tough thing for 4-year-olds. They play with each other and need interaction. iPads and Zoom don’t really do it for them. Getting a drive-by is a step closer. It made such a big impact. It’s not the same as playing with friends, but it’s as close as you can get. I can’t speak highly enough about this.”
Mr. Cohen added that it was terrific “not only for the birthday person but for their families, and the families driving by. A number were in tears. It was very sweet, emotional, the community rallying around someone. A number of friends said they wished they could do more.”
Ms. Blom admits that coming up with new ideas in Week Seven of the quarantine is almost more challenging than launching a program for the first time. The synagogue, facing this “necessary challenge,” offers nightly story times for young children, children’s kabbalat Shabbat services, and a baking class, as well as special holiday programming. “How can we make it new and interesting?” she asked. “It’s a good challenge,” she added. “We’ll see how this evolves. If people still want these programs later, we’ll continue them.”
The Township of Teaneck also has been organizing birthday parades as well, town manager Dean Kazinci said. “I received an email from [deputy mayor] Mark Schwartz making me aware of what some other towns are doing. He brought this to my attention. We looked to see if we could put this together resource-wise. I spoke to the police and fire chiefs and they were on board. It’s a worthwhile thing to do for the community — a positive gesture.”
The town put together a flyer announcing the program, which is for children 12 years and younger. The intention is for the town birthday cavalcade to make its rounds twice a week, stopping at each celebrant’s house and activating sirens and lights. Birthday families will receive advance notice of these visits.
“Personnel will vary depending on the resources available that day,” Ms. Kazinci said. The goal is to provide a police car and a fire truck, “but we may see extra if it’s quiet in town that day.”
When we spoke, about 48 hours after the town had initiated the program, it already had received about 70 requests. “It takes some coordination,” Mr. Kazinci said. “The township clerk is keeping a spreadsheet and providing it to police.” By April 23, the town had more than 100 requests.
“We don’t want the pandemic to rob kids of birthday joy,” Mr. Kazinci added. “I think it will brighten their day. So much is gloomy and children are bored. We certainly can provide them with a smile and with the hope that things will get better.”
For the Winslow family of Teaneck, things certainly were brighter for their son Joseph, who celebrated his seventh birthday several weeks ago. His mother, Elana, had heard about the idea of a parade and decided to look into it.
“I saw that Bergenfield was doing something similar and I reached out to Councilman Elie Y. Katz, who put me in touch with Deputy Mayor Mark Schwartz, who told me that it was actually being planned as we spoke,” Ms. Winslow said. “He sent me the flyer and I contacted the town.”
The event “was a real bright spot in Joseph’s week. He really enjoyed it. The police and firefighters gave him a special shout-out as they drove past, saying ‘Happy Birthday Joseph’ on their loudspeaker, and it really made him feel special and proud.” Altogether, she said, there was a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police vehicles.
“This is such a great project,” Ms. Winslow said. “The kids who missed out on celebrating their birthdays in more traditional ways this year have a great memory that will likely stay with them forever. The emergency heroes were so celebratory and kind, and I am sure that that they feel that being the cause of all of these kids smiling is very heartwarming as well.
“We are so appreciative to the town of Teaneck, as well as to all of our emergency service heroes, for coming out for Joseph’s birthday. He proudly told all of his grandparents about the parade on the phone, and has watched the video many times since.