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Joy And Grief At A Virtual Bar Mitzvah

Holly J. McDede
A screen shot of Susan Swigart, Nicole Bloom, and Evan during a virtual Bar Mitzvah over Zoom.

There’s no end date for when it will be safe to gather in crowds again, so people around the world continue to stretch the possibilities of a Zoom call. Funerals, weddings, and church services have all been happening virtually. For one woman in Berkeley, the shelter-in-place order meant rethinking two very different rituals.

Click the play button above to listen to the story.

You may or may not have heard, but on a recent Saturday morning, a boy in Berkeley named Evan set foot into adulthood. And, he marked the occasion with a Bar Mitzvah celebration. 

A Bar Mitzvah is a rite of passage for Jewish youth at age thirteen.

And because of the coronavirus, this all happened online on Zoom. Evan's two moms had carefully placed two screens on the dining room table in their Berkeley bungalow. 

Sue Swigart and her wife Nicole Bloom had planned for this rite of passage to take place in a synagogue. 

But the coronavirus has turned traditions inside out for everyone. And Sue had to find a new way of marking not one, but two, very different rituals. 

A Time To Grieve 

Back in February, Sue's dad Russ was having trouble breathing. She took him to the hospital, and learned he was losing blood. He had had a heart attack, unrelated to the coronavirus. But Sue says he was stubborn. 

"I had a social worker call me and say that, you know, the reason he wanted to get out was he wanted to get home to take care of his wife and his little dog. He had a little dog that he just loved," Sue says. "She said that he was completely out of his mind. That's my term, not hers." 

It was clear he was really sick. 

"But I brought him home. My mom and dad sat on the bench outside of the house, where he almost collapsed there, and they just held each other and cried together," Sue remembers. "I would have to say that was the primary thing in his life: his relationship with my mom."

The Rituals Of The Sea

Soon after that, Sue took him to hospice, where he passed away. He was eighty eight. Sue says he was not a religious man. But he had his own set of rituals. He loved the ocean. In fact, he met her mom roughly seven decades ago while body surfing. He taught his grandson Evan how to fish. 

"He would go to Halfmoon Bay, every week, and throw stones into the ocean, for people who were ailing, or who he was just remembering," Sue says.

Russ wanted his ashes spread out at sea at Half Moon Bay while friends gathered and remembered him. But then the Bay Area went into a near lockdown. That means granting that wish, and grieving with people gathered together by the sea, is on hold. 

The Bar Mitzvah Will Go On 

Sue also didn't have a lot of time to mourn this loss. Her son's Bar Mitzvah celebration was just weeks away, and that rite of passage meant a lot to him. Evan had gone to religious school for years, and spent countless hours learning Hebrew and learning to read the Torah. 

"He wasn't going to give us this date," Sue says. 

So the family decided to take the Bar Mitzvah ceremony online. Just before midnight when the shelter-in-place order went into effect, a rabbi dropped by Sue's house in Berkeley with a delivery. The rabbi brought the family a Torah for Evan to read from. 

"It is very much a physical touchstone, it's much more authentic and much more real, having the Torah here, that's for sure," Sue says. 

The Date Arrives 

The family had a virtual dress-rehearsal, and the synagogue appointed a tech ringleader, wise in the art of muting and unmuting. 

Finally, on a Saturday morning, Sue and her family trekked towards a computer screen carefully set up on their dining room table. At least 300 friends and family members gathered at their computer screens, too, from all over the United States. 

Then the Zoom call began.

Evan was all dressed up in navy and sky blue, his bangs parted carefully to the side. He seemed calm. He encouraged everyone to dance and sing when so moved. 

As the virtual Bar Mitzvah ceremony continued, people in the chatroom posted pictures of themselves with challah bread, juice, and wine. 

"People put his picture on the chair, and sent us messages with the picture, and said they were throwing candy at the screens," Sue says. 

Sue was worried this spiritual event would feel too technical. But she said it felt warm, grounded. People even used the chat room to share what they were grateful for, everything from birthdays to casts taken off to people making it back from quarantine in foreign countries. 

The End Of The World As We Know It 

When it was Evan's turn to deliver, he talked about sacrifice, sustenance, giving and receiving. 

Sue and her wife Nicole beamed with pride for their son. 

After the service, people were invited to stay and talk. Evan showed a slideshow to the group. R.E.M's 'It's The End of the World as We Know It' played in the background. 

"The final shot in the slideshow was a shot of my son dressed in a trench coat and aviators. And they're my dads," Sue says. "I feel like it was just right. I don't think Evan did that on purpose. It's just the way it ended up. 

When the Zoom call ended and the chatroom shut down, Sue, her wife, and Evan were alone together again. Sue felt relieved, satisfied, and emotional. 

"The tears were for everything," she says. They were for my dad, they were for how hard it was to get to that moment. And how we pulled it through, and we were awesome. How we supported each other. And for how it was enough. 

One day in the not-too-distant future, Sue will journey to Halfmoon Bay, and scatter her dad's ashes out to sea. But for now, she has the memory — and a Zoom recording— of the Bar Mitzvah celebration, where friends and family sang, cheered for her son from a chatroom, and sat in silence for a moment remembering her dad.