An old rite in novel times: Easthampton family holds virtual bar mitzvah  

  • Jack Berrien, left, reads from the Torah during his recent “virtual bar mitzvah” at the family’s Easthampton home. In background are brothers Reece, standing, and Luke and the boys’ father, Dan Berrien. Jessica Berrien

  • A computer screen shows faces of some of the 43 friends and relatives of the Berrien family who, through Zoom, took part in Jack Berrien’s virtual bar mitzvah March 28 in Easthampton. Jessica Berrien

  • Jessica Berrien joins her sons Reece, left, Luke and Jack at Jack’s virtual bar mitzvah ceremony March 28. Her husband, Dan Berrien, stands in background practicing social distancing, as he has been serving National Guard duty in recent weeks. Alison Morse

  • Jack Berrien, 13, gets ready for his virtual bar mitzvah ceremony March 28 at the family’s Easthampton home. His mother, Jessica, says Jack had been preparing for months and was ready for the ceremony, even if a corresponding dinner and celebration had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jessica Berrien

  • Jack Berrien reads from the Torah during his recent “virtual bar mitzvah” at the family’s Easthampton home. In background are brothers Reece, right, Luke and the boys’ father, Dan Berrien. Jessica Berrien

  • Jack Berrien, 13, reads from the Torah during his recent “virtual bar mitzvah” at the family’s Easthampton home. In background are brothers Reece, right, and Luke. Jessica Berrien

Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2020 1:15:17 PM

EASTHAMPTON — In the fall of 2018, Jack Berrien of Easthampton, then 12 years old, went to the bar mitzvah of a friend. As his mother, Jessica Berrien, tells it, Jack hadn’t really been interested himself in having a bar mitzvah until that point. The family, Jessica notes, celebrates Jewish holidays and holy days but otherwise is not super-observant.

But something profound happened to Jack when he attended his friend’s three-hour bar mitzvah.

“When I picked him up afterward, I looked at him and said, ‘Do you want to do this, too?’” Berrien said during a recent phone call. “And he said yes. He was really interested in learning more about Jewish culture and history and identity.”

So after Jack turned 13 last fall, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah — the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for boys — spending months learning Hebrew, reading the Torah and studying different aspects of Jewish life. Everything was set for family and friends to join him in a celebration Saturday, March 28, at the indoor Mill 180 Park in Easthampton.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the threat posed by the novel coronavirus became more apparent with each passing day in March, the Berrien family faced a difficult choice. They’d invited 120 people, including family members from as far away as California and the Deep South, to the bar mitzvah. But clearly it would not be safe for people to be traveling or gathering en masse.

Yet Jack’s bar mitzvah readings and presentation were keyed to March 28, Berrien says, and the family wanted him to have that opportunity. In the end, they turned to what many people have opted for in the new age of social distancing — in this case, a virtual bar mitzvah ceremony conducted via Zoom, with the traditional celebratory dinner and party to take place sometime in the future.

“It just seemed liked a good way for us to still be together, even if we couldn’t physically be in the same place,” Berrien said. “Jack was ready, and we didn’t want all the horror that’s occurring right now to stop him from having this rite of passage. It just meant we’d do it in a different way.”

The ceremony took place on the 28th on the family’s backyard deck, with only immediate family members and Jack’s bar mitzvah instructor on the scene, under an awning that protected them from rain that began in the late afternoon. Meanwhile, some 43 extended family members and friends — “on 18 different computers,” Berrien said with a laugh — were able to watch via Zoom, all of them dressed up for the occasion.

One of the guests was Berrien’s 85-year-old father, Leonard Singer, taking part from Cambridge, who with the help of other family members was able to figure out how to use Zoom. He also got off one of the best lines during the ceremony, Berrien said, after the rain started falling.

“He said, ‘Well, God is just giving you a little more to handle,’” she said.

Six feet away

The pandemic reared its head in other ways during the ceremony. Berrien said her husband, Dan Berrien, recently had to leave home for duty with the Massachusetts National Guard, which Gov. Charlie Baker activated a few weeks ago for assisting first responders and supporting logistical efforts in the fight against the virus. (Jessica says Dan’s most recent assignment has been helping at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where 18 veteran residents have died since March 25 amid a coronavirus outbreak.)

“We didn’t know if Dan would even be able to come here,” she said.

As it turns out, Dan Berrien, a captain and company commander of a guard unit based in Springfield, was able to attend the ceremony, though he was careful to stand at least six feet away from everyone. Photos from the ceremony show him holding an umbrella over his head as he stands outside the awning on the deck.

“He wasn’t able to hug or embrace Jack, so that was tough,” Jessica said.

Another key person at the ceremony was Alison Morse, the founder and director of Circles for Jewish Living, a Northampton organization that provides educational services to Jewish families, such as preparation for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

Morse had been working with Jack as he readied for his bar mitzvah, providing what Berrien calls “a really personalized” instruction plan that included having Jack, a big baseball fan, watch the 1998 documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” a film about America’s first Jewish baseball star, a slugging first baseman with the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Alison was wonderful,” Berrien said. “She doesn’t just come out to teach. She tailors everything to the family and the people she’s working with, their interests and background.”

Having Jack’s bar mitzvah ceremony take place now was important for a number of other reasons, Berrien noted. For one, she’s at home alone at the moment with Jack and her two other sons — Reece, 11, and Luke, 7 — all of whom are taking their school classes online. Berrien, a lawyer working from home these days herself, also spends time with her sons on lessons such as math and reading.

“It was nice to have a break from that” with the ceremony, said Berrien, who calls her varied duties these days “a real balancing act.”

And in another sense, Berrien says, Jack’s virtual bar mitzvah ceremony was in keeping with a historical tradition of Jews practicing their faith — sometimes in secret — during difficult or grim times such as the Holocaust.

Perhaps what was best in the end, she said, was seeing her son conduct himself so well under these potentially awkward and difficult circumstances (and he also did a great job of setting up the Zoom connections, Berrien noted).

“Jack was so good, so poised,” she said. “We’re so proud of him.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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