Milo Kaplan will lead services, via Facebook live
By Amy Sorter
Parashat Emor, meaning “speak,” is a reading from the latter third part of the Book of Leviticus. The primary subject involves ritual purity for the kohanim, or priests. It is, however, the fourth and fifth aliyot of the reading that have a deep connection to Milo Kaplan, a bar mitzvah whose family are members of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas.
These aliyot list the Hebrew festivals, from Shabbat, to blowing of the shofar (Rosh Hashanah), “affliction” (Yom Kippur) and celebration of the Exodus (Passover). There are similarities between mandated observances and Milo’s obligation to lead services and chant from the Torah, even in the face of COVID-19’s social distancing requirements.
“Events like a bar mitzvah can’t be postponed, not after Milo has spent so much time on study and reading, in preparation,” said David Kaplan, Milo’s father. Added Shearith Israel’s Rabbi Shira Wallach, who has worked with Milo for the past several months on Torah study: “I can’t imagine having this timeline etched into Milo’s experience, and then not have him able to show up on this day.”
This is why Denton resident Milo, along with his father, and his mother, Andrea Schreiber, will join Wallach and Cantor Itzhak Zhrebker at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 9, to lead Shearith Israel’s Shabbat service. Milo will take charge of the entire process, from the preliminary prayers through the Shacharit services. He will chant his parasha from a Torah scroll. He will deliver a d’var Torah. Milo, his family and the rabbi and cantor will be the only ones on-site at Congregation Shearith Israel. The service, meanwhile, will be streamed, via Shearith’s Facebook page, to friends, relatives, congregants and members of the Jewish community.
The upcoming service, itself, is the culmination of much discussion between Milo’s family and Shearith’s leadership. That discussion began when Texas Governor Greg Abbott, in an attempt to limit the COVID-19 spread, issued an executive order in mid-March, limiting the number of people in one space. “As soon as we learned that places of worship were closed to more than 10 people, I spoke with Andrea,” Wallach said. “I literally had my finger on the green button on my phone to call her, when she called me.”
From concept to reality
The rabbi and family agreed that the bar mitzvah ceremony would remain on the same date. Furthermore, the celebratory events before, during and after the service would be canceled. This, however, was not much of a problem; according to Schreiber, the weekend was to be low-key. “What made it a thing was that our family and friends were coming in from out of town,” she said, adding that there is no immediate family in the area.
The question remained, however, as to how the service would take place. Shearith is a Conservative shul, meaning that concepts such as using Facebook Live on Shabbat, and removal of the Torah from the ark without a minyan in place, were of concern.
Wallach explained that Shearith’s rabbinic staff focused on halachic concepts, such as bizmanah which translates to “in its time,” or what Wallach clarified as “a mitzvah performed in the moment it was destined to be.” Another halachic focus, that of sha’at hadchak, allows for leniency in extraordinary circumstances.
“The Conservative movement makes halachic decisions, holding in one of our hands the texts and legal precedents, and holding in the other hand what the circumstances require of us,” Wallach said. The current circumstances — the meaningfulness of Milo’s bar mitzvah date, combined with continued social distancing requirements — led to Shearith’s rabbinical staff agreeing to an adapted version of Milo’s bar mitzvah service.
The streaming process, itself, will be under the direction of Nathan Trout, a non-Jew, who is Shearith’s director of facilities. Microphones will be preset. Also preset will be the Torah scroll from which Milo will read. And, rather than chanting the aliyah blessings before and after the reading, Milo’s prayer will consist of the blessing for Torah study. “Strictly speaking, this will be a Torah study,” Milo’s father David Kaplan said. “It will be a Saturday morning service in essence, except for those elements that require a minyan.”
Additionally, in the period leading up to the May 9 service, Shearith is asking for messages and videos of support to be sent to Shearith Director of Communications Julie Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie is creating a memory album for the family. “We want Milo and his family to feel fully embraced by the Shearith community,” Wallach commented.
After the pandemic
Wallach acknowledged plura-lism in the Conservative movement. While some congregations are streaming Shabbat services during the coronavirus quarantine, others have not felt as comfortable doing so. “There are a couple of values at play here, that at times come into conflict,” Wallach said. “The value of coming together to pray and to celebrate is important. At the same time, we must make safe and logical decisions that protect the health of our community and conserve halacha, even in these extraordinary times.”
In other words, once pandemic restrictions are lifted, Shearith’s center of gravity will return to the sanctuary. “These are extenuating circumstances,” Wallach said. “When this is over, we’ll go back to what we did before, in terms of prioritizing the presence of people in a room together. We will, however, always have livestreaming available to those who are homebound or out of town.”
Meanwhile, for Milo’s family, the event, as currently structured, “enabled us to return to the core, which is Milo’s studies,” Schreiber said. “This is what it will be about, and how we can honor Milo’s bar mitzvah.” Schreiber also said her family was incredibly grateful to Shearith and its staff, in helping to make this event a reality. “We thought everything would have to be canceled, and we’re thrilled at how this turned out,” she added.
While Emor focuses on Jewish festivals and their timing, Kaplan explained that Milo’s bar mitzvah is a once-in-a-lifetime event, rather than simply a spot on the calendar. “This has become a special centering event for all of us,” he said. “Because it’s going out on Facebook Live, it will provide a special occasion for our relatives, friends and congregants, as well.”