It’s funny looking back on my third pregnancy and thinking about the confidence my husband and I had as we prepared for life with another new baby. As an interfaith couple—my husband is Catholic and I come from an interfaith family—we participate in Jewish naming ceremonies. We already had a girl and a boy, and planned a baby naming ceremony for our new child just as we did for our first two babies. (You can read about my son’s bris here.) We also knew enough to have a mohel lined up, just in case we’d welcome another boy into our lives. We had a rabbi, a venue and an idea of what to order from Zabar’s to feed our many guests. What more would we need to consider?
As it turns out, there was a lot more to consider. Our third baby, a baby girl, was born just as we were first hearing about COVID-19. It still seemed isolated to China while we were in the hospital and planning out the finer details of the naming ceremony with our rabbi. We set a date for sometime in April 2020, planned the order of the ceremony, had our oldest child working on artwork for the program and started considering which names we’d choose.
Immediately after sending out save-the-dates, the world around us shut down. We figured our plans would be delayed by only a short while, and we prepared to stay home for a few weeks to flatten the curve. As we look back, it’s funny to now know how many weeks and months passed before we ended up celebrating this milestone.
We postponed the ceremony indefinitely, and clung to the hope that we would one day be able to celebrate this simcha (happy occasion) in person with all of our loved ones. We made it through the entire pandemic summer and our baby girl was still nameless. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. She had a secular name, but no Hebrew name yet. Anyway, it wasn’t looking like an in-person naming would be possible during her infancy.
By the time we started thinking about how we could make this work in cooler weather, we had a new rabbi. With a new rabbi came new thinking and ideas. We set a date in October, when our baby would be eight months old. Instead of holding the ceremony at a synagogue as we had originally planned, we decided our backyard would work out just fine. We deliberated over her name for much longer than we did with our first two with all of the extra time on our hands, and settled on giving her one name more than the others. After all, she had earned it with the passing of time.
With much consideration, we limited our guest list to include my grandmother—who I really wanted to have present because we were naming our baby for her father—and my aunt who lives with my grandmother. We sent out digital invitations with a link to join our naming ceremony virtually because no pandemic celebration is complete with some sort of Zoom element, right?
Our rabbi came up with a brilliant idea: Collect RSVPs and our two older kids would set up a stuffed animal congregation to represent all of our virtual attendees. It was only a week before this idea that I had questioned why we had so many stuffed animals and seriously considered getting rid of most of them. Embarrassingly, our kids didn’t need to take out all of their stuffed animals to set up our 61 virtual guests. I’m glad we held onto them though, because it was a really sweet touch for us to have our distant loved ones represented in that way.
The best part of changing our plans from an in-person celebration to a virtual one was it allowed us to include people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend. We had guests from California all the way to Israel and it was really special to feel connected to so many loved ones joining across thousands of miles.
It also made the ceremony feel more welcoming to our guests who were not Jewish. Though we are raising our kids in the Jewish faith, my husband is Catholic and I grew up in an interfaith home. When we celebrate our lifecycle events, most of our guests are not Jewish. As an interfaith family, we’ve always given consideration to how to make everyone feel welcome and included.
We chose a mix of Hebrew and English readings and one of our readings was a Shel Silverstein poem—which was not at all religious. The virtual celebration seemed to be more approachable for some of our guests than in-person celebrations we have hosted in the past. We had a surprisingly high turnout and received many messages afterward from first-time Jewish baby naming guests about how thankful they were to be included. It allowed them to see the beauty in the traditions we’re keeping in our home and family.
Yes, Zabar’s still happened. Everything else in our baby naming plan changed but I didn’t let go of Zabar’s. In fact, my aunt and my husband made the trek from Massachusetts to New York City to get us the best bagels, smoked fish, babka, rugelach and cake. I was a bit jealous of their culinary adventure, but I knew it would be worth the wrangling of three little ones on the home front to indulge in some of my favorite comfort foods upon their return.
Actually, they ended up bringing home enough food to feed our 61 virtual guests. Let’s just say we learned a very important lesson in the process: When planning a virtual celebration, all of the details must change, including the amount of food.