Before I could start my video to join the Saturday morning services at a synagogue in Northern California I’ve never been to, and will probably never go to, the group text had already begun.
“Show your face, Rach!” texted one of my friends from college.
“Coming,” I texted back “only showing waist up today. Still in flannel PJ pants.”
And then the group text blew up from there. On it were seven of my college girls. And by girls, I mean middle aged women who haven’t been in college in 25 years. I could not keep up with the text banter, which felt to me a bit like whispering and giggling in synagogue while the rabbi was leading the congregation in prayer. In this case, it was one of the college girls’ son and nephew leading over 100 attendees in prayer over Zoom for their b’nai mitzvah service.
This was the fourth time the college girls were together (together apart as they say) at a religious occasion to mark a lifecycle event since the pandemic hit last spring. We all Zoomed in for a backyard family only bat mitzvah of one of the other college girls’ daughter in suburban New York a few weeks before this California b’nai. And just a month before that, we spent shabbat morning together virtually at a b’not mitzvah of yet another college girl’s twin daughters in another New York suburb. Fun fact: we learned that a b’not is a real thing and not a play on the words of not having a real in person mitzvah. We learned this while laughing so hard until we almost cried on our weekly college girls Zoom calls/happy (sometimes sad) hours which are still going strong now well into week 43.
We missed not being together in person, not hugging each other, our spouses and our kids, not getting dressed up, not discussing our outfits. And yet despite these nots, we did somehow feel together. While watching each girl’s child/children read from the Torah, we had giant smiles on our faces in our little Zoom windows watching each college girl beam with pride. Most of us teared up as we listened to our respective girls talk about their love for their child/children, recounting funny and sweet stories, some of which we knew and others which we he had never heard before. And of course we commented on what everyone in the mitzvah screenshot was wearing.
I was not able to go to my Northern Californian college girl’s older son’s bar mitzvah three years ago when we used to hop on planes, mask-less and without a giant bottle of hand sanitizer for occasions like that. As much as I didn’t want to miss her first son’s mitzvah, life got in the way. I was able to go the mitzvahs of other college girls’ older children in New York and New Jersey, but not all of the girls could. I would often describe these events to the other girls who couldn’t be there or they would do the same for me. I smiled to myself thinking how special it was that we could all be there together even in this new way for these occasions — no whisper down the lane interpretations needed.
We gathered together over Zoom at the end of this past summer to mourn the loss of the Northern Californian college girl’s beloved father. He was diagnosed with cancer, treated and died during the time that not one of us could hug our dear friend. Only one college girl who lives in a neighboring California town could walk with her from a distance. The group text during the shiva was much more solemn. We were all crying. We were all so proud of our college girl for speaking such wisdom and truth and with such strength. We all wiped away tears not wanting to smudge eye makeup even on Zoom. We all said the mourner’s Kaddish in unison. We were all there — together, and it didn’t feel so apart.
As much as I’d like to think I would have flown across the country in a non-pandemic world to be there for my college girl’s father’s funeral, I don’t know if I actually would have. Perhaps I would have been away on summer vacation with my own family. Perhaps my own pre-pandemic busy life would have simply gotten in the way.
Friends are the family you choose or so says one of the college girls’ mother. These friends — they are my family. I didn’t think it was possible to feel as close to them as I did so many years ago when we shared dorm rooms, apartments, off campus houses, class notes, drinks and laundry baskets. Since that time though we have shared the highs and lows of real life after college – of falling in love and building families and careers, of loss and of everything else in between. When this global pandemic first shut us all down last March, we reached out to each other in more frequents emails, phone calls and of course, the group text.
“Our schools are closed for two weeks,” first came across my phone from one of the California girls which shocked me here in suburban Philadelphia where we were still in the zone of just wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Now we manage to laugh about the absurdity of what we once thought on the weekly Zooms. “Remember when we thought we would just stay home for two weeks?” one of the girls says nearly ten months in and counting.”
It sounds crazy but in all this time of not being able to physically share so many of the moments we wish we could, I actually feel closer to all of them then I ever have. They echo my sentiment. It feels a bit like we are living together once again, albeit in a strange virtual alternate universe.
We are starting to talk about what we will do after the vaccine is more widely distributed. Where will we go on the next college girls trip? I suggested the other night that perhaps the weekly Zooms continue even after we are all inoculated. I think they just might.