COVID Can’t Stop the Celebration
Style MagazineCOVID-19

COVID Can’t Stop the Celebration

Jewish Atlantans get creative when planning simchas during a global health crisis.

Robyn Spizman Gerson is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including “When Words Matter Most.” She is also a communications professional and well-known media personality, having appeared often locally on “Atlanta and Company” and nationally on NBC’s “Today” show. For more information go to

Jordyn Aronowitz and Blake Simon celebrate their engagement mask to mask.
Jordyn Aronowitz and Blake Simon celebrate their engagement mask to mask.

Despite COVID-19, the world is getting creative as celebrations and simchas carry on. From weddings to birthdays, anniversaries to baby namings and more, parties with a purpose are redefining the celebratory landscape. Lavish events and huge gatherings are cautiously on hold, but the joy of a happy occasion filled with loving intentions continues. Families and friends are gathering in innovative ways. Here are some heartfelt standouts worthy of sharing. A party once striving to be fun, festive and fabulous now is measured by its memorable, magical and meaningful moments.

L’Chaim Gains Deeper Meaning

Let me start with a personal and powerful cause for celebration in my own family.
Jeff Gerson, the oldest son of my husband Ed, grew up in Atlanta, attended The Epstein School and now lives and works in New York City. He contracted the virus and had a fight-for-his-life ordeal. In mid-March, Jeff checked into NYU Langone Hospital with a fever and cough and was admitted and diagnosed with COVID-19.
He spent weeks in the intensive care unit on a ventilator with sedation, eventually requiring lifesaving measures. It was a touch-and-go critical situation.

Thanks to dozens of hard-working doctors, nurses and consultations skillfully monitored by Jeff’s brother Dr. Lee Gerson, on the front line as a surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, the family received daily updates from Lee via WhatsApp. Jeff’s ordeal ended with a miraculous recovery in rehab. He is now at home and to everyone’s amazement, is doing fantastic.

A livestreaming celebration of life as Jeff Gerson reads the Torah portion and the Park Avenue Synagogue cantor sings.

On May 23, Jeff proudly read the Torah portion streaming online during a Saturday Shabbat service for his Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. It was Jeff’s 45th birthday, and to celebrate the lifesaving efforts of his medical team and mark the occasion, Jeff invited friends and family to view as he received an aliyah, read Torah and recited Birkat Hagomel, the traditional prayer offered after recovering from illness.

Jeff noted in his email inviting us to join the livestream that The Rabbinical Assembly had recently blessed the use of technology to facilitate worship during the crisis based on a widely discussed scholarly policy statement written by Rabbi Joshua Heller, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs.

The livestream allowed friends and family from as far away as Australia to participate in a simcha they otherwise might not have had the chance to attend in person. Along with our friends and family, there were more than 750 other screens tuned in, reflecting a larger crowd than that which attends in-person services, all seeking connection and spiritual fulfillment during the crisis. Our hearts swelled with pride listening to Jeff recite the prayers as the rabbi blessed him and he celebrated his gratitude for life.

Married couple–to-be Erica Halpern and Ryan Chaliff celebrate a lemonade Shabbat dinner.

Lemonade From Lemons Shabbat Dinner

Erica Halpern’s dream wedding to Dr. Ryan Chaliff was to be the Memorial Day weekend of May 24. They had booked the first-ever event to be held at Savanna Hall, the gorgeous new venue at Zoo Atlanta, surrounded by glass windows overlooking the spectacular giraffes and elephants. With Proof of the Pudding on board, invitations were addressed, ready to be mailed, and details were in place. COVID hit, everything was on hold, and the wedding was postponed until a future fall date.

But as the wedding weekend approached, parents Kirk and Lori Halpern wanted to ensure it would be memorable. They planned a weekend for Erica and Ryan with immediate-family-only small gatherings beginning with an intimate Friday night dinner.

Photo by Jack Parada // Erica Halpern and Ryan Chaliff at Savanna Hall of Zoo Atlanta.

When the wedding was rescheduled, Erica bought a dress covered with lemons. Mother of the bride Lori saw it and took it to the next level, deeming the theme Shabbat dinner “turning lemons into lemonade.”

Erica Halpern and Ryan Chaliff at Zoo Atlanta.

She found a lemon-covered tablecloth and other lemon-inspired decor and created a feast marinated in lemons, of course. Given that Kirk owns Farmers & Fishermen Purveyors, he was able to ensure the bride and groom and his future mishpacha a beautiful dinner of lemon-butter Scottish salmon and plenty of other lemon-flavored inspired dishes including lemon sorbet and lemon pound cake for dessert.

The at-home Lemonade Shabbat Dinner May 22 was also the perfect kickoff of Erica and Ryan celebrating their “original” wedding date weekend surrounded by love, best wishes, and even a few surprises from family and friends.

Never Postpone Love and Joy

Erica and Ryan grew up in Sandy Springs, attending the same high school. Their love story began in New York City at Columbia University where Ryan attended dental school and Erica was working on her master’s in occupational therapy. Engaged on March 29, 2019, the couple returned home for a few days the weekend that would have been the wedding.

Erica Halpern and Ryan Chaliff’s All Things Lemon Dinner Home for the weekend that was to be their wedding.

Thanks to father of the bride Kirk Halpern’s quick thinking, he considered, “How can we do something incredibly special to still commemorate the wedding date?” To him, the answer was apparent. He and wife Lori spoke with the groom’s parents, Marla and Michael Chaliff, and the families embraced the original wedding date, orchestrating an intimate dinner May 24 at the original wedding site at Zoo Atlanta.

With the help of the venue’s caterer Proof of the Pudding, Erica and Ryan were about to embrace their wedding day in a preview, sneak-peek sort of way. To accomplish this celebratory dinner for a party of 10 with social distancing measures in place, endless details were implemented at lightning speed.

Father of the bride Kirk Halpern makes a toast to the bride and groom-to-be at the terrace of Savanna Hall at Zoo Atlanta.

“Like many events previously scheduled to take place in Savanna Hall, the Halpern-Chaliff wedding was postponed until fall. However, the families still had an emotional tie to the original wedding date,” said Hannah Baber, the caterer’s senior sales manager, “We were honored and excited to be part of the evening’s outpouring of love for this bride and groom.”

To set the evening, the gorgeous estate table where the family dined was placed where the chuppah will stand at the actual wedding. The family had cocktails on the terrace overlooking a few zoo animals, including giraffes and African elephants. Ensuring government and CDC standards were impeccably followed, the caterer included a hand sanitation station, propped open doors and provided gloves to break the challah bread. Guests embraced these and other subtle differences, which made everyone feel more comfortable from beginning to end.
Working closely with Proof of the Pudding, the Halperns again provided the proteins for the dinner through the family business. Devoted to helping community causes, the bride’s parents also made a meaningful donation in the couple’s honor to Meals on Wheels Atlanta as the evening was such a blessing, and they wanted to share their gratitude while making a difference.

The table setting was placed where the chuppah will be at the Halpern-Chaliff rescheduled wedding.
The main course was domestic lamb loin provided by Farmers & Fishermen Purveyors.

COVID-19 could not stop this bride and groom and their dedicated families from launching this wedding celebration. To help keep other corona brides smiling, this entrepreneurial couple even chose their original wedding day to also launch their Bride Brite at-home smile brightening kit. Seems apropos as they certainly have a lot to smile about. While the wedding date change can be quite a setback for any family, Erica concluded, “Ryan and I will forever celebrate May 24 as a day of all things lemon, celebrating the sweetness of our love, our family’s coming together, the smiles we all shared and a reminder of what’s really important in life.”

Gourmet Grad Feast

Martha Jo Katz’s mama Annette Harris Felson taught her to celebrate life. “Mama always said you only go around once, and you must take advantage of every day,” Katz recalled. “Life is one obstacle after another and it’s a matter of how you get through it that counts.” Instilled in Katz to seize the day, it was no surprise how she orchestrated an epicurean celebration for her grandson Reed Harris Turry.

Martha Jo Katz and Reed Harris Turry celebrate his law school graduation with a home-style feast.

May 16, 2020, was to be the day the Turry and Katz families had looked forward to.

Reed’s parents Joel and Roben Turry and grandparents Jerry and Martha Jo Katz had all attended the University of Georgia, and along with grandmother Elaine Turry, were looking forward to visiting Athens for Reed’s law school graduation. COVID-19 changed everything and traditional graduations would not happen in 2020.

An alternate celebration was put into place following Reed self-quarantining and testing to ensure he was safe. Friday, May 15, he returned to Atlanta to the home of his grandparents (aka Gogo and Big Jerr Katz), with cap and gown in hand.
He was greeted with a home-baked Shabbat dinner. In addition to her grandmother Harris’ sweet and sour meatballs, Gogo served matzah ball soup, blintzes accompanied by baked cinnamon and sugar apples, and cold strawberries and blueberries set on a table with hand-picked red roses from her garden.

The next morning, she kicked into high gear to plan the gourmet celebration.
Reed set up viewing his virtual graduation and wore his graduation cap. Big Jerr asked Google to play the University of Georgia fight song, “Hail to Georgia” to set the mood for this double dawg! Gogo dressed in red and black and at 10 a.m. sharp, Reed clicked on the link to his YouTube graduation.

As the dean of the law school spoke, Reed looked at his Gogo and asked “Are you crying?” She replied, “My heart is so proud to be with you on such an important occasion, I have tears of joy to be able to share this special day!” Reed’s name and photo came up, read by one of his professors, which made it even more meaningful.

Additional family recipes were included to sweeten the taste of Reed’s graduation feast. Gogo made a family favorite, which was an Ocilla Georgia Pound Cake. While this was not the graduation experience the family had expected, it was a memorable one that they will never forget.

The South Georgia “Ocilla” Pound Cake

2 sticks butter
(room temperature)
2 cups sugar
6 eggs
2 cups flour
1/3 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons bourbon

Preheat oven to 300 F. Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Add eggs one at a time to butter and sugar. Add flour and sour cream alternately to butter, sugar and egg mixture. When mixed well, add vanilla and bourbon. Put into greased large loaf pan (16-inch) or tube pan that has been greased with Crisco, then cut a piece of wax paper to fit the bottom of the pan. Bake 1 hour at 300 F, then turn oven up to 350 F. Bake 15 more minutes. Cool in pan and run knife around outside before removing from pan. Freezes great. Enjoy!

She Said Yes!

Blake Simon had the perfect plan to ask Jordyn Aronowitz to marry him April 3, 2020. Everything was set. Their families had booked their flights from around the country and friends were on notice of the surprise. However, as everyone retreated into quarantine, Blake and Jordyn fled New York for Jordyn’s hometown in Plantation, Fla. Determined to still pop the question, Blake made the best of a challenging situation. After a long Saturday drive around the neighborhood, Jordyn returned to her house and was met with a large surprise in the backyard: a big sign that said, “Marry Me,” and out popped bottles of champagne and cheers from the viewers. Family and friends Zoomed in on cue, cheered the newly engaged couple, and the moment was magical, masks and all.

Double the Blessings

Germaine and Bruce Weinstein had a double-header to celebrate. Having two granddaughters born within eight days of each other in May was thrilling, yet they could attend neither in person. Son and daughter-in-law Michael and Gail Weinstein had baby Grace Lorraine on May 6 in Atlanta, and daughter and son-in-law Brooke and Matt Berger had Savannah Rose on May 14 in New Orleans. Since the grandparents could not be there in person with either, they FaceTimed all the way up to delivery.

Baby Grace Lorraine with her siblings.

Besides sending flowers, balloons and yard signs, their celebration included sharing these simchas with over 100 friends and relatives all over the country.
Grandmother Germaine shared, “We toasted with wine after each birth and sent catered meals to the kid’s houses so they wouldn’t have to worry about cooking.

Brooke is doing a Zoom baby naming next month in Nola that we’ll all be invited to participate in.” Grandpa Bruce added, “During these times, there have not been many things to celebrate. We were hoping our bundles of joy and this blessed news brought a little joy into everyone’s lives. The outpouring of love has sustained us as we share our grandchildren’s blessed arrivals.”

Locked Down with Love

Libby Sherman turned 104 May 29. Quarantined to her assisted living apartment, for health and safety reasons, this momentous occasion was not going to pass without the family making sure she was celebrated. Libby’s caregivers brought her down to the front of the building and daughter Barbara Mendel socially distanced with the family singing “Happy Birthday.”

Libby Sherman turned 104 during the pandemic lockdown. Here she is at her 103rd birthday last year.

To acknowledge her special day, Mendel put together a wonderful video of their family sending birthday wishes from near and far. Then, with the help of the staff at her residence, they threw an outdoor surprise party – at a social distance, of course. They greeted Libby with posters, signs, balloons and a tiara. “This celebration was a rainbow on an otherwise dreary day, and the smile on her face was some much-needed sunshine,” Mendel said.

In addition to the festivities, they coordinated a few family Zoom calls with her grandchildren and great-grands. Plus, her caregivers Lillie and Rita had a few surprises too. Mendel’s home-baked chocolate cupcakes made from scratch with love put a smile on her mom’s face and sweetened the day.

Barbara Mendel’s Choco-licious Cupcakes

15-ounce box Devil’s Food cake mix
3.9 ounces instant chocolate pudding
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
4 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup rum of your choice
8 ounces sour cream

Preheat oven to 325 F. Place cupcake liners in 2 muffin pans.

In a large bowl, combine the cake mix and chocolate pudding. Add chocolate chips.

Next, mix in the eggs, oil, water and rum. Then stir in the sour cream.
Pour cupcake mixture into the liners (about 3/4 full).

Bake for 15 -20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Do not overcook.
Remove from oven and allow to cool on cooling rack. Wait to frost until cooled completely. Frost with your favorite frosting and watch them disappear!

Poppy’s First Birthday

My daughter Ali was eager and ready to celebrate her remission following six months of chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer. When COVID-19 hit, the planned celebrations had to be cancelled with so many unknowns as the pandemic unfolded.

Ali, one to embrace what is truly important in life, refocused her attention on her daughter Poppy, who was about to turn 1. Ali reminded me how on her first birthday I orchestrated my beloved grandmother Pauline Blonder’s big 80th birthday and Ali’s first birthday in our backyard at home. This treasured memory was precious.

Poppy celebrates her first birthday surrounded by special friends.

Grandma Pauline’s Big Birthday and Ali’s Little Birthday timelessly tied together. Trying to continue the pattern of making memorable moments, Ali and her husband Marc turned Poppy’s party that they had to cancel from a pizza party with family and friends to a kitchen table party with Poppy’s closest friends, luckily available for a last-minute invitation. Poppy’s guest list included all of her stuffed animals, some even quite famous, like Elmo. To top off the celebration of Poppy’s first pizza party, Ali baked a homemade smash cake and set up a Zoom viewing party.

Poppy’s first birthday, by Zoom, included painting cookies with edible paint with her cousins.

Poppy’s cousins Dani and Bella Spizman and Avery and Lyla Einstein were included, receiving in the mail in time for the party unicorn and butterfly cookies ready to be painted with an edible paint palette designed and baked by Johns Creek Mom Michelle Debowsky. Poppy had just mastered the art of clapping, loved every minute and her cousins had a sweet treat to eat.

Poppy’s first birthday will be one to remember. In case you were wondering, Poppy’s guests left stuffed and were on their best behavior!

Birthday Scavenger Hunt

Eli Goldberg follows the clues at his 7th Game of Games birthday.

Eli Goldberg’s seventh scavenger birthday hunt was lovingly orchestrated by his creative parents Marissa and Evan. “For Eli’s 7th birthday we did a cross between a scavenger hunt and a carnival game challenge,” Marissa said. “We called it ‘Eli’s Game of Games’ after the television show, ‘Ellen’s Game of Games.’ He was presented a rhyming riddle on a piece of paper and would have to solve the riddle to find the location of his first challenge. He would have to go to the location and complete the challenge as we instructed him to toss plastic rings onto mini orange cones, make a certain number of baskets in a basketball hoop) to receive his present along with the paper containing his next riddle to solve. We did about six riddles and challenges in total and he had a blast.”

According to Eli, it was the best birthday ever and a ton of fun.

Across the Miles

Nadia Bilchik, media powerhouse, speaker and communications expert, shared memories of a celebration that spanned the United States to South Africa. Nadia’s 82-year-old mother lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and all four of her children, including Nadia, live in the United States.

Nadia Bilchik and siblings last year at a birthday gathering for her mom who lives in South Africa.

“Celebrating our Mom’s April birthday has always been a challenge, and two years ago my siblings and I and our family traveled to South Africa and wished her a happy 80th at a magnificent game farm. This year, I had booked my ticket to be with her in Johannesburg and had planned a surprise tea party. Along came COVID-19 and flights and the trip were cancelled. So, how then do you celebrate your mother in a different continent, country, and an opposite side of the world?

Since our mother could access YouTube on her computer, we taped a Zoom interview of my siblings on my YouTube channel with my sister and brothers who are all doctors and sent her warmest wishes and our love at the end. It was an interview of a lifetime as I spoke for the first time in a webinar with my siblings Dr. Tanya Bilchik (neurologist in New Haven), Dr. Anton Bilchik (cancer surgeon in Los Angeles) and Dr. Brian Bilchik (cardiologist in Boston) as they shared an informative interview on their personal experiences of COVID-19. At the end of the interview, we spoke warmly about our amazing mom, who we credited for our success in life.

“The result was astonishing and inspired celebratory wishes from friends, family members and people all over the world who saw the interview. Our mother in South Africa received numerous calls congratulating her on her children’s success.

Seeing all four of her children together on her computer screen in their professional capacities turned out to be such a wonderful gift. We hope next year we can celebrate with her in person, but for now, we are not letting distance keep us apart, especially during this challenging time.”

Play it again Richard!

Native Atlantan and talented piano man Richard Siegel is well known for his accompaniment of sing-alongs and background music for parties. He can now be found sharing a tune every other day on Facebook. Aware of how music lifts our spirits, Richard’s carefully chosen selections accompanied with his colorful outfits, matching bowties and props, have included “Pomp and Circumstance” for graduates, Broadway tunes for cocktail at-home dinners and “Hatikvah” for Israel Independence Day.

Richard Siegel, entertaining piano man, makes Facebook appearances.

For the past three years, Richard has generously volunteered and accompanied Bob’s Broadway Chorus playing for senior residences. When the entire spring set was canceled due to COVID, Richard kept the music going and often joined in singing along in his upbeat video posts. “Because my voice is so awful, it really shocks me that people think I can sing. However, this has been a wonderful way to spend time and I have had the best time doing this.”

As I end this article on a high note, a silver lining prevails. Even small bits of joy and happiness are meant to continue.

Party on! Socially distanced of course.

Robyn Spizman is a party loving, award-winning New York Times best-selling author and media personality. She has appeared as a lifestyle expert on local and national television for over three decades. Her latest book, “Loving Out Loud: The Power of a Kind Word,” was released last year,

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