Life & Culture

Online simchas are great - until it goes wrong...

Everything was going wonderfully for Cari Rosen's daughter. Until YouTube decided to pull the plug


There are many things that parents do to prepare for their child’s bar or bat mitzvah. Taking the cushions off the sofa so that, in their place, you can balance the laptop on top of two boxes of Nespresso capsules on top of the laundry basket is possibly a less traditional way to make last-minute arrangements, but then these are not normal times.

In these Covid days, those of us who have spent years planning for a simcha have had to revise our plans and been faced with new and difficult choices. Do we postpone by a year? Find a new date altogether? Or decide that the show must go on? It’s a very personal decision, but having looked forward to our big weekend for so long, we were determined to make it work, even if it wasn’t in quite the way we had originally anticipated.

A ‘live’ Shabbat service was now out – for obvious reasons – so we considered various options before settling on the Thursday evening before, a time that worked for friends and family in the UK and the US. It was also my mum’s 80th birthday. 

Planning a virtual service throws up decisions that you would never need to make when celebrating more traditionally in shul. Where to do it? Sitting or standing? What can we use for a lectern? (Our street WhatsApp group came into its own with the loan of an antique music stand. I’ve also seen ingenious use of a slow cooker box covered in fabric – necessity truly is the mother of invention.) 

And then the choice of how to stream it to your nearest and dearest. This was the most important milestone in our daughter’s 12 years, and getting it right was essential. We did the research. We talked to people who were also celebrating their big days online. We ‘attended’ bnei mitzvah on various platforms – all lovely in different ways – before settling on YouTube for our own. By using a service called StreamYard, we could create our own broadcast studio with all the participants on camera (laptop) in their various homes. With my brother vision mixing from New Jersey, what could possibly go wrong?

Actually, we thought of plenty of things that might not work quite as planned on the big day, and tried to pre-empt all of them accordingly. We rehearsed with her teacher, with the rabbi, with my brother. We spoke to people who’d done it this way before us to pick up tips. We upgraded our WiFi. Then we sent out the link.

The day dawned. It was happy. It was sad (not being able to see our family on such a momentous occasion was never going to be easy). It was surreal – suddenly celebrating this great rite of passage in the spot where hours earlier I had been doing an online Zumba class. And there were, inevitably, nerves. We've all seen Bar Mitzvah Boy.

Our daughter, however, was remarkably calm throughout, her chief worry that she would need an umbrella for protection during the service (there were rather a lot of tears from her parents that day. Mostly happy ones). But somehow we held it together.

And so it began. Our introductory speech about our girl, our families, the importance of this occasion. The rabbi explained the order of service. Our daughter delivered her Dvar Torah with composure and confidence. 

She leyned her maftir and haftorah so beautifully. It was note perfect and we couldn’t have been more proud as we threw sweets and hugged and congratulated, then prepared to deliver our parental blessing. 

And it was then that it all went wrong. 

It’s a bit of a blur. I’m not quite sure how or when we realised something was amiss but it quickly became apparent that we had somehow fallen off air. Texts started pouring in from guests saying that the stream had been removed and replaced with a message saying that we had violated YouTube’s terms of service. 

One of our participants got a Zoom link up and running within a couple of minutes and we quickly emailed it to everyone we could. But many people missed bits of the service. Many more never made it to the second half at all. 

Her grandparents had waited so long for this day, had overcome the huge disappointment of not being able to share it in person, and now one of them been locked out midway through the service. This upset us more than anything.

We were baffled and we were devastated.

Our daughter, meanwhile, remained as cool as a cucumber and the rest of the proceedings were wonderful – for those who got to see them. We received countless touching and heartfelt comments about how well she had done and how moving, intimate and beautiful the service was, but the fact that so many people had been denied the chance to enjoy it fully was a bitter pill for us to swallow.

And, of course, we wanted to know why. What was it about this most traditional of celebrations that could possibly have led to it being taken down part way through? 

We appealed that night, and by morning the video had been reinstated, underlining the fact that there was nothing wrong with it at all, although no explanation or apology was given. It cut off before she finished leyning, but the ‘local’ recording on StreamYard (who couldn’t have been more helpful) saw it through to the blessing, which we were immensely thankful for, even though many other precious moments had been lost.

But once a journalist, always eager to get to the bottom of a mystery. I got in touch with YouTube to ask what had happened and received an apology ‘for the inconvenience caused.’ I wasn’t convinced that that quite summed up what had actually taken place. Does ‘inconvenience’ cover the range of emotions and stress we went through when it got pulled, or the fact that at least a third of our guests only got to see half of the service? I’d say not. So I pressed on.

YouTube then told me that they could confirm that “the live stream was rejected in error” and that the increased usage due to Covid means that “automated systems have started removing some content without human review. As we do this, users and creators may see increased video removals, including some videos that may not violate policies. We won’t issue strikes on this content except in cases where we have high confidence that it’s violative.”

But don’t worry, they added, you can always appeal and yours was reinstated after all… 

Sometimes there are no words.

These are difficult times for us all, and most of us forced to find new ways to celebrate important milestones will experience a host of emotions even without something like this making it all a hundred times harder. 

There was absolutely no reason for our simcha to be pulled, no reason for our friends and family to miss out on our virtual event, having already lost the chance to celebrate together in person. While StreamYard was – and is – an amazing service that I wouldn’t hesitate to use again, my trust in YouTube is destroyed. Not least because other things seem to slip through the net despite being offensive at best (thinking of a four-year-old relative watching an age-appropriate cartoon show which was interrupted by a cartoon ad promoting divisiveness and hate around the conflict in the Middle East…)

I’d like to say the chances are that it will never happen again, yet I have now heard other similar stories, so perhaps the best advice I can offer is to expect the unexpected, and always have a plan b. Hopefully you will never need it, but if you do, you will be prepared.

For those who have virtual simchas coming up, what I’d also say is try to focus on the now, rather than the what-should-have-been. And hold onto the plusses: live streaming allows people who might not have been able to get to shul a chance to share the occasion. You can (theoretically – looks critically at YouTube) have a recording of the event to keep for posterity. And the focus falls absolutely on the important bit – the service – rather than the fripperies that might surround it in ‘normal’ life. There’s no fussing about getting hair or nails done or panicking about what to wear. It will be intimate, personal and special, and something that you and your guests will remember forever.

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