Birthday parties used to be mainly for young children and for numerically significant milestones. But with the country-wide lockdown depriving us of social interaction, the Zoom birthday party has become a way for people of all ages to stay connected with friends and relatives, and infuse the day with celebration.
Many young adults have returned to their childhood homes, away from friends and budding relationships. Although most have grown up communicating digitally, the social lives of students and recent college grads have taken a hit. Rena Ben-Ezra, a recent college grad now at her parents’ home in Florida, had been invited to a few Zoom parties and decided to host one to celebrate the 23rd birthday of her boyfriend Joey Kirsch, who is riding out the shelter-in-place era at his family’s home in New Jersey. She organized the invites via one Facebook group and lured him onto Zoom at the set time by telling him to join a small group with whom they frequently play games.
“I made it seem like I wanted to hang out and do normal things,” she said. “Everyone else knew it was a way to get him on without thinking anything weird was happening.”
About 40-50 friends from different parts of Kirsch’s life participated. The party began about 10 p.m. and continued, with a smaller group, to midnight and into the next day, his actual birthday. A friend who still has a student Zoom account with a higher time allotment hosted the party; the standard free account limits sessions to 40 minutes.
“I really enjoyed the party,” said Kirsch. “I don’t regularly use Zoom for speaking, so when I went on the call, I was a little suspicious,” he admitted. “The best part was seeing so many of my friends from all over on the call, people that I may not have been able to see otherwise. The main problem was that there can really only be one conversation, because of the nature of a Zoom call, so if there are many people, some are probably just going to sit there without talking.”
The central activity of most Zoom birthday parties is playing games. Ben-Ezra set up games on Kahoot (https://kahoot.com), a platform used widely by schools that has become popular for Zoom parties. Teachers—and creative party hosts—can pose trivia questions, make up questionnaires, conduct polls and give multiple-choice quizzes. Another friend set up a Jeopardy game.
“Making sure people are engaged is the best way to make sure the party is fun,” said Kirsch, who loved the interactive games. “I really appreciated the party and seeing all my friends who were able to be there for me.”
Rebecca Harris got onto what she thought was a FaceTime call with one friend. But the friend said FaceTime wasn’t working so she was going to open up Zoom. And then there were 40 people on the call, wishing her a happy 23rd birthday. “I was really surprised,” said Harris, a student living at her family home in Riverdale. “It was so funny to see so many people from all parts of my life, some from high school, some from college, friends through the years, friends of friends—people would pop in and show up.” Games were a big part of the party. She likes Kahoot, where you can be on the screen and use your phone to play. So with Trivia, for example, you can see who is answering. Harris’ twin sister, who is also living at home now, had been the guest of honor at a Zoom birthday party with a small group of college friends earlier in the day.
Harris said people can get very creative with Zoom parties. She was a guest at one in which the host had asked a few friends in advance to make games, and that way there was structure throughout. When there was a pause, they put on music and had a dance party.
Normally 20-somethings don’t need such planned events to have fun but with everyone at home, the usual get-togethers are on hold. Harris enjoyed her party and the ones she has attended. “It’s a good way to show up and be there for a friend.”
Friends who used to meet for coffee or lunch are now meeting on Zoom. A birthday gives the get-together a celebratory feel. Leiah Moskowitz of Englewood had her birthday during the second day of Pesach, April 14, never an ideal day for celebrating. This year, she got to celebrate before the chag began. Her daughter had a big happy birthday sign made to place on the front lawn. “She felt like because we were trapped at home, people should know it’s my birthday so when they walk by, they can acknowledge it,” said Moskowitz. Friends organized an Erev Yom Tov Zoom birthday party. It was sort of a surprise. “It’s hard to surprise people on Zoom because you have to go to the link,” she said. “One of my friends texted, ‘Are you free at 6:00 today?’ The other sent me a calendar invite on my phone. No one said anything about a birthday party. They reached out behind the scenes to invite a few friends.”
The half-hour schmooze was a good way to get together, chat and say happy birthday, just to be together. “It was cute!” she said. “Ordinarily, we would have gone out for dinner, had shalosh seudos, or hung out—it’s not a big birthday this year. It was their way of letting the current situation not make you forget people’s birthdays.”
Moskowitz is used to Zoom meetings for work, and through her involvement with the Moriah School, so she is comfortable with the platform. “It’s the new norm of seeing your friends, when you can’t actually see them.”
By Bracha Schwartz