This article appeared in the June 30, 2006 Jewish Advocate.
Plan early for successful simchas
By Susie Davidson
It seems that bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies have become bigger than all of us, to the point where the hoopla can nearly eclipse the importance of the ritual. Parents struggle to keep the religious aspects front and center, while peer pressure exerts other influences. Ultimately, an all-encompassing celebration seems the only way to go.
By the way, this decision-making process occurs years before the actual event, according to two recent b’nai mitzvot planners. Even if you have the date, umpteen additional considerations must be planned long in advance, they say. Thus, it’s prudent to begin as early as possible, to ensure a smooth, memorable milestone in your child’s life.
You may initially want to peruse comprehensive online information, such as the Jewish Celebrations B’nai Mitzvot section at www.mazornet.com. Q & A’s are listed atwww.mnment.com/barmitzvahs. Bar Mitzvah planning sites are ranked by popularity at www.topmitzvahsites.com. Or check out helpful tips at www.Mitzvahs.Myevent.com.
B’nai mitzvot software available atwww.castlecomputer.com allows the user to email guests and plan multiple events, assign seating arrangements, maintain a gift list, print envelopes, mailing labels, place cards, and even track the budget. “My Bar/Bat Mitzvah Companion,” available at www.fivestarsoftware.com, claims to be the easiest, most complete and user-friendly software on the market today.
Don’t laugh. Navigating through these tools may just help steer you through the maze.
Timetables also abound. Beth Israel Center of Madison, Wisconsin has a convenient checklist for Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparations athttp://www.bethisraelcenter.org/barbatpr.htm. Adat Shalom of Bethesda, Maryland’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guidelines at http://www.adatshalom.net/bnaimitz.html cover the child’s Jewish identity and readiness, fees, training and preparation, the program, ceremony, oneg responsibility, expressing gratitude, and Jewish life after the bar/bat mitzvah. Online calendars advocate two to three years ahead for the date, one to two years for attending meetings and workshops, nine to 18 months for cantillation classes, and six to 12 months for tutoring and tikkun olam projects. Three months before the date, the entire family should meet with the clergy to review progress, and the child should discuss the Torah portion with the rabbi. Final reviews with the clergy and the tutor should occur within two weeks prior.
“In the beginning, there was… THE DATE!” says Amy Howell, a Randolph, Mass. native now living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who just celebrated her son Perry’s bar mitzvah. But even the date has ramifications. “Will your child's friends be away during a school break or the summer? Will it be finals time?” She cites weather (snow in Maine, hurricanes in Florida) and seasonal considerations regarding attendees. “Tax season can be disastrous, and allergy season can impact some children’s health and moods,” she says. And Howell cautions parents to remember to schedule a child’s favorite activities, before all the appointments set in.
“We began our search for a place last summer,“ says Merrill Indeck of Lexington, whose daughter Alexa’s bat mitzvah is scheduled for April 14, 2007. They settled on Brandeis’ Faculty Center. “This tells you how early things need to get started,” she added.
Keep in mind that the guest list may change. “Check it twice a week,” says Howell. “It seems like children change friends hourly. If you plan to send out ‘Save the Dates’ six months ahead of time, chances are they'll have some new best friends, and some they don't want to invite.” The day after his bar mitzvah, her son wanted to hang out with kids he hadn’t invited to the event.
Indeck explored DJs early on. “I went with Alexa to view a DJ's work that a friend had told me about.” Luckily, they booked him, but there will still be many deposits and signed contracts along the way.
“We have to figure out centerpieces and pick a theme,” she said. They decided to donate whatever they use after the event. “If it is CDs for a music theme, you can donate to a community center, a Y or a synagogue,” she said. There can also be simple flower arrangements.
Invitations must also be selected way ahead. Some of Indeck’s friends made them. “This cut the cost considerably because it can be close to a thousand dollars by the time they are professionally done,” she said. “If you have a creative relative or friend, the paper and envelopes can be ordered on line.”
But creativity needn’t be sacrificed in the hands of a pro. “Individuality is very ‘today’ in the B'nai Mitzvot invitation market,” says Judy Menkes of Unique Simchas, located at 1382A Beacon St. in Brookline. “Both girls and boys are taking an interest in tying their invitations to their own taste by choosing unusual colors, textures, layout, or design,” she said, noting that parents are often happy to follow the lead. “Fortunately, the kids have great sense and a very responsible approach to this exciting step in their Bar/Bat Mitzvah planning.”
It may not necessarily be a one-shot order. Nancy Skolnick has operated By Invitation Only, now located in Wayland, for nearly 20 years. “Many of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah invitations I completed have grown into wedding invitations and baby announcements,” she says. “Among the best aspects of my business are the relationships that I have formed over the years,” she adds.
“Invitations are the introduction to any event,” she stresses. “A personalized invitation not only reflects the personality of the client, but sets the tone of the party.” Skolnick’s work ranges from the most elegant to the most outrageous. “All should be finely designed with a personal touch,” she said. “Each occasion is individual in its character.”
Skolnick notes many industry changes over the past two decades. “Invitations were larger and much bolder then they seem to be now,” she says. “Sizes have shrunk and papers are finer, with a fuller range of color and texture.” Letterpress, thermography, engraving and flat-printing are all popular, as is laser printing for invitations and envelopes. “Hand calligraphy will always be elegant for invitations, seating cards, table numbers and programs,” she said.
Lower prices may be advertised online, but Skolnick advises caution. “Personalized, individual expertise is best available from qualified business consultants,” she said. “Also, it is important for the customer to be able to view current styles, colors of papers and ink and also to feel the textures and weights of papers.” With discounts, she says the final price can be the same.
Howell kept Perry’s own needs in mind. “Make sure the Rabbi and/or Cantor are aware of your child’s individual learning style,” she says. “If your child has trouble concentrating or keeping awake at a certain time of the day, take that into consideration.”
Your child may not even want a party. “How social is your child?” says Howell. “Some children may choose to perform a mitzvah with friends.” One friend's child hosted a fundraiser basketball game for a cause that he found meaningful. Another girl elected to create various crafts with her friends, which were later donated to a local charity; her parents provided the materials, pizza, and music. “Another child I know only wanted to invite boys, so his parents hired a company that runs sports trivia games and performs a sports-related ‘comedy café’,” she said. “Makeshift casinos with Texas Holdem are very popular now with boys and girls who don't want to center their celebration on music and dancing.”
Nonetheless, entertainers abound for the party-oriented. Siagel Productions of Auburndale can help with planning, party themes, favors and games, novelty entertainment, videography, photography, room décor, and lighting. Speaking of novelty, Dr. Dreidel, a/k/a Jonathan Shulman, performs a 30-40 minute set of “Judaic hip-hop” as “Hillel Cool J.” “What makes my material unique is that it is catered to Jewish themes, events and holidays,” says Shulman, whose Rhythm Connections is based in Maynard. His upcoming CD, “Holiday Rhymes for Modern Times,” includes a unique version of Hava Nagila: “Join in the circle/Dance the Hora/Pray for peace along the Gaza Borda/Dance with the machatunim/check out your cousin/look at that punim.”
Shulman, who works with varied communities including kids, the handicapped, elders, and even the deaf, uses rhythm and music to bring people together and grow a sense of community. “Where hip-hop can tend to be repetitive and the lyrics shallow and incomprehensible,” he says, “I combine humor with substance and musicality.”
Even with the major aspects down, others will manifest. Howell’s to-do list took on a life of its own: “OK the printed sports bags for the kids, proof the copy, and estimate how many I will need. Get the revised estimate back from the balloon people. Meet the centerpiece person in Baltimore, and give her all the materials. Email floor plan and filled-out questionnaire to the DJ. Contact photographer (see if he remembers us, he should, he cashed our check). Go to hotel and finalize Saturday lunch, and synagogue for Shabbat and brunch menus. Try on dress, shoes, purse, and a top to go with suit for morning. Get extra-support panty hose. Order cake Monday. Make sure Perry has shirts, one more suit, shoes that fit, and two ties. Call caterer to find out when tasting is, and ask her to bring a table for sign-in book. Book color, cut and nails for that week. Reserve space for dog at the vet. Write parents’ blessing. Order thank-you’s. Finish sign-in book. Pull and scan photos from scrapbooks for slide show. Print out kids’ name cards…. All this, and I've been working on it almost non-stop for months.”
Indeck stresses, however, that it is the religious aspects that are the most important. Howell concurs. “After Perry's 'Bar Mitzvah Weekend’, I asked him what his favorite part was,” she said. “He told me it was being on the Bima! Go figure.”
Unique Simchas can be contacted atUniqSimcha@aol.com or by calling 617-734-3114. To contact By Invitation Only, please call 508-653-4484 or email email@example.com. For information on Rhythm Connections, please call Jonathan Shulman at 617-359-8135 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.