Solemn ritual or three-ring circus?

Bar and bat mitzvahs now celebrated in many ways

By Susie Davidson

Special to the Advocate

Bar and bat mitzvahs such as Moriah Alten Flagg’s celebration at Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington are religious events but sometimes evolve into extravagant parties.

A raucous bar mitzvah video featuring Dallas teen Sam Horowitz (inset), seen above on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” went viral.

A recent magazine article lauded local dancer and personal trainer Dave Heard as “the most popular bar mitzvah dancer in Boston.” He may also be the most highly compensated: Heard, who earns $450 per simcha, has done more than 100 to date.

Heard, 32, is keeping bar and bat mitzvah dance floors hopping while pursuing his dream of becoming aBroadway dancer. The elaborate celebrations he attends are replete with caricature artists, face painters, impersonators, and even celebrities, as well as personalized ear buds, mini coolers, water bottles and all manner of other trinkets, which – as the videos roll and the strobe lights pulsate – pay tribute to girls’ and boys’ achieving adult status in Jewish life. Some in the Jewish community believe the over-the-top commercialism at the celebrations has become a problem.

Today's bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are sometimes held in fancy clubs where glitz can take center stage.

A bar/bat mitzvah means the son/daughter of the mitzvos, the Commandments, meaning that at this point the individual is now responsible for fulfilling and observing the mitzvos just as any adult,” explained the Zvhil-Mezbuz Rebbe, Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff. “The fact is that a bar or a bat mitzvah is a religious event, and any accompanying celebration or party should be in accord with that.”

Have bar and bat mitzvahs degenerated into wild, three-ringed circuses of wanton debauchery where “the accent is on the bar and not on the mitzvah,” as The Rebbe recently put it? Or is there still hope for tradition and Torah ritual amid all the hoopla?

A cursory look at the plethora of over-the-top bar and bat mitzvah party planning, DJ, hotel packages, caterers and party favor websites – not to mention the raucous bar mitzvah video featuring Dallas teen Sam Horowitz that went viral last summer on YouTube and led to Horowitz’s appearances on “Good Morning America” and other television programs – reveals that most aren’t.

But some say all is not lost.

It takes a lot for families to buck the trend of the bigger and better bar mitzvah party, but I see so many of our families taking on this challenge and instead placing their emphasis on what becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means,” Rabbi Jill Perlman, associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in Lexington, said via e-mail. “One of the ways that we help enable families to buck that trend is by helping them understand that bar or bat mitzvah is just one stop along the way on their Jewish journeys. We do that by helping them create deep community connections that begin well before bar mitzvah and hopefully last long afterwards and by involving the entire family in the process, including the study.

Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is a simcha and deserves celebration, but not and never to the extent that it overshadows what the day is supposed to be about and that is the taking on of the sacred responsibility for one’s Jewishness.”

Rabbi Benjamin Samuels, the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Centre, voiced similar sentiments. He said it is not the bar or bat mitzvah celebration, but the yearlong process leading up to becoming a bar or bat mitzvah – which involves connecting to Torah study, communal prayer, and communal responsibility through a social-justice project – that is the focus at his shul.

For the most part, our celebrations are not lavish, but fitting,” said Samuels. “[We] make the day special, but the emphasis is on the mitzvah.”

Since the recession of 2008, bar and bat mitzvah receptions have become even more modest at Temple Shalom Emeth,” said Rabbi Susan Abramson, who leads the Reform congregation in Burlington. “Our congregants have their feet on the ground when it comes to these things.”

And even those who employ a party planner don’t always do it so they can have the biggest or the best, according to Jodi Raphael of Boston-based Jodi Raphael Events. “We have helped parents plan all types of bar and bat mitzvahs,” she said. “There have been parties from 50 to 300 people, and everything in between. They have taken place in synagogues and fancy hotels, loft spaces, museums, and people’s backyards.” Entertainment and menus also vary, she added.

But there is a common denominator. “The one thing that all of these affairs have in common is that a bar or bat mitzvah is only done once in a person’s life,” said Raphael. “A Jewish child comes of age once. You can have more than one wedding, but you only have one bar mitzvah.”

Whereas there are some people who probably plan lavish events in an effort to ‘outdo’ their friends, I have found that the vast majority of my clients just want to make a really special and meaningful celebration for their children,” agreed Amy Goldman of Sharon-based It’s Your Party! Event Planners.

Abramson said potential Shalom Emeth members are generally relieved when she informs them that they won’t have to deal with a “bar mitzvah rat race,” adding, “Once they learn how low-key our families are about [such celebrations], they are ready to sign on the dotted line.”

This hesitancy runs along the streams of Judaism. “While the extravagance is certainly not always commensurate with the true meaning of the day, it is often the themes that I find concerning for a 13-yearold,” said Laurie DiBella, president of Congregation Or Yisrael, a Conservative shul in Newton Centre. “I get that people have family and friends who may have to travel great distances, and one certainly wants them to feel welcome and nourished both spiritually and physically, but sometimes the themes are so disjointed from the occasion and the Jewish rite of passage.”

Parents are hesitant, too. “Our family chose to have a beautiful, catered Kiddush luncheon at our temple, Beth Abraham in Canton, following services,” said Michelle Langmead of Canton, who said the bat mitzvah girl, Abbie, made the 20-plus centerpieces herself, baskets of party supplies that were donated to the organization Birthday Wishes.

However, Langmead added that the pressure to give a lavish party complete with music, dancing, and such was felt by the family: “Prior to the day, adults asked, ‘Is that all you are doing? Where is the kid’s party being held?’”

Langmead said although her family loves to attend the big parties, they are not the kind of days they wanted for their daughters. “Maybe when my girls get older, they will have a different view of the day; maybe they will have wished they did something more like what their friends did,” she said. “Or maybe they will be happy that we focused on what mattered to us: our child, our family, and sharing our Jewish traditions with those we love and hold dear.”

Which brings the conversation back to the religious importance. “At Chabad, the main focus for the bar mitzvah is that the boy gets his own pair of tefillin, learns how to put it on, and learns about its significance and importance,” said Rabbi Shalom Ber Prus of Beth Menachem Chabad of Newton.

And maybe it has no bearing, according to two local Conservative rabbis. “The religious significance of a bar or bat mitzvah celebration is based on the message that the child has heard in the home, ‘at the knee,’ throughout his or her life,” said Rabbi Jonina Pritzker of Or Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue in Newton Centre. “The religious nature of the event is neither helped nor hindered by the amount that the family chooses to spend on the occasion.”

She added, “If a child has been raised with the joy and meaning of Jewish identity, then the celebration that acknowledges his or her ability to participate in Jewish life at a more adult level will be a much-awaited, religious, milestone event, regardless of whether the parents choose to spend a great deal of money, or, alternatively, a most modest amount, to mark the occasion.”

Rabbi Carl M. Perkins of Temple Aliyah, a Conservative synagogue in Needham, also sees no immediate connection between fest and ritual. “I am generally quite impressed with the way in which the boys and girls in our congregation, and their parents, focus on preparing for and participating in the service at which our kids celebrate becoming bar or bat mitzvah,” he said. “Virtually all of all bar/bat mitzvah kids read from the Torah and deliver a d’var torah based on the study of text and commentary, and virtually all of them find this an essential part of their rite of passage. I myself am not aware of any recent ‘over-thetop’ celebrations, other than the ones I’ve seen on YouTube.”

Raphael said the need for parties is based on many factors: “Oftentimes, a family feels that the occasion is important not only because of the child’s accomplishments, but because it is one of the only times that an entire extended family can gather together. And it may be that the grandparents are older, and it could be one of the last times that the family can be together in its entirety.”

According to Abramson, Temple Shalom Emeth members usually have a luncheon with a DJ at a local hotel or restaurant, with centerpieces often later donated to local charities.

And Abramson stresses the religiosity of the impending event to parents: “When I have orientation for families a year before the big day, I emphasize the importance of the spiritual, developmental and communal aspects of the day. It is about the service, becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community, becoming morally responsible for their actions, and choosing how they want to continue their Jewish identity from that day on. It is a beginning, not a graduation.”

Mitzvah projects have also greatly benefited Jewish and humanitarian causes, both close to home and in faraway regions. Boys and girls have done their religion and their people proud by these most adult of endeavors.

For example, bnei mitzvah Josh Adamson of New York, Hersh Goldberg ofJerusalem and Sierra Weintraub of Boston literally “saved a village” by fundraising and donating their bar and bat mitzvah money to Innovation: Africa, a nonprofit that – through its Mitzvah Campaign – brings Israeli technology to African villages. They created fundraising Web pages in honor of their Judaic milestone so that rural villages in Africa could receive solar energy technology, and build medical clinics and schools.

Themes, too, can be laden with meaningful, good intent. This past winter, Goldman produced a bar mitzvah for a boy with special needs whose first love is skiing and snowboarding. “His parents were so full of joy and pride for what their son had accomplished – both in his 13 years of life, and, more specifically, for his bar mitzvah, and they were so eager to share and showcase his talents and accomplishments,” she said. “As such, we created a fantastic party, which was an all-out skiing and snowboarding event, but although some may consider the event to be high-end, the parents’ goal was simply to celebrate their child, his interests, talents and accomplishments.”

But clearly, indulgence is always best when it is somewhat tempered, and this axiom could be something bnei mitzvah parents might wish to keep in mind. It doesn’t mean that they needn’t be creative.

I tried to set the tone for the congregation with my son’s bar mitzvah almost six years ago,” Abramson recalled. “It was challenging, because I wanted to invite the entire congregation as well as family and outside friends, but there was no way everyone could fit in our sanctuary.”

So Abramson had two services. “On Friday night, we invited the congregation and had a fancy Oneg Shabbat, and on Saturday, we had a luncheon reception with a DJ,” she said. “Each centerpiece was in honor of a different charity, and was donated to that charity the following week.”

Editor J. Michael Whalen contributed to this story.

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