From big-picture decisions, like helping clients choose from what can be an overabundance of competing venues, caterers and music options, to minutia like running around at the last minute in hot pursuit of batteries for table centerpieces, bar and bat mitzvah planners can take some of the weight off parents’ shoulders. Even if their connections with vendors don’t serve to recoup the entire cost of a planner’s services, Neil Bartfeld—who went from skeptic to believer on using a planner—says that “what you do recoup is some of your sanity and that is also very valuable.”
At his recent bar mitzvah celebration, Lavi Gimpel’s great-grandmother handed him a check that she said would cover the cost of seven trees. “One for each member of your family. When I come to the farm someday, I want you to show each tree to me,” said the great-grandmother, Chaya Wexler. Trees are not a typical bar mitzvah gift. But Lavi Gimpel is not a typical bar mitzvah boy. Not only did he ask his guests—and crowd-funders—to help him populate the farm his family is establishing in the Judean Hills with trees, but he also chose to have his Feb. 19 bar mitzvah party at a soup kitchen in Jerusalem.
“A South African family was among the first to book me for their bar mitzvah,” recalls Rabbi Jay Karzen, who was coined the “Jerusalem bar mitzvah king” in 1997. “In the process of printing invitations for their forthcoming event in Jerusalem, they faced me with a simple question: ‘What’s the address of the Kotel?’” He assured the family that no address was necessary, but they would not take no for an answer. “So I composed an address: The Western Wall: 1 Kotel Plaza,” Karzen tells JNS.org. “Believe me, that is exactly what the invitation read.” Karzen, 81, was among the first rabbis to offer formal bar and bat mitzvah services at the Western Wall. He has stories to make you laugh out loud or cry tears of joy.
A young woman is in the process of transitioning to be a young boy. While the rabbi and close family members are aware of the transition, the congregation is not. Such was the scenario faced five years ago by Rabbi Eric Gurvis, senior rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass. “There were a lot of details involved, even in the language around the celebration,” recalls Gurvis. Instead of naming the ceremony a bar or bat mitzvah, Gurvis called it a “mitzvah journey to becoming a responsible adult Jew.” The synagogue also removed the bar/bat mitzvah label from the certificate that it gave the teenager. JNS.org explores the complexities of transgender teens' multi-layered Jewish rite of passage.
In recent years, many communities have taken a fresh look at their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. How can it be more relevant? More inspiring? And more likely to be a vehicle for continued engagement in Jewish life? After all, as we always tell our 13 year-olds, “It marks the beginning, not the ending!” Rabbi Enid C. Lader writes that, indeed, the process of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah should—and can—be incredibly meaningful for the child, the family, and the entire congregation. In an op-ed for JNS.org, Lader shares the intergenerational b'nai mitzvah programming model that has been used for 20 years at Beth Israel—The West Temple in Cleveland.
Barbara Gilbert's grandson will be having his bar mitzvah this February in Efrat, Israel. Though she says the trip makes her “very nervous,” Gilbert is still planning to travel to the Holy Land for the celebration. Not everyone is as resolute. Many American Jews have decided not to attend their relatives’ simchas because of the security situation in Israel. Nevertheless, those families wishing to organize bar/bat mitzvah events (either parties or just trips) in the Jewish state remain determined. “You cannot stop living,” says Atara Kennedy of Silver Spring, Md., who recently planned a bat mitzvah trip in Israel for her daughter, Grace. “And we would not stop our trip. It would send a message to the Israelis that we have abandoned them, turned our backs.”
A recent poll by RespectAbility and Jerusalem University found that people with disabilities are dramatically under-represented within the ranks of engaged Jews, with 20 percent of respondents indicating they are unable to participate in Jewish life because of their disability. Against that backdrop, Jewish communities, organizations, and families are working to ensure a more inclusive environment for special-needs teenagers marking their bar and bat mitzvahs. “It is a rite of passage that should not be denied to any Jewish child, regardless of their abilities,” says Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities. “I would like to see every synagogue in North America commit to providing a bar or bat mitzvah to any Jewish child who wants one.”
For some Jewish youths, the bar/bat mitzvah process can have negative elements and may even be an unofficial “goodbye” to their religious observance. “The bar/bat mitzvah experience has been criticized as a shallow entry point to Jewish life for American 13-year-olds, and for far too many, it is their last connection,” says Robin Kramer, executive director of Jewish non-profit Reboot. As a result, many Jews in their 20s and 30s lack a sense of Jewish identity and community. Seeking to bridge that gap, Reboot's recently launched “reBar Mitzvah” initiative helps Jewish adults reconnect to their teenage years.
For the tens of thousands of youths from dysfunctional families who are cared for in residential facilities all over Israel, it’s often Diaspora Jews who make the difference between having no bar/bat mitzvah at all, or having a meaningful transition into Jewish responsibility.
In the beautiful Italian mountains, where Jewish practice went underground 500 years ago, Jews from around the world are celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs.
Today, with families more spread out than they used to be, the idea of a destination wedding or bar/bat mitzvah is more appealing than ever. Having guests travel to one location can be efficient, fun, and serve as a vacation at the same, writes travel agent Ellen Paderson.
If the words “kosher catering” conjure up visions of bland and unhealthy food, and memories of bar and bat mitzvahs past still haunt you, remember that planning your upcoming simcha doesn’t have to be a monotonous process full of seen-it-befores or tried-that-onces. With the help of creative kosher catering professionals—or by simply looking within yourself—your special day can be one of a kind.
Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, North American Director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the co-director of URJ's B'nei Mitzvah Revolution project, in an oped advises the modern-day teen celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah to approach the rite of passage not as a sort of graduation ceremony, but as a meaningful transition towards Jewish adulthood.
While traditionally associated with years of Hebrew school, stressing over your d'var torah with your parents, or preteen awkwardness on the dance floor, today Jewish adults are increasingly reinventing the Jewish rite of passage typically reserved for teens. Whether they're for recent converts, those denied celebrations as children, or those rediscovering their Jewish identity, the phenomenon of adult bar/bat mitzvahs has become a regular feature at many Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout the country.
As young people, bar and bat mitzvah parties helped us build character: awkward social interactions, quiet slow-dances where you desperately try not to make eye contact, and condescending head-pats from adults and kids taller than us. Now that we’re older, and head-pats have taken on a sexier implication, how do we behave ourselves at our cousin’s/nephew’s celebration? JNS humor columnist Leo Margul explains how to act—and how not to act.