Planning the Right Bar Mitzvah for Your Family

Everything You Need To Know —From Creating A Memorable Ceremony To Choosing From The Latest Party Trends

By Bethany Kandel

When did you first picture your child standing up on the bimah, reading from the Torah on his or her bar/bat mitzvah day? Perhaps it was when you first discovered you were pregnant? Maybe it was at your son’s bris, or your daughter’s baby naming? Or maybe it was even the day of your sonogram, when you watched that perfect little heart beating on the black and white screen and your mind fast-forwarded right through teething and the terrible twos to the first day of school, learning to ride a bike and that important religious coming-of-age ritual.

Bar/bat mitzvah day is a day most Jewish parents dream of for years. I remember my son wearing a half-dollar–sized yarmulke at his bris – his first ceremony as a Jewish boy – and with what seemed like the blink of an eye there he was, wearing a tallis, chanting Hebrew in front of a congregation of hundreds and being welcomed into the religion as a young man.

While many families hold the line, spending around $15,000 to 25,000, it’s not unheard of to spend $100,000 or more on a lavish event for 200. And in New York City the numbers escalate from there, with many parties topping the $500,000 mark. Some families prefer to keep the event low key, explaining that doing so helps elevate the significance and spirituality of the day. Some families see bar/bat mitzvah day as a chance to throw a big blowout celebration to celebrate Judaism and honor their child, friends and family.
Planning for such a big day that you and your family will find both meaningful and celebratory does take a lot of work, but if you are organized it does not have to be overwhelming. New York Family helps show you how to plan a bar/bat mitzvah that is right for you.

 

Figuring Out the Right Type of Ceremony for Your Family

So if the bar/bat mitzvah fantasies begin 13 years ahead of schedule, when should the actual planning begin? Experts say that about 12 to 18 months ahead is time enough, but everything depends on the providers’ requirements. Some large New York synagogues will ask families to choose a date as much as 3 years in advance. And while many venues and caterers will not even take a deposit more than 12 to 18 months before the date, if one’s heart is set on a certain location there is no reason not to have the venue pencil the event in if it is willing to hold the date. Many places will refund the deposit in the event of a cancellation if they can still fill the spot.

But before the first call to an event planner, caterer or DJ is made, families must answer some basic questions:

• What kind of celebration fits the personality of your child and family?
• What is your budget? What are your priorities? Do you want to focus your spending on location, entertainment or food?

After drawing some parameters, you can figure out how many people you want to invite, what type of venue you want to hold your celebration in, whether it’s a day or nighttime affair and whether you want one party for both children and adults or separate parties, said party planner Nathana Josephs, who runs Nathana Josephs PR and Spectacular Events.

Once you have visualized what sort of event you are looking to have, booking the location is the first thing to do, especially if your child’s bar/bat mitzvah is during the peak months of September and October or May and June, Josephs said. If you have a choice, opt for January or February for the best deals and more availability, she suggested.

Do your research. Josephs urged parents to talk to everyone they know who has had a bar mitzvah, and to have their child view every party he or she attends as a reconnaissance mission, returning from the events with ideas of what he or she does and does not want for his or her own party.

Do not get lost in the details. “Remember,” Josephs said, “it’s a party for a 13-year-old. It’s a celebration, so have fun with it and know your limits. Make it simple. You can’t see every venue. There are 804 outdoor locations, but I ask my clients, ‘Do you want to see them all, or just the three I think you should look at?’”

For the Ceremony: Finding a Rabbi, a Location and Hebrew Lessons

You may be lucky and have a synagogue your family loves and feels comfortable in and a Hebrew school your kids are willing to attend – if so, great! But if any of these pieces are missing, there are many other ways to ensure your child can still get a Jewish education and celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah.

Parents should know there are other options when, for example, their child has a learning difficulty or just does not have time to fit the usual twice-a-week Hebrew school lessons in between soccer practice, violin and tennis, said Betsy Smolar, who runs Hebrew Home Prep, an afterschool Hebrew tutoring program.

Once a week Smolar gathers a group of four to five students for lessons in a child’s or a friend’s home. “The important thing is that every child should have some Jewish education leading up to a bar/bat mitzvah,” she stated.

Bar/bat mitzvahs themselves are no longer cookie-cutter events, Smolar noted. Your child can do a shorter havdalah service on a Saturday evening or become a bar/bat mitzvah when the Torah is read on a Monday or Thursday morning instead of the usual Saturday morning ceremony in front of the whole congregation.

Families can even rent a rabbi if they are unaffiliated with a synagogue or have a child who has not been attending Hebrew school regularly. David Segal of Phoenix, Ariz., founded rabbirentals.com to provide rabbis of any denomination to perform weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. For about $3,000 Segal will find a local rabbi to tutor your child and perform the bar mitzvah service at a location of your choosing (including outdoors, at a restaurant or at a club). If the rabbi does not have access to a Torah, however, the rental costs can rise by $500 to $700. And if you are looking for a chapel to rent, the Heschel School on West 89th Street rents out a beautiful one that seats 125 people (and comes complete with a Torah) for $1,500.

“It’s a good thing to be affiliated with a synagogue, but sometimes it doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons,” such as financial constraints or an interfaith marriage, said one rent-a-rabbi, David Honigsberg, who also is an associate rabbi at The New Synagogue on the Upper East Side. Some of the students who search him out are actually “more motivated and really want to connect with religion, not just go through the paces,” he said, adding, “I always hope it’s the beginning of something and that a bar/bat mitzvah can push them into a fuller, deeper connection to Judaism than they might have had before.” To that end, he gives his students the gift of a Bible.

Party Time: Do You Need an Event Planner?

If both parents work full time, you are a single parent, or you are not very detail oriented, the answer may be yes. Party planners can not only offer creative ideas and help you plan all aspects of your event, they can often get better prices on some venues, since they bring repeat business. However, they usually charge about 15 to 20 percent of the entire cost of the party.

Cynthia Skelton of the Upper West Side was happy she hired one. The evening of her son’s bar mitzvah party, the DJ almost left because Loft, a restaurant on Columbus Avenue, did not have the correct equipment. But party planner Christine Hall came to the rescue. “She not only tracked down the right equipment, but [she] had everything going so smoothly that I didn’t even know there had been a problem until two days afterwards, when she said, ‘Do I have a story to tell you,’” Skelton said. “She saved the day and enabled me to enjoy the party without fretting. When you’re paying about $10,000 an hour you don’t want to worry about the DJ,” she added.
As to whether a party planner was a good idea for her, Skelton said, “She was worth every penny.” So much so that when Skelton wrote the check for her services she put in a “thank you” bonus.

Planning a Party on a Budget

In New York it is difficult to do a big bash – even one that is not excessive – on a budget, but there are plenty of ways to plan a smashing event that costs far less than a down payment on an apartment. While high-end venues like the Pierre, the Rainbow Room and Cipriani can charge up to $400 a head, you can find the occasional bargain at a neighborhood restaurant or club that is big enough for a crowd and a dance floor. For example, Scaletta Ristorante, a Northern Italian restaurant across from the Museum of Natural History, is only open for dinner, so it offers a more modest price of $70 per adult and $60 per child for lunchtime affairs.

Meryl Jaffe was determined to find a good buy around town for her son’s bar mitzvah last month. “I poured through Zagat’s from cover to cover,” she said. Jaffe called dozens of places to see if they could seat her estimated 80 guests and offer a reasonable price south of $70 a person. Her research paid off – she found several spots in uptown Manhattan that were off the beaten path from the usual venues, and she ended up choosing Pier 2110 on 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., a Harlem club whose owners did not even know what a bar/bat mitzvah was. “It could be a whole new business for them; because people are looking for more reasonable alternatives,” Jaffe said.

To keep costs down, some families choose to hold a bigger Kiddush after services and then host a small family luncheon at a local restaurant. Others simply hold a kids’ party, renting out a room in the synagogue, a local church, school, community center or dance studio, hiring a DJ, and ordering in pizza.
While some people hire private buses to transport their guests to the party after synagogue, Nathana Josephs took her daughter’s friends on the subway to their event at Carolines comedy club, holding a giant bunch of balloons so they would not lose sight of her. Others have scouted out bargain centerpieces on eBay and found photographers looking to beef up their portfolios by offering their services for free on craigslist.com. Sonia Orenstein hired a teenage DJ for her son’s party for only $400 and was not disappointed.

Godwyn Morris hosted her daughter’s bat mitzvah lunch for under $2,000. Her synagogue did not charge for the party room, and her husband Michael made many of the salads and sides to go with the salmon they ordered from a midtown restaurant. A part-time actor/caterer kept the buffet table well stocked, a local guitar player provided music, and Morris transformed a “dull basement room” into a party space with twinkling lights and snowflakes she bought at post-Christmas sales. She even used clip art and designed and printed her own invitations on the computer.

“If I’m going to spend $5,000 or $10,000, I’d rather spend it on a family vacation,” Morris said. However, she noted that the savings in money do not come without cost. “The tradeoff is time. To save money you do need to spend extra time,” she said.

The Age of the Blowout

In the beginning, a boy turned 13 and he had a bar mitzvah. He was called up to read from the Torah; he said a few prayers in Hebrew; his proud grandfather said a motzi over the challah; they drank a glass of Manischewitz and had a Kiddush of bagels and lox in the synagogue basement; he received some gelt; and he was officially a man in the eyes of the Jewish religion.

And then came conspicuous consumption and many celebrations had far more “bar” than “mitzvah,” as the money-is-no-object parties overshadowed the religious services and became, glitzy, excessive, expensive spectacles grander than many weddings.

You know the ones: choreographed Hollywood-worthy productions in Radio City Music Hall or Madison Square Garden, occasionally garnering mention on Page Six with dazzling décors and everything from fireworks to smoke-and-light shows, life-sized ice sculptures, and even professional rappers providing entertainment. Last year, one bat mitzvah girl from a Manhattan private school made her grand entrance to her Chelsea Piers party via helicopter.

Perhaps these examples are tame compared with such record-setting extravaganzas as the one thrown by real estate developer Gerald Guterman, who rented out the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship in the 1980s to take hundreds of guests on an overnight trip to celebrate the b’nai mitzvah of his three children. Just last year British billionaire Philip Green reportedly spent several million dollars to jet hundreds of guests to the South of France for his son’s bar mitzvah, which was complete with performances by Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake.

These extravagant examples aside, how can parents satisfy their child’s desire for a chic party without renting out the entire cast of “Legally Blonde: The Musical”? Party planners say that the right combination of location, music, and food and drink options can make any party a stylish extravaganza.

Hot Party Trends

With jaded kids attending several parties each weekend, they are hard to impress. So people are willing to pull out all the stops to make their event the one on everyone’s lips. Hence the trend in original theme concepts from “Sam in the City” to “The Mall,” where each table is designated as one of the bat mitzvah girl’s favorite stores complete with signature shopping bag centerpieces from Saks, Bloomies, and Bergdorf.

Today’s parties boast well-stocked game rooms rivaling Atlantic City, rock climbing walls, inflatable boxing rings, oxygen bars, and virtual three-ring circuses complete with stilt walkers, tarot card readers and even organ grinders with their monkeys. Connecticut-based R.E.A.D. Amusements will bring Segway scooters to your party for the boy or girl of the day to make a grand entrance, with party-goers taking a spin later.

Night Clubs

Perhaps the media obsession with celebrity culture and the “Access Hollywood” strain of starlet-saturated television shows are fueling the trend, but party planners say night clubs are where it’s at. Some party planners transform open loft spaces into a clubby scene with pulsating lights, multimedia shows on large overhead screens and small, intimate VIP lounge areas that give kids and adults their own space.

But party throwers are increasingly hosting events in dozens of actual nightclubs around town in the hours before they open to the public. “Why create a club, when you can use the real thing?” asked Eric Funk, an owner of the Upper East Side nightclub Vudu Lounge. Clubs like his feature DJ booths, stages and theatrical lighting, plus the plush banquettes, comfy couches and ottomans on which the kids love to lounge. “Forget assigned seating. Teens like to eat on the run between dancing,” he said.

Funk noted that kids love nightclubs because partying in one makes them feel grown up, adding, “We put out the red carpet and the velvet ropes and station a bouncer at the door so the kids can have a real club experience.”

Music

“No cha-chas and waltzes at these parties,” Funk said. Many of the events are kids-only, so there are no parents around to cramp their style.

At adult/kid parties, Geoff Cohen of GEMultimedia said he has noticed a trend away from the less danceable rap and hip-hop music that kids used to request. Rock ‘n roll is coming back with a vengeance as the younger generation discovers the Who, Doors, Stones and Beatles thanks to iPods and downloadable music.

And with today’s parents hip to contemporary bands like Maroon 5 and Green Day, “you’re seeing more kids sharing a taste in music with their parents,” he said.

 

Food and Drink

Food and drink also are becoming more personalized and fun at bar/bat mitzvahs these days. “People don’t want to have the same thing a million others have had,” said David Turk of Indiana Market and Catering. “You don’t have to bring in dancing elephants, but you can put a personal stamp on their party.”

To that end, Turk has come up with a variety of innovations, including do-it-yourself pot pie stations where guests get a big puff pastry shell and fill it with chicken, salmon or beef mixtures. Turk also offers baked potato bars and risotto stations, and his latest creation is a trifle bar where martini glasses are filled with a sponge cake base that gets topped with marinated strawberries, caramel sauce, whipped cream and more. To slake the thirst there are kids’ slushy bars that stock a dizzying array of virgin drink concoctions, as well as adult martini bars and vodka slides, where the alcohol flows into your glass down a groove carved into a massive block of ice.

Chocolate fountains are becoming so popular that they may be what the requisite chopped liver mold was to previous generations’ affairs. As the fountains seep into the mainstream they continue to expand and offer concoctions far more exotic than the original marshmallow and strawberry dippers.

Divalicious Chocolate now offers more than 60 items to dip, including mango, kiwi, Twizzlers, candy canes, Pringles, Oreos and popcorn balls. (Is your mouth watering yet?) Such chocolatey indulgence is not cheap – $570 for a medium fountain, plus $2.50 and up per person depending on what goodies you choose to dip. And don’t think this is just for the kids. “Adults have a way of finding it,” said fountain owner Jackie Gordon, who describes the experience as “like a Willy Wonka fantasy.”

Entertainment

Want Britney Spears, Leonardo DiCaprio or J. Lo at your party? As Arnold would say (yes, he’s available, too), No problem. Bubby Gram, with its Pick-a-Schtick department, has dozens of celebrity look-alikes to liven up your party. Owner Adrienne Gusoff is still looking for a Justin Timberlake impersonator, but her Paris Hilton (with or without dog Tinkerbell) is such a good match that she often is booked up to a year in advance. And Donald Trump, Joan Rivers and Austin Powers can liven up any bar/bat mitzvah video. She also has a “Marie Antoinette” strolling dessert table in which a live performer moves around the party in a costume specially built around a table on wheels.

Backlash to the Excess

Lavish coming-of-age parties are nothing new (see the super-sized birthday blowouts on MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen”), but some rabbis are fed up and calling for a reining in of the excess and hoopla and a return to Jewish values and the true meaning of the religious rite.

“For decades, bar/bat mitzvah has been one of Judaism’s best known inside jokes. The joke is out. It is not funny anymore,” said Rabbi Sarah Reines of Central Synagogue, when she openly voiced her misgivings to her congregation in a recent sermon. “I am not suggesting an end to bar/bat mitzvah parties…the problem arises when the values of the party pervert and eclipse the values of what it is that we are celebrating.”
To change things, she suggested that parents stop trying to keep up with their neighbors and resist peer pressure. “It is so important that we gather the strength to do things differently, not just for the purpose of maintaining Jewish values, but also to instill crucial parental values” and setting a model for teens to follow, Reines said.

One congregant who applauded her message was Jill Selter, an Upper East Side mother of a soon-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son. “It’s an issue I have been grappling with and I felt very alone in my views that the current bar/bat mitzvah standard is wrong for us and our children,” Selter said, adding, “Her words were so meaningful to me because I want a more spiritual, community-oriented bar mitzvah than a grand event for my son.”

She hopes this is the beginning of “a long-overdue change…Now that the wheels are moving perhaps we can stand together as a community and celebrate in a more appropriate way,” she concluded.

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