I am about to voice a highly controversial opinion. Thankfully, it has nothing to do with the upcoming election.
Here it is: Down With the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Sweatshirt/T-Shirt.
If you have a middle schooler, or know a middle schooler, or have been near a middle school that has Jewish attendees, you know what I’m talking about. You are well aware of the phenomenon. The kids in our local middle school, like in many Jewish neighborhoods, go to almost-weekly bar or bat mitzvahs. As a party favor, they receive a t-shirt or sweatshirt with the bar/bat mitzvah kid’s name on it, a logo (yes, that’s a thing), and the date of the event.
These are so prevalent that my son’s middle school principal recently wrote the following in a parent association newsletter:
“Something to Think About… It’s Monday morning and you are 13 years old and you walk into school, homeroom, the lunchroom, or the auditorium and everywhere you see a group of your peers wearing the same color sweat shirt or pants marking the occasion of a student’s bar or bat mitzvah from the past weekend. And the scene repeats itself virtually every Monday throughout the year.
It is a practice that divides and hurts…repeatedly. It fosters a culture of exclusivity and a competition for the greatest number of friends. It is a way of saying who is “in” and who is “out.” Wear the shirts and the pants, but not as a group on the same day. When the group intentionally wears the clothing on the same day, it sends a statement about who was invited and who was not. As a school we hope to create a culture of inclusivity, tolerance, and acceptance at a critical time in the development of our students, but we need the support of parents to change this practice. Thank you for your consideration.”
Look, I realize I’m an outlier in a lot of ways. But my oldest son’s bar mitzvah is coming up, and while it will be an amazing simcha, an extremely nice Kiddush lunch, and a fun night party for his friends, it won’t be lavish by local/global standards. And don’t look for favors, because there aren’t going to be any.
What? Blasphemy! But here are my reasons:
1. The only purpose of these shirts is to exclude people.
If you think it through, it is hard to come to any other conclusion. The whole idea of these shirts is so kids will proudly wear them—to school, on weekends, wherever. As our middle school principal rightly noted, how does this make the kids who didn’t get invited feel? I agree with him—battalions of 13-year-olds wearing the same sweatshirt on the same day creates a bad environment at school.
However, I’ll take it a step further: I happen to think that wearing these shirts anytime is kind of gross. The entire purpose of the shirt is to show that you were invited to a party. For those who weren’t invited, having that shoved in your face can hurt just as much two months later as it does the day after.
2. Have. Enough. Shirts. I live in a well-off suburb. Many of these kids possess enough clothes that they could go for a significant amount of time without repeating an outfit. Most of these “favor” sweatshirts and t-shirts, after a wearing or two, are discarded at the back of the closet—or appropriated by the moms, who then unintentionally rub my previous point in other parents’ faces at the supermarket.
3. Do a real mitzvah project.
If it weren’t beyond chutzpahdik/obnoxious, I would suggest that my kid do a mitzvah project of collecting everyone’s worn-once sweatshirts and t-shirts and donating them to people who actually need them.
But in all seriousness, can’t people spend the money they would spend on these favors in a better, more long-lasting way that would actually underscore the commitment kids are supposed to be making when they become bar or bat mitzvah? For example, here are some things I’d love to see:
– Synagogues asking that instead of favors, families give the money they would have spent on favors to a fund at the synagogue that will be used to send young kids to programs in Israel.
– Families deciding to spend the money earmarked for favors on their kids’ mitzvah projects instead—whether it’s advertising for a fundraiser, or simply giving the money to the cause the child has selected.
And, in any event…
4. Let’s talk about this.
Part of being an adult means not going along blindly with what everyone else is doing, but rather, analyzing our choices. Sit down with your middle schooler and discuss this issue with them. You might be surprised by what you hear.