Initially, we thought we’d abscond to Israel for my son’s bar mitzvah. We’d lug a Torah up Masada, have our son chant his prayers as the sun rose, then go jump in the Dead Sea. Simple and straightforward, right?
But as we talked things over — and priced it out — we realized it would be a shame not to celebrate this milestone with family and friends, our close-knit Brooklyn community that’s integral to Noah’s life.
If we were going to keep the simcha stateside, it needed to reflect Noah as an individual, as well as our own values and sensibilities. Oh, and not devour his college fund. So we did the do-it-yourself approach. We went for humble and heartfelt — and apparently, we pulled it off.
The bar mitzvah was last month, but since then, numerous friends have reached out, asking, “Can I borrow your binder?” While I’m not remotely organized enough for any binder, I’m happy to share what we did — and how you can, too.
1. No rabbi? No problem!
Our Jewish life centers around my kids’ progressive day school and summer camp, so it felt phony to suddenly join a synagogue for the sake of tradition. So we contacted Hebrew Helpers, a bicoastal a la carte bar mitzvah service that helped secure prayer books and a Torah, designed the program, and worked with Noah on his responsibilities. With their help, we were able to stitch together a service that combined traditional and nontraditional elements. There were lots of personal touches, including a symbolic passing of the Torah through the hands of grandparents and parents — from generation to generation — and a chuppah blessing surrounded by friends.
We were fortunate because my dad taught Noah his Torah and Haftarah, which made the studying meaningful (and low-cost). My husband and I decided to learn a little Torah, too, in solidarity with Noah, who loathes the spotlight. But if you don’t have a veteran, Torah-reading grandfather at your disposal, there’s an app for that: Pocket Torah is a recorded database of all the Torah portions that you can get right on your phone.
2. Location, location, location
Because we were going off-script, we wanted a soulful setting. From his sandbox days, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has been Noah’s second home, so the park’s Picnic House felt like a natural backdrop for the ceremony and kiddush that followed. We brought along a whole bunch of balls, and lucked out on the weather, so the party soon drifted out to the fields for frisbee and pick-up soccer games. Other low-key options: rent the gym in your kids’ school, secure a permit at a local playground, or even host in your backyard.
3. Save a tree — and a stamp
I will never forget the bat mitzvah invitation that arrived in a giant box. It was swaddled in pink tissue paper, the invite itself was a 6×8 slab of plexiglass festooned with ribbon and rhinestones — it screamed peak 1980s. The postage alone must have cost six bucks. Although the over-the-top trend may still be alive and kicking — last year, my kid received an invite printed on cardstock thick as a paddle from Dazed and Confused — we used a simple design from Paperless Post. We saved money and reduced carbon, and the convenience factor is not to be ignored: sites like these can track RSVPs, send nudges, and keep a tally of your guests.
4. Food for thought
Here we went fairly standard, contracting a caterer for a dairy buffet. But depending on your level of ambition, there are options. A friend brought in vegetarian platters from a Middle Eastern emporium, another picked up spreads from a kosher place. We trimmed costs by supplying our own alcohol. One nice touch: Our friends baked the challah — and said the blessing before the meal. If you have people with culinary skills, tap them!
5. Music is love
Originally, we thought we’d go old school and keep music out of the Shabbat service. But then folk singer Ami Yares offered to play guitar, which lent an extra level of engagement and uplift to the service. Because it was Sukkot, we also read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) — but instead of dry text, Ami played an acoustic version of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” whose lyrics stem from that part of the bible. It brought this mother of a bar mitzvah boy to tears.
At the last minute, my husband bought a cheap amp/mike online in order to have some background music for party. Rob created a mellow playlist consisting of songs from Noah’s childhood. It added another layer of warmth, and the whole thing cost about $100.
6. Where have all the flowers gone?
We purposefully chose the Park for the lighting and landscape; the setting was the centerpiece. We didn’t do flowers — not only are they pricey, they die! Instead, I worked with a local florist, and we created a simple arrangement of baby succulents in burlap. My daughter drew signs encouraging guests to take the plants home for an extended life. Other alternatives: Contact your local nursery for plants at cost, or wrap centerpieces of books or other non-perishables in cellophane packages to be donated.
7. Do yourself a favor
We may have forgone popular party trappings like the candle-lighting ceremony and the photo montage, but a few vestiges stuck. The toast is a steady — my daughter gave a killer one to her big brother. Instead throwing Sunkist jellies at the end of the Torah service, we did wrapped Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids — tastier and less deadly. And because there are only so many mitzvah T-shirts a tween can sleep in, we distributed frisbees, which were put to immediate use on the park lawn.
For all his skepticism around the mitzvah, Noah rose to the challenge. He navigated his own course through the well-tread path of tradition, and has been standing taller since. And even as I scrambled to pin down all the moving parts, the service and the party felt honest and true. And bonus: I now have a blueprint to work off when it’s my daughter’s turn.