My second child — out of six — will become a bar mitzvah in a few weeks. And while I still have many more bar and bat mitzvahs ahead of me, as the accoutrements of this event threaten to overtake its substance, I find that I am already burned out.
Let me explain. We live in the New York metropolitan area — which is another way of saying “there are a lot of Jewish people around here, so almost every weekend, my 7th-grader goes to at least one bar or bat mitzvah service and party.”
This scenario has its advantages. On the plus side, he’s going to synagogues and events all over the tri-state area. He’s seeing how different communities observe and relate to being Jewish, which I think is great (if somewhat hard to navigate, transportation-wise).
On the negative side, however, he and his friends are now so well-versed in the schematics of lavish parties that, by this time in the year, they know their favorite venues, DJs, and vendors. When I asked the kids in the carpool how that particular evening’s event was, one of them actually said, “Well, the passed hors d’oeuvres didn’t circulate as well as they should have. But other than that, it was pretty good.”
What 13-year-old should be aware of something like that, much less find it worthy of commentary? Yet these kids have now grown accustomed to weekly parties that cost more than my wedding. They think their friend becoming a bar mitzvah means that they get to celebrate with an evening of delicious food in a gorgeous space with fabulous entertainment, and then they go home with a swag bag filled with candy, water bottles, and apparel with the kid’s “logo,” like “Deb B AMAZING” or HARRISON! written in the style of the Hamilton logo.
I realize that, in the scheme of world events, agonizing over this is a bit ridiculous. But that’s precisely what bothers me. The scale of these celebrations — where “uplighting” on the drape-covered walls alone can cost thousands of dollars, and where children feel entitled to entertainment, specialized food selections, and often transportation to and from the event — seems out of touch with what the underlying event is supposed to represent: a shouldering of intergenerational responsibility, obligation, and covenant.
Don’t get me wrong: I love celebrating our children, our milestones, and our families. That’s awesome. Party on. But I’m concerned that so much of these celebrations err on the side of “too much.”
I’ve already written about the shirt-as-party-favor scourge — basically, that I think they are inherently exclusionary and send the wrong message about what the bar/bat mitzvah is all about — and even lost a few friends over my views.
But I’m going to take it a step further here. What if we made a conscious decision to cut out one element — just one — of these celebrations in our case. And what if we put that money saved toward a future commitment to a Jewish life for our children — or maybe even the children of others?
In our case, we’re nixing the favors. Of course, if you or your kid really loves favors, go ahead and have them. That’s cool. But what if synagogues encouraged bar and bat mitzvah families to subtract one thing — anything, centerpieces or a “dance motivator” or whatever — and instead put that money toward something with a lasting impact? What if your synagogue created a collective fund and all the kids who participated would go on a trip to Israel in high school, or got the money back to use toward a Jewish camp program?
I’d venture that there may even be congregants who would be willing to match such a fund. Imagine the difference that could make in teens’ relationship to Judaism. I believe such a gestures — as small and easy as it to make — could plant the seeds for an ongoing and dynamic commitment to Jewish life going forward.
So there won’t be any favors at my son’s bar mitzvah celebration for his friends. Instead, I feel like I’m doing him a favor, and donating the money to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for their scholarship fund. That’s doing him a favor because the more kids from various economic backgrounds who can find the joy in Jewish camp — like he has — the stronger the future Jewish community will be. My family is doing on its own, but how cool would it be to do it in the context of an institution?
Let’s motivate each other to contribute toward our children’s collective Jewish future. Please join me.