Less bar, more mitzvah

Everyone warned me that bar mitzvah planning was incredibly stressful — the time, the energy, the cost. I wanted to pass on the whole party thing when it came time for my son J.J.’s bar mitzvah. Just a simple kiddush after the service and then skip town.

But after a two-year bar mitzvah marathon, J.J. wanted to kick his heels up. What’s more, my husband, Robby, owns the Simcha Orchestra and Spotlight Music; simchas are his passion. I couldn’t get away with not hosting a party.

But what kind of party?

We’ve heard stories of and witnessed lavish parties in our affluent Jewish communities: five-star hotels tricked out like Cirque du Soleil, entertainment more appropriate for a late-night cable show, and invitations whose cost could rival our mortgage payment. Our son has grown up surrounded by the gashmius (materialism) endemic to Los Angeles, where middle-school kids without iPhones and laptops feel deprived. Could the kids still have fun if the cocktail hour didn’t feature a photo booth, wax hand molds and make-your-own rock band videos? We hoped so.

Because the essence of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is to understand and take responsibility for God’s commandments, wasn’t there a way to have a party whose “theme” was a little more Jewish? Specifically, something relating to mitzvot?

After some thought, Robby and I developed a vision: Host a “mitzvah fair” during the first hour of the party at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, featuring stations with hands-on opportunities to learn about or participate in a specific mitzvah. Representatives from a variety of charitable organizations would run the projects, explain their missions and involve the kids (and, ideally, the adults) in doing acts of chesed (loving-kindness).

But how could a mitzvah fair possibly keep J.J.’s peers — who by now had seen it all — entertained and engaged?

Already crazed with full-time jobs and kids, it was obvious we would need advice and — more important — help. With J.J. away most of the summer, I needed to look outside of our family for assistance. To my delight and surprise, I found Areyvut (areyvut.org), whose mission is to infuse the lives of youth with the core Jewish values of chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam.

When I contacted Daniel Rothner, Areyvut’s founder and director, I couldn’t believe my good fortune: Not only does the New Jersey-based Areyvut work directly with bar and bat mitzvah kids to help them choose and implement individual chesed projects, his organization also arranges chesed fairs for schools, synagogues and — woo hoo! — the occasional simcha. It was, as they say, bashert.

Rothner couldn’t be in Los Angeles for the simcha, but he knew which organizations to contact and had a long list of hands-on projects from which to choose. And the charge for this highly customized service? Rothner’s reply: Whatever you’re comfortable with. He simply wants to continue his work encouraging and enabling teen philanthropy.

When it was finalized, the rundown of J.J.’s mitzvah fair projects and their “hosts” included: making Havdalah candles for needy families (Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles/SOVA), decorating pillowcases and writing letters of encouragement for sick children (Chai Lifeline), decorating and filling school backpacks for underprivileged kids in Israel (Emunah), learning the basics of Torah calligraphy with quill and ink on parchment (Rabbi Shimon Kraft), writing letters of thanks and support to Israeli soldiers (Am Segula), learning how to tie tzitzit (YULA student Yonah Hiller), creating an original song for a young girl stricken with cancer (songwriter and attorney Shep Rosenman) and writing letters of appreciation to parents (Lolly Seidenfeld).

The mitzvah fair succeeded beyond our expectations. Kids enthusiastically helped others and got up close and personal with the rituals. The organizations publicized their causes and brought beautiful projects back to their beneficiaries. Seeing chesed and mitzvot as part and parcel of the celebration elated J.J.’s rebbeim from Maimonides Academy and B’nai David-Judea. And our family was delighted that the party reflected our values.

The dancing and brunch that followed was joyous, elevated by the good spirit generated by the fair.

It wouldn’t have been possible without Areyvut, which enabled us to fulfill our vision in a unique and highly personal way. Areyvut is far more than a party coordinator; it operates on the principle that chesed begets chesed, that a child can leverage his or her tikkun olam work by including others, thus triggering a chain reaction that not only benefits the needy materially, but benefits everyone involved spiritually.

“Chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam are the essence of Judaism,” Rothner said. “This is something that applies and is meaningful to everyone: locally and in Israel, Jews and non-Jews.” 

All this hasn’t been lost on J.J. With his simcha happily behind him, he’s decided to fulfill the mitzvah of giving 10 percent of his gift money to a charitable organization. His first choice? Areyvut, so they can “keep doing what they do.”

Now if only they could handle the thank-you notes.

Joanne Helperin is a veteran journalist and the development and marketing manager for Yeshiva University High Schools (YULA).


Name: Lila Stephanie Puziss
When: Sept. 17, 2011
Portion: Ki Tavo
Parents: Amy Popkin and Evan Puziss
Synagogue: Temple Beth Am
School: Marlborough School
Mitzvah project: Tomchei Shabbos
Hobbies: Soccer, cooking, Camp Ramah

Name: Sara Marcus
When: Sept. 24, 2011
Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech
Parents: Malinda and Jason Marcus
Synagogue: Adat Ari El

Name: Laura Lavender
When: Oct. 22, 2011
Portion: Bereshit
Parents: Nadine and Steve Lavender
Grandparents: Janet and Jake Farber, June Lavender
Synagogue: Adat Ari El

Name: Logan Binstock
When: Oct. 29, 2011
Portion: Noah
Parent: Jodi Binstock
Synagogue: Adat Ari El