Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

Links related to this article:

Giving Works
” target=”_blank”>www.nikereuseashoe.com

Twisted Limb Paperworks
” target=”_blank”>www.worldcentric.org/store/cutlery.htm

1-800-Dreidel

Avoid an Oops in Shooting Your Video


Little Rachel takes her first steps — but your camcorder battery dies before you get the shot.

Your family reunion includes Grandma Shirley, whom you haven’t seen in 15 years and, frankly, may never see again. You interview her on video, but when you sit down later to watch it, the sound is so bad you can’t understand a single word.

At my brother’s bar mitzvah, a family member showed up late with the video equipment, set up the camera and forgot to push record.

Whether you’re trying to capture a wedding, b’nai mitzvah or 50th anniversary celebration, the day will come and go whether you’re ready for it or not. Unless you’re prepared, the opportunity to capture family history can easily slip through your fingers.

Losing such precious moments can be depressing. But with a little advance planning, attention to detail and some practice, you can shoot home videos your family will kvell about for years to come. Here are some tips:

1. Don’t forget to push record. Once you push “record,” confirm that you are recording. Every video camera features a recording indicator, typically located in the viewfinder or the view screen. As you get ready to focus on your subject, the first thing you should do is look in the viewfinder or on the screen and note whether the recording indicator is on.

2. Charge your batteries. This is one of the most common mistakes. The battery that came with your video camera will not last longer than one hour. In addition, after a few years, rechargeable batteries don’t hold their charge well. Even buy an extra battery pack or two, charge them and have them on hand in case your primary battery loses its charge.

3. Focus on sound. Bad sound is often the biggest killer of home videos. Are you only using the standard built-in microphone? Be conscious of its limited range. If you’re recording someone nearby, try to get as close to the person as possible. If you’re at a gala event and someone is using a microphone, try to get close to the electronic amplification speaker.

4. Stabilize your shot. All modern video camcorders have a stabilization option. Turning this option on will improve your shots tremendously. I require my professional videographers, who shoot everything from wedding videos to commercials, to turn this option on.

5. Use both hands. Shaky camera work can give friends and family headaches. Do not hold the camera in one hand, stretching your arm out in front of you. Instead, hold the camcorder with both hands, and hold the camera against your body. For even greater stabilization, lean your back against a wall.

6. Forget the zoom. Don’t use the zoom. Instead of constantly zooming in for closeups and then zooming out for wider shots, try holding the camera against your body, framing your shot like a still photograph. To get closer to the image, simply walk closer, using your body as a large stabilization weight. To get a wider shot, simply walk backward — but be careful.

7. Look in two places at once. This is a more advanced move. Learn to keep one eye watching your camcorder’s viewfinder or screen and the other eye looking outside the field of the screen to see what person or object may soon be coming into your frame. This allows you to anticipate and prepare your camera move.

8. Learn from your mistakes. Take some time out a few days before an event and shoot some practice footage. Spend a few minutes reviewing a short piece of it, and note how you could improve.

Also, don’t save the camera for special events. Keep practicing your video skills by recording everyday family moments. After all, you don’t want to be scrambling for footage 10 years from now, when you want to create a video montage of your child to show during a bar or bat mitzvah.

David Notowitz is owner of Notowitz Productions, a video production company that specializes in corporate videos, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. His Web site is

Create Festive Table in a Blue Mood


 

Following are pointers on livening up your Chanukah table from “Kosher by Design” by Susie Fishbein (Mesorah, 2003).

1. In the Beginning: Dress your dining table with a snazzy tablecloth. A gold one will glitter. Using narrow runners and/or yards of wide ribbons, preferably in shades of blue and gold, weave them under and above each other, creating a lattice effect.

2. Gifted Settings: Create place settings that look like Chanukah presents by using placemat-sized rectangles of Styrofoam (about 2-inches thick). Cover them with blue fabric. Straight pins will secure the fabric to the underside of rectangles. To simulate a bow, wrap gold tulle ribbon on a diagonal around two opposite corners of rectangles.

3. Box Appeal: Find boxes about 3-inches square. Cover boxes with Mylar foil wrapping paper. Tie a bow around them with gold ribbon. With two-sided tape, attach them to the upper left-hand corner of placemats.

4. Got the Gelt: In front of each placemat, situate a gold netted sack of Chanukah gelt. Write each guest’s name in gold ink on place cards. Then, with narrow gold ribbon, tie place cards to gelt sacks.

5. Twinkling Fantasy: Flood the center of the table with as many blue votive candleholders as you can find in every size and shape. Fill them with candles and light just before guests arrive.

6. Gaming Table: Scatter around dreidels in varying sizes and shapes, ones made from silver, gold, porcelain, plastic, wood — and anything blue. Antique dreidels are particularly decorative.

7. Blue Plate Special: Set the table with blue dishes, preferably ones that mix and match. Place a salad plate of one pattern over a dinner plate of another. Wal-Mart sells glass blue plates for $1.25 each.

8. Color Wave Silverware: Set the table with gold-plated flatware or stainless steel with blue plastic handles.

9. Crystal Collection: Buy glasses and wine goblets with blue striations or purchase glassware with a blue tint, found at stores such as Crate and Barrel.

10. Clear Water: Buy mineral water in blue bottles.

11. Fruit of the Vine: Buy wine in blue bottles.

12. Congratulations: You’ve created a show-stopping setting! Photograph your table for inspiration when planning your next holiday meal.

 

A Single Thread Links Generations


Becoming a grandparent is a very exciting event. Being able to create an heirloom pillowcase out of heirloom pieces for the britim, or covenant ceremonies, of our first grandchildren was an equally humbling and exciting adventure.

Our daughter and son-in-law, Alisha and Ahud Sela, became the proud parents of twin babies, Yael Shira and Gavriel Yair Sela, on May 4, 2004. Knowing beforehand that they were giving birth to twins, a girl and a boy, set the wheels in motion for planning a brit milah, ritual circumcision, and brit mikvah, ritual purification — a relatively new ceremony for a girl, for the two babies. It was planned that the babies would be carried in on pillows for the ceremonies.

While researching what should be written to enhance a bris pillowcase, I found the suggestion of using old family tablecloths for the construction of the pillowcase. I had a tablecloth and napkins given to us by my husband’s grandmother for our wedding, which were now 33 years old. I contacted Ahud’s mother, Rita, and found out she had tablecloths from her grandmother and mother that they had used regularly and were packed up in her attic. Rita sent me a full box of beautifully cross-stitched tablecloths, well worn with loving holes from regular use. I looked at the cloths for two weeks before I had the nerve to make my first cut.

I carefully looked at the cross-stitch designs, imagining what would be the best use of the pieces so lovingly stitched so many years ago. Making the first cut was the hardest, but once that was done everything else fell into place. The back of the pillowcases consists of the edge of a green tablecloth with white fringe and white thread on the cross-stitch design. This was stitched by the baby’s great-great-grandmother, Minnie Aronow (mother of Joel, father of Rita).

Attached to this is a piece from the center of a white cloth with brown cross-stitching created by the baby’s great-grandmother, Yetta Aronow (mother of Rita).The bottom portion of the front of the pillowcase is a white cloth stitched with Shabbat symbols in many colors by Yetta. Rita remembered using this cloth “all the time.” I attached a white napkin from the set given to my husband, David, and myself by the baby’s great-great-grandmother, Anna Robinson (mother of Sandy, mother of David). In one corner of the napkin I attached three white crocheted rosettes that were part of a tablecloth made by great-great-grandmother Anna Robinson and great-aunt Rachel Vorspan (David’s sister). In the other corner is part of an embroidered and crocheted doily made by Bessie Wolfson, first cousin of great-great-grandfather Kopel Kaminsky, who died in the Shoah (father of Sime, my mother).

Before our grandchildren were born, I embroidered in Hebrew, “L’Torah, ul’chupah, ul’ma’asim tovim” on the napkin portions of the pillowcases. This is a prayer for them to study Torah, arrive to the marriage canopy and do good deeds in their future life. I used blue variegated Brazilian embroidery floss for one pillow and a pink, yellow and lavender variegated floss for the other pillow. After the babies were named, I was able to fill in their names in English and Hebrew with their English and Hebrew birth dates. I will be stitching a label inside each case that identifies who made each piece.

Rita and I had the privilege of carrying the babies into the ceremonies on these pillowcases lovingly stitched by the generations that came before them. How delighted these ancestors would be to know that the work of their hands would embrace the future of our families with such love. Our husbands, Nadav and David, held the babies during their britot cradled in the pillowcases.

Alisha and Ahud asked each of the grandparents to share a blessing with their grandchildren. They wanted the blessing to take place under a canopy held up by the baby’s aunts and uncles, Ben Vorspan, Shaina Vorspan and Amitai and Rebecca Sela. I was asked to make this canopy during Passover when Alisha could have had the babies any day (they were born three weeks later). Stitchery was out of the question, so I painted a family tree on a Battenburg lace small round tablecloth. I was able to include some names of great-great-great-great-grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. What a holy moment to stand under so many generations and bless our precious jewels.

David and I and Rita and Nadav are truly blessed with these new additions to our beloved families. I can’t wait to add more names to the heirlooms we have created, but for the time being, we’re all very delighted to enjoy the newest blessing.

Bonnie Vorspan is an educator at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills.

Give Your Sukkah a Shot of Style


After the high of the High Holidays, twice-a-year Jews hang up their kippot for another 354 days, or so, and in the process miss out on the lesser-known treat of Sukkot. While not a "High" holiday anymore, Sukkot used to be one of the big three back in the time of the First Temple. The harvest festival was one of the shalosh regalim, or three pilgrimage holidays, when Jews would bring offerings to the Temple. While this ritual has changed, the main one — that of dwelling in a sukkah, or booth, as our ancestors did in the wilderness — remains. It’s a commandment from Leviticus — we’re required to eat our meals in the sukkah, to actually live in it as much as possible, for eight days.

Besides it being a mitzvah, the idea of living closer to the natural world for a period can have spiritual resonance. And with stars visible through the foliage of your roof, and endless possibilities for festooning your sukkah with lights, flowers and traditional fruits, bringing family and friends together for an elegant outdoor dinner party only adds to that. For those of us who are used to thinking of the sukkah as something that more resembles a hut with Hebrew school decorations thrown on the walls haphazardly, here we offer tips for what is decidedly not your momma’s sukkah — and it turns out, it only requires a little more planning to create.

Theme-ing the Cube

Deciding on one thematic element is the first step to creating a cohesive design for your sukkah, according to interior designer Miriam Montag, owner of Memphis Lily Interiors in Los Angeles.

Floral, fruit or harvest themes are all good choices, according to Montag. Last year, she said, she used plastic grapes.

"I draped the grapes … and clustered them down each pole and then linked them around the sukkah with vines," she said.

A friend of Montag’s chose a different unifying element: "She draped tulle from the center out, kind of like a tent feeling, and tulle draped down the sides," Montag said.

Rita Milos Brownstein, author of "Jewish Holiday Style" (Simon & Schuster, 1999) goes one step further. Her book offers suggestions for three very disparate sukkot: a "garden sukkah," a "sukkah by the sea" (which needn’t literally be seaside) and "the penthouse sukkah." From the materials she uses to build the sukkah, to the booth’s interior, each design is customized according to theme: lattice and pine and floral bounty for the garden variety, bamboo and canvas for the seaside sukkah and silvery beads and corrugated fiberglass for the penthouse.

"The biggest key is the more the better. You need to make it bold … and stick with one theme," Montag said.

Schach Talk

Impossible to pronounce, but essential to your sukkah is the schach, or roof covering. While the walls of your sukkah can be made of just about any material — the only directive is that they should be solid enough to inhibit the wind from blowing out a candle — the schach, by contrast, must be porous enough to be able to see the stars from inside the dwelling. It also must be made of items that grow from the ground, and cannot become tamei (ritually unclean), but can no longer be attached to the ground, either. Only organic materials may be used on the roof, which means no staples or nails.

Brownstein offers various suggestions depending on the theme. A roof of aromatic young pines or branches accented with bunches of dried herbs or hydrangeas is perfect for a garden feel, she writes. Roll-up mats, which are a traditional choice, "have a clean, uncluttered, almost Japanese-screen flavor," as is bamboo, which "gives your sukkah a rustic, island look," she writes.

Here in Los Angeles, palm fronds abound and are another attractive way to crown your sukkah, and Montag stresses that any of these choices work beautifully.

"It’s all preference, and what’s easiest…. Whatever it is, you have to work it into your theme and it’s you," she said.

Wall Flowering

Your walls, unlike your ceiling, are literally a blank canvas. Both Montag and Brownstein suggest splatter painting canvas walls for a kind of modern art look as one option — one the kids will no doubt want to help out with, as well.

Montag again stresses practicality as the essential guide in choosing the material for the walls of your sukkah, which can be the same material as your roof. (Jewish law only requires that there be between two and a half and four walls.)

Brownstein suggests various options for different effects. For a Japanese-inspired look, she writes, opaque fiberglass walls give "the look of shoji screens," while "clear plastic sheeting is inexpensive and gives your sukkah a greenhouse look."

Woven lattice is Brownstein’s choice for the garden-themed sukkah, with plastic sheets stapled to the outside of the walls to block the wind, and canvas or ripstop nylon for the "sukkah by the sea."

"If you use white nylon sides," she writes, "tie back your entrance flap for a look of casual elegance."

Decorations and Centerpieces: Be Fruitful and Multiply

Building on the theme through decorations is essential. For a harvest motif, Montag suggests placing wheat stocks on either side of entry, and then around the sukkah.

As many florists have taken to doing these days, Montag suggests incorporating fruit like grapes or pomegranates — which are two of the sheva minim (seven species of fruit associated with the land of Israel in the Bible) — with flowers, for distinctive centerpieces.

Hanging fruit and spice garlands, flanking your entryway with appropriate potted plants or flowers, or decking the ceiling with silvery beads are some of Brownstein’s suggestions for adding atmosphere.

Night Light

Lighting, of course, adds the final touch of ambiance. In some sukkot she’s visited, Montag said, "sometimes you have this ugly bulb," but "run twinkle lights all around the sukkah and you don’t even need other lights."

She also suggests Moroccan lanterns, which come in all shapes and sizes.

"You can get one big one, or you can do three" she said. "They’re fun to mix and hang at different heights. They’re not cheap, but it’s an investment you use in your sukkah forever."

Brownstein suggests a romantic candelabra, "taking care to use short votives that won’t place the flames too near the greenery," or seaside, Chinese bamboo lanterns inside and tiki torches outside as "a dramatic way to welcome your guests at night."

Kids Stuff

There is, of course the question of what to do about the children’s decorations. Montag is quick to emphasize that the kiddie art doesn’t have to be trashed to achieve a look of elegance.

"You should have your kids’ stuff hanging there. That’s the beauty of Sukkot," she said.

Of her mother’s sukkah, Montag said, "The whole thing is decorated with things that we made over the years," and added to avoid a messy, haphazard look, a unifying element once again does the trick. "You can run ribbon around. You can use gold ribbon … to hang all the same little decorative things."

Brownstein notes that with all of the decorations you make to hang in your sukkah, "most important, share the fun and creativity with the ones you cherish. These are the rituals that create the memories."

Wonderousness of the First Time


A bar mitzvah is a time of becoming an adult. While my son was ready to proclaim, "Today I am a man," he also had to go through life with his voice changing and the wearing of braces for a perfect smile.

My first experience with this momentous occasion was after our son celebrated his first birthday. His grandfather, marveling at how bright he was, told everyone, "In 12 years we will have a bar mitzvah!"

It was an occasion he longed to see and, fortunately for all of us, he did.

As the years progressed, each year he would remind Bobby. Each time there were similar remarks followed by, "I know, Papa. Only six more years!"

While his grandfather often went over the prayers with him and his grandmother was in awe of how tall he was growing, my concerns were more about planning the event. We had been to a few bar mitzvahs during the year and everyone seemed to be similar. I guessed one copied another.

When the date was set, everything came into focus. He really will become a bar mitzvah. How exciting the whole year became. Bobby knew his prayers and haftarah very well. No one was concerned about that. He began to work on his sermon and master that, too.

Our synagogue does not allow music during Shabbat, so this had to be our plan: After Friday night services we had the regular pareve desserts — since most who keep kosher have a meat meal on Friday night and could not have dairy afterward — fresh fruits and lots of pick-up desserts, which worked very well.

We had invited my parents’ friends and my in-laws’ friends, plus all of our relatives. In addition, there were our friends, plus our children’s friends. We were hoping for 100, but stopped counting as the response cards surpassed that number.

Two days before, I followed Bobby and his Papa to shul, where my father bought Bobby a tallit. On the bimah, before his lesson was to start, I was fortunate to be able to take pictures of Daddy as he unfolded the tallit and showed Bobby how to say the prayer and wear it. Since we could not take photos on Shabbat, I instead look back on this time with fond memories.

Because we had hired a fabulous caterer, I was not worried. The florist was also terrific. Friday night came and went and we were very proud. We were to have a quiet Shabbat lunch after services and since we can play music after Shabbat ends, following the evening service there would be a big celebration.

Saturday morning is a long service. As we sat in the second row, always reserved for the family, we were so proud of our little man. He chanted with great confidence. The aliyot went by very well. When it was time for his haftarah, he started beautifully. Somewhere in the middle, he paused and cleared his throat.

While he seemed to be searching for the next note, I was worried because his wonderful teacher, our cantor, did not jump in to help. Finally, he cleared his throat again and continued without a hitch. I felt so bad for him. There was too much for him to do, I whispered to his dad. He reassured me that all would be fine.

The rest of the service was wonderful. Soon we were down in the sisterhood hall, enjoying the compliments from everyone on the services, and the beautifully served food. Some time later, I asked him if he hesitated because he was nervous or because he forgot the words.

Bobby laughed and leaned over.

"The reason I paused," he told me, "is because I swallowed one of my rubber bands. Darn braces!"


Joan G Friedman, lives in Reading, Penn., and can be reached at joan@friedman.net.

B’nai Mitzvah Planning Guide


At Birth

When the child is born, start saving! It’s not a bad idea to start two savings accounts; one for college and one for the bar or bat mitzvah.

One to three years ahead

  • Set the date.

  • Set a budget.

  • Reserve the synagogue.

  • Reserve the hall for additional receptions.

  • Arrange for caterer, party planner and band or DJ.

  • Buy a loose-leaf binder or start a filing system on index cards.

Ten to 12 months ahead

  • Begin b’nai mitzvah lessons.

  • (Continue to) attend weekly Shabbat services as a family.

  • Arrange for photographer and videographer.

  • Book hotel accommodations and investigate transportation for out-of-town guests.

Six months ahead

  • Plan colors and theme.

  • Arrange for florist and make guest list.

Four to five months ahead

  • Order invitations and thank-you notes, imprinted napkins and personalized party favors.

  • Shop for clothing and shoes.

  • Purchase a tallit and tefillin, if applicable.

  • Choose a calligrapher.

Three months ahead

  • Plan Sunday brunch, if applicable.

  • Order printed yarmulkes.

Two months ahead

  • Meet with photographer and videographer.

  • Meet with florist and/or decorations coordinator.

  • Mail out-of-town invitations.

Six weeks ahead

  • Order tuxedos.

  • Take care of clothing alterations.

  • Order wine for Kiddush.

  • Mail in-town invitations.

Four weeks ahead

  • Prepare speech.

  • Finalize reservations and transportation.

  • Meet with caterer.

  • Make welcome gifts for out-of-town guests.

  • Arrange aliyot.

  • Send honorary gift to synagogue.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Make seating charts for reception (and dinner).

Two weeks ahead

  • Give final count to caterer.

  • Check with florist.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Order cake, cookies and pastries for Friday night oneg Shabbat.

A few days ahead

  • Have rehearsal and take bimah photographs.

  • Make copies of speeches, room and table layouts, and give them to a friend to hold for you.

Special day

  • Enjoy your simcha!

Adding Mitzvah Multiplies Simcha


Sometimes the smallest details are the ones that make the biggest impression. You remember the pretty napkins or the mints with dessert. You remember the bride walking down the aisle with both her parents instead of just her father. You remember the way the bat mitzvah girl wore a hand-made yarmulke.

Chances are you don’t remember the decoration color scheme or what was served as a main course for dinner. But if a mitzvah project is part of the celebration, it will be one of the details noticed and appreciated no matter how small the effort.

When Debra Nielbulski came back from a family gathering in St. Louis, she remembered the unusual centerpieces on the tables at a family brunch. The beautifully decorated baskets of food served a dual purpose: as centerpieces and a mitzvah project.

Nielbulski has brought the idea back to Seattle. She put together a committee and created the fund-raising project that has been supporting the Jewish Family Service Food Bank for many years. The project has grown geographically over the years, with similar efforts in cities around the nation. Some families continue to put together the baskets on their own and donate the food to a food bank of their choice. On a related theme, depending on the time of year, baskets of school supplies or socks and other necessities would be appropriate for b’nai mitzvah decorations. How pretty the mitzvah is remains up to the family, so decorating the social hall with baskets instead of flowers doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your color scheme. You can even pay a private basket company to put the donation centerpieces together in an attractive way. Be sure to hang a pretty tag from the basket explaining where the food or other items will be donated.

Tables are the place to look for another celebration mitzvah project. One detail to think about while you are planning your simcha is what to do with extra food after the event. A number of organizations are interested in sharing your leftovers with others. For more information, look in the yellow pages for food banks and homeless shelters and ask any one of them if they take donations of party leftovers and if they know which organization does. In many cities, an organization will come to the synagogue or hotel to pick up the extra food that never made it to the table. In other places, you will have to drive the trays over to your local homeless shelter, but think of all the hungry people who will share your simcha with this simple effort. And don’t let anyone try to convince you that donations like this are illegal. You cannot be held liable for the food you donate, as long as it didn’t sit on someone’s plate first.

The national Jewish organization MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger offers another simple way to help the hungry while you are celebrating a joyous family occasion.

MAZON encourages families to donate 3 percent of the cost of their simcha to help feed the hungry. MAZON funds projects that deliver meals to the homebound, provides food to kosher kitchens, offers nutritional counseling for low-income women with children, and advocates for long-term solutions to hunger.

“MAZON is, of course, responsive to hunger among Jews; but in keeping with the best of our traditions, it also responds to all who are in need,” explains a MAZON pamphlet. The organization was founded in 1985 to “build a bridge between Jews who enjoy the blessings of abundance, and the millions of children and adults who are hungry, or who live at the very edge of hunger, each day.”

The MAZON Web site points out that more than 33 million Americans — including 12 million children — are hungry or at the very edge of hunger. The organization can be reached by calling (310) 442-0020, by visiting www.mazon.org or by writing to MAZON at 1990 S. Bundy Dr., Suite 260, Los Angeles, CA 90025-5232.

For brides who have no real plans to wear their beautiful wedding gowns again, a mitzvah project in Israel might appeal to you. The Rabbanit Bracha Kapach gives used wedding dresses to brides who cannot afford their own, in addition to a wide variety of other relief projects she conducts in Jerusalem. Danny Siegel in his book, “Mitzvahs” (Town House, 1990) suggests sending your wedding dress to the rabbanit in the hands of a friend who is visiting Israel. The rabbanit also needs wedding rings. You can contact her at 12 Lod St., Jerusalem, 249-296.

This is only a small sample of the many possible mitzvah projects a family might do to celebrate a wedding or bat mitzvah. For additional ideas, ask your rabbi or read Siegel’s book.


Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

B’nai Mitzvah Planning 101


So you’re going to have a mitzvah — whether it is a bar or a bat, the planning begins early. Way before Hebrew school age, you will hear at least one grandfather wistfully thinking aloud at about age 5, "In eight years, we will have a bar mitzvah."

From there it continues directly to the child. "You’re 7 years old? Why, in only six years, you will become a bar mitzvah."

As the months go by, there will be similar remarks followed by, "I know, papa. Only six more years."

About two years before, the parents will begin to pay attention. The first thing to do is set the date. Once the community calendar has the date, usually around the child’s 13th birthday, you are on your way.

Never had a bar or bat mitzvah before? It’s a piece of cake (usually pareve, even if you don’t keep kosher, in the case of a meat meal).

First you have to decide: Do you want to do what everyone else is doing, or are you going to be different?

The next step is to choose the caterer. If the affair will be held at the synagogue, you will need someone approved by your board. Set those dates and choose your menus. You will usually need something for after service Friday night as well as Saturday noon. Some choose a Saturday evening meal as well.

The bar mitzvah usually consists of a Friday night service and kiddush afterward. Held in the synagogue, we usually assume the people have had a meat meal for Shabbat and will prefer a pareve dessert. The caterers have a wonderful selection of pareve desserts — gooey or not. Along with this, the actual bar mitzvah cake might be on display. Most popular are trays of fruits and small cakes, cookies, cupcakes.

Friday night, after services, also includes coffee, tea and sodas.

Some people have a luncheon and others have a dinner; some have both. For example, some synagogues allow music during the day. In that case, you might have a very celebratory luncheon, along with a band or DJ, and cut the cake along with cutting a rug.

Where music is not allowed in the synagogue, some people choose to take the affair to a restaurant, in which case the rabbi and teachers probably cannot participate. Others wanting to celebrate the bar mitzvah with everyone will have a quiet luncheon and come back to the synagogue — after sundown — for the big celebration with music.

For the luncheon or dinner, after the menu with the caterers is selected, the next step is flowers. You should offer one or two arrangements for the bima. After services, they can be brought down by the caterer or florist to be placed on the stage of the banquet room. Instead of flowers, some choose to have two big baskets filled with food items for the local food bank. What better time to do a mitzvah than when you are having your own mitzvah. Count your blessings by sharing with others.

Are you going to spend a fortune on centerpieces? Does your 13-year-old care about the flowers? Some choose to have the boy or girl’s favorite cake as a centerpiece. You can be sure that a centerpiece of a strawberry shortcake or a half sheet cake of a baseball diamond with bases loaded is very well appreciated by the teen set. When you use the cake theme, each table has a cake big enough for the people at that table.

You can choose to have music or not — and, most important, you can dance to your own tune.