November 19, 2018

A survival guide for parents of b’nai mitzvah kids

So you’re planning a bar or bat mitzvah? Mazel tov! You may feel overwhelmed by decisions and details. I certainly did when it was time for my son, Steven, to take part in the ritual this past December. I asked experienced parents for advice and promised to “pay it forward” once I became a seasoned veteran. Here is some of the wisdom I gleaned, along with issues you’ll need to consider. 

Why Is This Day Different From All Other Days?

Before diving into logistics, pause to consider the meaning of the day. Your child is not having a bar mitzvah, he is becoming one — a child of the commandments who is now old enough to participate as an adult in Jewish ritual life. A Jewish child automatically becomes a bar or bat mitzvah upon coming of age, but by having a ceremony, you affirm your family’s link to those who have come before, and those yet to be.  

This event is a major milestone, whether you have one child or several. If you are fortunate, it will be a gathering of those you care about most from many facets of your life. That’s something to savor and appreciate.

This is not to say there won’t be family dynamics at play — there will. (Just ask my husband!) I recommend “Whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah Is This, Anyway?” by Judith Davis. It helps you understand and deal with the day’s emotional and psychological undercurrents. 

Also, be sure to take your child’s wishes and expectations into account, and include him in as many decisions as possible. Yes, parents have the ultimate say, but this day should be about your child, not impressing your business associates or Aunt Bernice from Brooklyn.

The Service

Although the celebration tends to involve more logistics, don’t overlook the service. It is, after all, what the day is all about. By giving it the attention it deserves, you can make the experience richer for you, your child and your guests. 

You will need to choose whom to honor with aliyot, ark openings and the like. These can be difficult decisions, especially when you have more potential honorees than honors. Be aware that different synagogues have different rules. For example, ours allows no more than two people to be called to the Torah at once. Find out about these things early. 

If you wish to include non-Jewish friends or family, an English reading can be a good option. Older siblings or cousins may wish to read a Torah portion; give them plenty of time to prepare. My husband, Neal, and I both read from the Torah at Steven’s bar mitzvah. We wanted him to know this was something important to us, and he could take solace in knowing that Mom and Dad also needed to study.

Consider preparing a program explaining Jewish rituals and customs. For example, some guests might not know that the Torah doesn’t include punctuation, vowels or trope marks (the symbols that indicate how the words are to be chanted). The program can include the names of honorees and their relationship to the bar mitzvah child.

Although your rabbi or another teacher will work with your child on his drash (speech), it doesn’t hurt to provide some resources ahead of time. Steven enjoyed watching G-dCast (, short, animated cartoons about each Torah portion. While he eventually consulted more scholarly sources, it was helpful for starting him off and providing context. Try to get your child to relate something in the portion to his life and experiences. And if your child is like mine, he might respond better to another authority figure than to you. We recruited his religious school teacher to help him write his drash. 

Most synagogues require that b’nai mitzvah students complete a mitzvah/community service project. Encourage your child to do something meaningful and relevant to him. My son is a technology whiz, so he volunteered at the Culver City Senior Center’s computer lab. If you’re lucky, you can link the project to the child’s Torah portion. For example, if the portion talks about a famine, your child could collect food for the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program or another hunger relief organization.

The Celebration

Let’s talk about themes: Are they necessary? Isn’t the theme of a bar mitzvah, well, “bar mitzvah”? We struggled with this and ultimately decided to incorporate a theme that reflected Steven’s interests. 

A theme provides a fun way to give your event its own style and decor. With a little creative thought, you can probably link it to Judaism. Because Steven loves technology, we eventually came up with smart phone apps as our theme. We tied the idea to his bar mitzvah by creating apps such as Torah, Joseph (the protagonist in Steven’s Torah portion) and a menorah, because it took place during Chanukah.

Among the biggest decisions — and sources of stress — are the nature of the celebration and whom to include. Obviously, budget plays a role in these decisions. 

Will you have a luncheon right after the service? If so, will that be the sole celebration, or will you have an additional event that evening or the following day? Does your synagogue allow music on Shabbat? Photography? Do you have time and ability to do some things yourself or will you hire professionals?

Remember to consider your child’s preferences. I know a boy who dislikes dancing whose family held a reception at a bowling alley. For Steven’s bar mitzvah, we had a luncheon right after the service and an evening party for a smaller gathering consisting of Steven’s friends, our relatives and out-of town guests. It was difficult deciding whom to invite and worrying about offending those who weren’t invited. If you’re like me, you’ll lose sleep over this. A lot of sleep. You can only hope that people understand.

My son has attended a range of celebrations, including parties on a boat, at Dave & Buster’s, at Hillcrest Country Club and in a family’s home. Some had a DJ and dancing; others didn’t. He enjoyed them all.

What about swag? It can be fun to come up with a party favor that reflects your theme, but you may also decide that it’s an unnecessary expense. We skipped them — though we caved when it came to cheap, it-will-be-thrown-out-or-broken-by-morning novelties for the DJ to give away. -( and have great deals on things like glow-in-the-dark necklaces, funny hats and blinking rings.)

Beyond the Day

You’ve planned the service and the party, but you’re not done. Especially if you are having out-of-town guests, your celebration may not be limited to just the day of the bar mitzvah. You may want to host a Shabbat dinner on Friday night or a brunch on Sunday. Will you do this at your home? A hotel? The temple?  

Don’t forget transportation. If your guests are Shabbat observant, you’ll need to find lodging within walking distance of the synagogue. If they are not, you may need to arrange transportation to and from the synagogue, party and/or airport. 

Consider preparing a welcome packet for your guests. It can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like. Include a schedule of the weekend’s activities, bottled water and snacks.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. You’ll spend months planning this special day, and it will be over in a flash. But a bar mitzvah has the potential to be a transformative event for your child and your family — one that provides treasured memories for years to come.

Helpful Hints

• Talk to friends who have already been through it. They can offer perspective as well as referrals to DJs, photographers and

• Be organized. Use a binder or accordion file to keep papers, ideas and notes. 

• Make a comprehensive to-do list that includes due dates.  Check with your temple for important meetings.

• See what your child wants, and include him or her in as many decisions as possible.

• For the day of the bar mitzvah, have a list of all the things you need to bring with you, including tallit, kippot and speeches. Don’t forget bottled water.

• Banish all thoughts of logistics, and enjoy yourself on the big day. Trust the professionals to do their jobs, or delegate authority to a trusted friend or relative