For parents struggling to find ways to give their tween a spiritually significant bar or bat mitzvah, Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, and author of Putting God on the Guest List, offers a guide for striking a balance between ceremony and celebration.
Know Your Values
Before organizing caterers or party planners, parents must consider their own unique goals as a Jewish family. “Families need to understand their own values,” Salkin says. “They need to aggressively make connections between the way they celebrate and what they believe.” For instance, families’ decisions regarding spending or which forms of entertainment are appropriate for the occasion should be directly connected to personal beliefs and ethics. What’s more, Salkin suggests that parents’ vision of who their children will be as Jewish adults should inform how they choose to celebrate.
Passing Down Tradition
In a spiritual sense, the ceremony that accompanies the reading of the Torah is its own celebration, a rite of passage carrying on ancient tradition through the generations.
For the children preparing for the big day, Salkin suggests approaching the occasion as a Padawan would learn from a Jedi. “If you see your rabbi as Obi-Wan Kenobi and yourself as Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia, then you’re likely to understand that your job is to teach that wisdom from the pulpit.”
Beyond the Big Day
The bar/bat mitzvah is arguably the most recognizable feature of American Judaism. As the ceremony has evolved through the years, so has the scale. Most notably, in 2015 a family held a lavish bar mitzvah in New York and hired singer/songwriter Nicki Minaj to perform. With the prevalence of over-the-top celebrations, Salkin cautions against viewing this coming-of-age tradition as the defining factor of the religion. “We need to restore the idea that bar and bat mitzvah is an organic part of Jewish life. It is not the entire purpose of Jewish life.”
Thanks in part to the growing business of party motivators and event planners, the pressure to throw the perfect celebration is alive and well. Parents may worry they are doing too much — or worse, not enough. But above all this stress, Rabbi Salkin emphasizes the call to recognize the potential spiritual value of the bar/bat mitzvah and the need to keep the event holy.
The event “is an important part of the American Jewish personality,” he says. “Let’s make sure that we use it the best we can.”
Out of the Shul and into the World
Rather than deciding on the specific theme for a party, Salkin suggests exploring worthwhile alternatives to traditional festivities.
Instead of paying for catering, keep it grounded and host the event at home. Leftovers can be donated to a food bank as an act of tzedakah.
Families can travel to Israel for a spiritually enriching vacation. A party might not be remembered forever, but a trip to Israel will never be forgotten.
While vacations are a great option in lieu of a party, Salkin encourages families to travel to a spot that will keep the
celebrant grounded in the Jewish community.