My Daughter's Bat Mitzvah: The Four-Year Plan
05/11/2012 - 14:36

My oldest daughter is not yet 9, and her bat mitzvah has already become a topic of discussion in our house.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not one of those super-organized-plan-everything-in-advance-type people, and I’m certainly not that kind of mom (which you would know if you saw the backlog of forms and permission slips piling up on my desk.)

But my niece’s bat mitzvah is coming up next month, and her older sister’s bat mitzvah, two years ago, is still fresh in our memories.

Plus, both my daughters recently were curious to know their Hebrew birthdays, and the online Gregorian calendar/Hebrew calendar converter we consulted not only gave us the birthdays, but the bat mitzvah Torah/Haftorah portions they’ll have, assuming we schedule the bat mitzvah for the Shabbat following the Hebrew birthday. Twenty-first-century family that we are, we immediately clicked to G-dcast to watch the animated videos of their Torah portions: Ellie (my older one) has Parshat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and Sophie (whose bat mitzvah is more than seven years away) has Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32).

The big issue we’re grappling with, however, is whether to have Ellie’s bat mitzvah at our synagogue or in Israel. Our inclination, and Ellie’s too, for a long time has been to use the money that would have gone for a party and instead spend it on a family trip (just the four of us — not one of those gala-fly-everyone-we-know destination bat mitzvahs). But since joining our Reform synagogue two years ago, I’ve been feeling like an Israel-only event might not be so satisfying, that now that we have a community in our temple and Hebrew school, it would be nice to have the lifecycle event on the familiar bima and to share it with the people there (not to mention with our extended family).

So I’ve proposed a compromise: ceremony at the temple followed by a low-budget, maybe even potluck, Kiddush lunch in the social hall. And then go to Israel.

My husband says no, that bit by bit the simple Kiddush will morph into an expensive affair replete with deejays, sit-down meal and ice sculptures. He says I’ll feel too cheap and embarrassed to host a low-budget party, that we’ll go bankrupt trying to have my cake and eat it too, so if we want a New York bat mitzvah, we should just nix the Israel idea.

I’m hoping we can figure out a way to do a low-cost local bat mitzvah, and that — rather than judging us as cheap or tacky — our guests will be impressed that we’re instead spending our money on a memorable family trip. I’m also hoping that by the time Ellie is ready for her bat mitzvah, the cultural expectations of lavish bar/bat mitzvah celebrations will have lessened.

In my work covering education for The Jewish Week, I’m seeing some positive rumblings of change:

-The emergence of new high-tech resources for bar/bat mitzvah prep, including a free mobile app for learning trope, and the Jewish Women’s Archive’s interactive which encourages girls to use the occasion to interview female relatives, study Jewish women’s history and think about what becoming a Jewish adult means to them.

-More people are questioning not just the party culture around bar/bat mitzvah observance, but the structure of the ceremonies — with some asking whether it makes sense to invest so much time learning to chant Torah, and others having kids and families instead develop creative Torah interpretations.

-A growing realization among synagogues that their longstanding de facto business model — in which synagogues use their control/ownership over the bar/bat mitzvah to get families to become dues-paying members — is not a viable plan for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that families no longer need synagogues for bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies. Private tutors and clergy are often willing to help families develop alternative ceremonies in homes and other private venues, ones many people find more meaningful than synagogue bar/bat mitzvahs. And Chabad emissaries help arrange low-cost, no-synagogue (and often minimal preparation) bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies as well.

It will be exciting to see how much the landscape changes by the time Ellie and Sophie turn 13. In any event, I hope — whether we go to Israel or not — that both my girls find their bar/bat mitzvah observances meaningful. And that there are no ice sculptures.

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I started writing a book on what we are doing so I will edit this for a short read. We have chosen to go as a Family to Israel for my daughters Bat-Mitzvah. We also chose to do only our family on a tour. We will have the service at Robinson's Gate. As for the friends from the temple we have arranged for her to have a Devar Torah about her trip and the Temple special Lunch afterwards. She was not interested in having a kids party but will end up doing concert or show with her Bar/Bat-Mitzvah class.

Hi Michel. We are currently working on planning our sons Bar Mitzvah for summer of 2016. I would love any ideas, help, support, suggestions etc. that you are willing to share. Did you announce to family and friends what you were doing to give them an option to join you? How did you handle this?

I sympathize with you. My budget for first born's Bat Mitzvah was $5k, the current list of 'essentials' has seen that budget explode to $15K! (not a figure I can justify or afford so I will economize. I now realize that I should start saving now for my son's Barmi. Good luck with your decision. I am sure it will be meaningful for your daughter no matter what you do. It is a Simcha that can be celebrated in any way imaginable. One child of mine wants a big to do, the other just wants to go to Shul and have no party - So be it.

In my opinion, you need to decide what values you want your family to have and in the long-term what this right of passage means. There are not too many children who would refuse a party especially if that is what all their peers are doing. It is difficult for a pre-teen to be different let alone for a suburban mom.

My husband and I chose to take my parents with us on a private two week tour of Israel. It cost a fraction of what a fancy dancy suburban non-memorable event would cost. Our son did not have to go to Hebrew school for 3 years three times a week. He had a one-on-one tutor for a fraction of the time. Our amazing travel agent arranged everything including the Rabbi. Our service was at dusk in a huge tent in the desert as the sun set. These memories will last longer than the tzotkes giveaways from most parties.

I will be happy to share more details with anyone who is interested.

I would love more details on what you did and who helped you plan. We are currently planning our sons event for summer of 2016. Thank you!

We are considering having my younger daughter Bat Mitzvah in Isreal~~already did the big party scam with our older daughter. Can you please let me know the tour company you went with~~
Thank you~~
Shabbat Shalom

Hello. We would very much like to do something similar for our daughter. How did you find the private tutor?
Thank you.

You should be able to find a tutor through one of your local congregations. My name is given out by my Synagogue to prospective students parents.
Good luck!

Hi there,
I would love to know more about the Israel bar mitzvah. We would be looking to take our family of 4. We do not have a big budget however.
Thanks so much,

Keeping up with the Schwartzes and expectations of others will not go away. At the end of the day, you need to do what makes your daughter happy, and is meaningful to her, and you and yours.

As long as your daughters are on board, that's all that really matters. After all, becoming a woman means taking responsibility, and making your own decisions, hopefully without caring about whether you are raised up in a chair in a frilly dress.