Send in your RSVP on time. Don’t show up at the bar mitzvah party in sneakers. And no text messaging during the bar mitzvah boy’s speech.
Has Miss Manners gone Jewish? Maybe not but a growing number of yeshiva day schools are arming their students with such etiquette tips before they take their spin on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit.
Day schools in Manhattan, Long Island, Riverdale and New Jersey say they are going beyond teaching students about the ritual obligations of becoming a Jewish man or woman; they are coaching them on appropriate behavior at the event celebrating this milestone.
As they attempt to impose a sense of decorum at parties marking students’ Jewish rite of passage, some of the principals admonishing teens to thank their hosts and not push at the buffet sound strikingly similar to Emily Post.
But for a generation in which Miley Cyrus and Sponge Bob Square Pants are icons, the manners lessons are as relevant as reading, writing and arithmetic, educators say.
“It’s a big leap for these kids to go from a kiddie birthday party that they had up to age 11, which was a two-hour event for a few hundred dollars to a five-hour bar or bat mitzvah that costs thousands of dollars,” said Rabbi Dovid Kupchik, middle school principal of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR). “It’s necessary to give kids the proper guidance as opposed to leaving it to chance.”
Rabbi Binyamin Yablok, associate principal of Manhattan Day School (MDS) agreed. “Today, as the bar has been raised and people are making larger parties with more children, the mom and dad (of the guest of honor) alone cannot keep a handle on this. The hosts can’t worry about chasing after a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds.”
MDS and other schools have responded by establishing a contract for parents and students to sign and a list of guidelines for parties. The rules touch on everything from appropriate dress and behavior to the guest list and menu.
Among the requirements? Parents should make a strictly kosher affair and not exclude anyone in the class and attendees should honor the importance of this once-in-a-lifetime occasion through their behavior as well as attire.
“If you have a nice simcha and everyone is dressed up, you don’t want someone showing up in sneakers and jeans, mused Yablok.
HAFTR tries to impart its message by creating a mock bar/bat mitzvah party, which allows students to practice their manners. “At each stage of the party we pause and we reflect with the students on that phase to determine what they did right and wrong,” Kupchik said. For example, when the kids arrive at the party, he points out, did they all remember to look for the bar mitzvah boy and his parents to wish them a mazel tov before doing anything else?”
Like other school principals, Kupchik advises his students to participate in the dancing because it enhances the simcha for the guest of honor. To insure that students are as graceful on the dance floor as Fred Astaire, a dance expert is on hand to teach them steps to several circle dances.
As for the most crucial tip he imparts to parents of the bar/bat mitzvah, Kupchik says, “We encourage the parents to invite more kids and spend less on the event. ...We want 100 percent participation.”
In fact, many schools have a rule that if a student invites more than 50 percent of the class (or one gender in the class) to a party, then the entire class (or that entire gender) must be invited. In that way, nobody will feel excluded.
Rabbi Chaim Hagler of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus says he spends lot of time talking to his students about how to behave appropriately during prayer services (get there on time and sit quietly), how to sit during a series of speeches (quietly and respectfully), and during a kiddish or buffet table (don’t push).
“Even if everyone else is pushing at a kiddish, you shouldn’t push,” Hagler said. “Be patient and wait your turn. If it’s a buffet table, it’s the same idea, you wait your turn. Then, after you take your food, you step away from the table. It sounds funny, but it’s important for them to learn that.”
Atara Berliner, director of professional development and student guidance at the Ramaz Middle School, said that the school’s advisory program not only teaches students to assume full responsibility as Jewish adults for observing the mitzvot, but also to behave with proper derech eretz (respect and manners) when they are guests at their peers’ bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.
“We talk about what it means to behave appropriately, including taking food in an orderly and respectful manner, not grabbing or cutting the line, offering seats to the adults if there’s a shortage and even returning the response card in a timely fashion,” she said. “We stress the importance of seemingly obvious but often overlooked behaviors such as thanking the hosts — both their classmate and the parents — at the end of the celebration....”
The school gives both the student and the parents a copy of these expectations for signatures. “This way, maintaining proper decorum at these pivotal life events becomes a cooperative endeavor between parents and the school, where everyone agrees on basic guidelines for appropriate conduct,” she said.
Of course many of the rabbis and teachers emphasize that such essential life lessons about appropriate behavior and treating others respectfully are as much a part of Jewish law as the prohibition against eating a ham sandwich. The obligation to enhance a simcha and not to insult a classmate are right up there on the Jewish “to do list” with putting on tefillin and lighting Shabbat candles, they say.
But sometimes, kids need to be reminded. Hence the need for gentle nudges like contracts and rule lists.
Yablok added, “It’s fair to say that even well behaved and well brought up students, when they get together in a group and perceive they are not being held accountable, will take liberties. It begs some greater level of planning and supervision.”
“At the very least, it needs to be talked about.”
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