In splansky

By Rabbi Yael Splansky.

Congregants send me links to articles and videos of outrageous Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties.  You’ve seen them.  The glitter and glam, the celebrity bands, the curvy professional dancers, the Bar Mitzvah boy jumping out of a cake.  Usually when people send me this stuff they include a note like:  “Can you believe this?!” or “What’s become of us?!”  And yet we can’t take our eyes off it.  Like a car accident, it’s horrifying and strangely compelling at the same time.

To be honest, the over-the-top parties don’t worry me as much as some other trends I see.

“A List, B list” — Inviting guests to the party, but not the service.   The main event is at the Torah, when the Bar/Bat Mitzvah takes his place among the Jewish People.  That’s the “Shehechiyanu Moment” everyone wants to witness.  Parties are great fun, but that moment when everyone huddles around the Torah:  “Priceless.”

“Performance without Learning” – a crash course with a private tutor and anyone can learn to read Torah.  But the honour of reading Torah on behalf of the congregation is fully received when there has been regular attachment and learning.  Our kids are confident when they are at home in the synagogue and feel they are trusted and treasured representatives on the bima.

“Destination Bar/Bat Mitzvahs” – some travel to read Torah in an old synagogue in Europe or the Caribbean, or in Israel.  These family vacations are terrific and memorable, but they are private and “over there.”  I always encourage our families to make a memory here, too, so the child knows that Judaism happens right where you live and that there is a community right here who needs you and cares about you.  Done right, the two ceremonies – here and there — can reinforce one another in important ways.

“DIY Bar/Bat Mitzvah” – filling a venue with family and friends for a private affair misses the mark when it comes to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah child.  The whole purpose is to teach and to show that in Jewish life you don’t “do it yourself.”  As a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you do it with and for the Jewish People.  As a Bar/Bat Mitzvah you never go it alone.  Jewish life is highly personal, but not private.

A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a Person.  Not an Event.

In his book, To Have or To Be, Erich Fromm, the psychologist and social philosopher, challenges us to use verbs of being rather than verbs of having.  Rather than:  “I have three children,” we can say:  “I am a parent to three children.”  Rather than:  “I’m having my Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Holy Blossom Temple” we can say:  “I am becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  And I will be called to the Torah at Holy Blossom Temple.”  Rather than:  “We are having the party at such-and-such a venue,” we can say:  “We are celebrating at….”  It’s a good exercise.  Statements of ownership come more easily than statements of being.  Statements of being get to the heart of who we are and who we are not.

When one of our B’nei Mitzvah takes to the bima – on Shabbat or weekday morning, in the Main Sanctuary or in one of our smaller chapels – time is suspended for a moment.  You can see it on the faces of the parents.  They are in another world.  Awestruck.  It is a profound moment when past, present, and future collide; when the individual and the Jewish People turn to one another and strengthen one another in whole-hearted embrace.

When everyone’s eyes are on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, I put my eyes on the parents.  That rare look on their faces is more than priceless; that’s the gaze of the sacred.


While Phase I of our physical Renewal Project is underway, simcha space will be a challenge.  We are pursuing a number of options for our celebrating families.  Click here to learn more.

Hayley McAdam is now coordinating all the practical aspects of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations – booking dates, caterer information, etc.  She’s a great resource for you.  You can reach her at [email protected] or (416) 789-3291 ext. 246.

Eric Klein is the new chair of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah Committee.  Sparked by our Campaign for Youth Engagement and by the URJ’s “Bar Mitzvah Revolution,” we are looking at ways to further strengthen our Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program for our children and their parents.  We invite you to join in the conversation.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Gail Karen Berman

    I strongly feel that the concepts of study and of giving are vital, and that every boy and girl should realize this before having his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The party is all well and good, after the priorities mentioned here are attended to.

  • Phyllis Wintraub

    Each Saturday when I am in shul, as a congregant I get to re- experience that ”shecheciyanu moment” vicariously. I always remember those feelings when my own children were in that exact same place, and so each congregational child is a “stand-in” for my own b’nai mitzvot , giving one a chance to relive that day again.

    I especially love when the child returns to the parents and the congregation and always watch to see the displays of love, affection and yes, relief. The unspoken words are “you have come back to us but as a changed person forever”, both in our eyes and in the eyes of your fellow congregants.

  • Silvia

    Thank you Rabbi Splansky for this amazing article. So true. On our experience my son Allan put his soul and time learning his Torah portion, and as you stated on the day of ‘it looked like he was enjoying it’. Understanding the accomplishment of becoming a man of Mitzvot is the whole point. Everything else is the icing on the cake.

  • Denise Gordon

    When talking about becoming a bar/bat mitzvah, the difference between “to have” versus “to be” (coming) is significant. I agree that it behooves us, as parents, to emphasize our inclusionary, communal heritage at the time when children are becoming a bar/bat mitzvah, rather than separating our children from the congregational fold. I know that my husband, Dennis also feels that our children, Jonathan and Chloe, continue to be strengthened by their “shul family”, feeling a strong sense of belonging and a strong connection to being Jewish. Their b’nei mitzvahs were joyous events precisely because Holy Blossom’s Jewish community bore witness to these events. To my mind, “being” Jewish in public celebration and in communal prayer leads to “doing Jewish” in all facets of life. Thank you rabbi, for gently reminding us of the ultimate sacredness of the parental task at hand.

  • Jeff Dicker

    “A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a Person. Not an Event”. A very important message! In fact, I always make it a point to go up to both the parents and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and wish them a hearty “Mazel Tov” – whether or not I know them personally. We should all do that to reinforce the message that it is a community celebration.

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