A Rite of Passage
Planning a meaningful Mitzvah
Photo by Christine Ashburn Photography
Every year, the middle-school crowd (and their parents) find themselves on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit, with many weekends devoted to celebrating friends and family who commemorate their symbolic coming-of-age as a Jewish adult. While there is no mention of this ritual in the Torah, it has become de rigeur in the past 50 years or so to commemorate this milestone with much pomp and circumstance—with some celebrations that make weddings look like a block party.
Fairfield teens Maddie Gassel and Danielle Hazelton are recent bat mitzvahs whose mothers shared with us the many details that go into planning, preparing for, and pulling off a bat mitzvah that is meaningful, memorable, and most of all: a mitzvah that won’t make you crazy. “Keeping the ceremony and significance of the event central puts everything into perspective,” says Danielle’s mother, Lynn Drasin. The students spend an entire year devoted to the study of their designated Torah portion as well as another part known as the haftarah—all in Hebrew, naturally. They are also expected to lead the entire service and recite a speech that they have written.
While it is daunting to think of a 12-year-old tackling such a task with the eyes of their family and friends on them, they do rise to the occasion. Drasin of her daughter, “She has thrived, working three hours a week with her tutor—she recently said to her, ‘Dani, you are ready to do this tomorrow. You sound great,’ the sense of accomplishment on my daughter’s face was amazing.”
Aside from the preparation by the bat mitzvah herself, there is the enormous amount of advance planning for the party. Some start as far as three years in advance—and parents say budgeting should begin that early.
According to emitz.com, the average bar/bat mitzvah costs roughly $15,000 to $30,000 (with many costing much, much more). Recently Nick Jonas was paid $100,000 for performing at a Manhattan bat mitzvah, with many variables affecting the bottom line. Spring events are more costly than winter, dinners more pricey than luncheons, and the number of guests and elements like party favors and entertainment have a huge bearing on cost. Heidi Gassel, whose daughter Maddie became a bat mitzvah in November 2014, kept costs in check by doing much of the work herself—she is an aspiring party planner with a flair for balloon arrangements—and by getting help from other women in her temple.
“The program was made in an assembly line with our Mitzvah Share friends in the lobby. One friend folded napkins to look like dresses, another made mini shopping bags for the candy buffet, and another designed the logo,” says Gassel. This group effort, she adds, solidified the sense of community for her and her family, and lent itself to the traditional philosophy in Judaism that it takes a village to raise a child.
Maddie’s passion is for fashion, and that theme ran through the occasion from the “save the date” emails that were designed to look like a fashion-magazine subscription card all the way down to the centerpieces, with each table named for a famous fashion designer. Danielle, whose love is singing, incorporated a performance into her party of one of her favorite Demi Lovato songs.
Mary Thornton of Party Party in Fairfield has been planning events in the area for ten years. “As far as themes go, it’s important to talk to the child and parents to get a feel for what would be authentic for their event; we try to personalize it as much as possible.”
Another popular way to commemorate the occasion: a trip to Israel with a ceremony there.
Some trends from my time as a bat mitzvah remain, like customized sweatshirts given as gifts, but while kids used to remove their shoes and throw them on the dance floor, hosts now provide special socks for dancing.
What also remains from years past is the inevitable disbelief that this once-in-a-lifetime event passes in a blink of an eye.
Manage the Mishegoss: A few tips on navigating the mitzvah planning
For both the honored child and her/his guests, Arlene Rosenthal of Party Ideas in Westport cited the current “nightclub” trend that lends itself to “club casual/club cool” attire. While many venture to big department stores, others have outfits custom-made by local designers Jennifer Butler or Deanna Richards, both of Fairfield.
Anyone who has been to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah knows the DJ, the MC, and “dance motivators” are key to the success of the party. Dttment.com or totalentertainment.com are options. Check advertisement in local magazine and guides.
Locally, some popular places to hold celebrations include the Delamar Hotel, Mora Mora in Sono, and the Inn at Longshore in Westport.
Mitzvahmarket.com is a one-stop-shopping destination, from mitzvah project ideas to an exhaustive list of vendors and everything in between, serving the tri-state area.
What to Give
The standard gift is money, for boys almost 100 percent of the time. It is customary to give multiples of $18—a number considered lucky in Jewish tradition. For girls, says Arlene Rosenthal, “everyone wants a turquoise box”—the Tiffany packaging indicating a beautiful trinket lies inside. Often, groups of friends will go in together on a Tiffany keepsake. Cash and checks are also common gifts for girls.