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 MyBatMitzvahStory.org 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.