Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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My Extravagant Bar Mitzvah Party

The author’s bar mitzvah party was expensive, but the joy of reconnecting and partying with friends and family was priceless.

It was 16-and-a-half years ago, but I can remember my bar mitzvah like it was yesterday.

My brother and I played guitar on the concluding song to close out the service, we had an oneg afterward and then had a few hours until what I’m sure my friends considered the main event: the party.

The religious significance of the day wasn’t lost on me. I very much enjoyed Hebrew school at Temple Emanuel in Reisterstown. I had a lot of friends there, the teachers were great and we spent a lot of time discussing the philosophical and present-day implications of Jewish thought.

That being said, I’d be lying if I downplayed how pumped I was about my epic party.

Looking back, the whole event seems a bit ridiculous, considering it was a party for a 13-year-old. My father, Gary, recalls the whole thing running about $22,000.

To be fair, my party was no more or less extravagant than any of those of my friends or my brother’s friends. And with my brother being three years older and my birthday being in July, by the time my party came around, we had a lot of parties to compare it to. There are even a few I remember that were significantly fancier and arguably pricier than mine.

As my father explains to me: “If you look at Worthington Park, the area which a lot of your friends lived, that kind of socioeconomic class, that party was in line with what everybody was doing,” referring to the upper-middle class Owings Mills neighborhood I grew up in.

“I don’t think we were trying to outdo [anyone] but we certainly had the consciousness of keeping up, which is ridiculous, but you only know that later,” my mother, Sally, says.

So what exactly jacked up the cost of the party so much? For one, we rented a ballroom at the Hunt Valley Marriott, something I imagine isn’t the cheapest. While I can’t recall what exactly we had to eat, I know there were multiple courses, and I think the appetizers were served buffet-style. We hired a group called “Heart to Heart” that included a DJ, dancers and an emcee. Unbeknownst to me until I got there, my parents got my band a stage to perform on. My brother and I performed Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” with a cousin on drums and then played several original songs with our band, Titanium Vortex. My parents had custom T-shirts made for the band, and I crowd- surfed during our performance.

Oh, and there were about 150 guests. I remember inviting about 40 or 50 friends, with little objection from my parents. The adults most likely had an open bar and the caterer made a guitar cake.

My mom did make the signing board, where friends and family could write messages to me, and she made the centerpieces as well.

“At that point, that was nothing,” my mom says, in terms of cost-saving.

Each table was a different band I was into at the time. We scanned album covers or stickers I had, and my mom printed them out onto foam board for the centerpieces. My table was Ozzy Osbourne — as you might have gathered, I was really into Ozzy at the time.

Although both of my parents agree the party was extravagant, they have different takes on what — if anything — they would have done differently.

“I don’t know if I can look back and say I even regret it,” my dad says. “I think you would have been very disappointed if you didn’t have a party like that.” He does feel, however, that religious aspect of the bar mitzvah was somewhat lost on me because of the party.

My mom says she would scale things down significantly if she were to do it again.

“My feeling is, if I were to do it again, I would have a beautiful oneg for the throngs of people we had and then at night just have a kid’s birthday party,” she says. “It was a weekend event. We had a full lunch oneg after the service. We had the extravagant party at night and then the next day we had brunch for 70 people.”

I’ll admit that the cost of the endeavor was completely lost on me at the time, and since it was something everybody did, it didn’t strike me as extravagant. In retrospect, I’m grateful my parents made it happen. Even though I’m 29 now, it’s still one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.

We were also left with a lot of good memories.

“The one positive thing about a big party, whether it’s lavish or in the backyard … people who don’t see each other much anymore because families are so spread out get together,” my mom says.

Having moved from New York to Maryland in 1990, we had a lot of friends and family come in from out of town. I also consider myself extremely lucky that all four of my grandparents were alive and well then (my grandfathers have since passed away).

So, now knowing the cost that went into my bar mitzvah party, do I wish my parents did something different? Absolutely not. All of my friends and family from near and far gathered for the day, and in some cases the weekend, and had a great time reconnecting and partying together. You can’t really put a price on that.

Then again, I wasn’t the one footing the bill.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Sprucing Up the Modern Simcha

If the words “kosher catering” conjure up visions of bland and unhealthy food, and memories of bar and bat mitzvahs past still haunt you, remember that planning your upcoming celebration doesn’t have to be a monotonous process full of seen-it-befores or tried-that-onces. With the help of creative kosher catering professionals — or by simply looking within yourself — your special day can be one of a kind.

By including yourself in the process of creating (not just planning) your event, it automatically creates a more personal feeling. One way to do this is by making invitations by hand, which allows control over color scheme, font and design; you can make the invitation an extension of your celebration’s theme or personal interests. Imbuing the invitation with your personal style makes the atmosphere both more memorable and more meaningful.

Rebecca Friedman of Asheville, N.C.-based Farmer’s Daughter Catering suggests crafting your own table centerpieces as a way to infuse personality into the event’s ambiance. She also mentions that many clients want to work with the party planner, rather than allowing the planner to have total control.

Others may break from the traditional style of first having a cocktail hour and then a formal dinner for weddings or from having separate meals for adults and kids.

“When working with a client, I always ask them what they’re envisioning with regard to the flow of the celebration,” says Ellen Vaknine, vice president of sales of marketing for New York City’s Espirit Events kosher caterer.

Even for the parents who do choose to have “kid food,” Vaknine suggests updating the presentation with funky touches. Soup can be served in eggshell bowls, and kebob skewers can be made from bamboo.

Friedman suggests looking into old family recipes that can be used as part of the catering menu. That will create a catering menu that many guests haven’t seen before, and relatives will enjoy the sentiment.

Whether it is through personalizing decorations or bypassing traditional kosher fare, party planning doesn’t have to be dreaded and stressful. With just a little bit of creativity, and by recognizing exactly what you want for your special day, you can make your dream simcha a reality.

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Flashback: Jenny Seidman

102414_insider_flashback1Although she says most of the details of her 1981 bat mitzvah party are fuzzy, there is one thing that native Baltimorean Jenny Seidman and probably most of her young guests remember clearly. Radio icon and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sarah Fleischer of Baltimore’s 98 Rock was her DJ! Seidman became a bat mitzvah at Beth El Congregation, and her party was held at the clubhouse at Cross Keys. Now, Seidman, who grew up in Stevenson, lives in Owings Mills with her husband, Jon Seidman, also a lifelong Baltimorean.

Insider: How did you end up getting Sarah to DJ your bat mitzvah party?
Seidman: My mother was her fifth-grade teacher.

Tell us something about what you have been doing since you were 13?
Let’s see … I graduated Pikesville High School in 1986 and then went to college at University of Hartford in Connecticut.

What was your major?
Mass communications. That major worked well for me because after college I had jobs where communication was a necessary skill.

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(David Stuck)

What are you doing now?
I am senior human resources and wellness associate at The Associated. I have worked there for more than seven years. Prior to my current position, I worked in the marketing department as an account executive.

What’s your favorite part about your position?
It would have to be the people. I’m a real people person.

Where can we find you when you’re not at work?
The JCC is my home away from home. I exercise there. My current favorite class is Sculpt Barre.

Guilty Pleasure?
I love watching “Scandal” or anything by Shonda Rhimes.

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Dude, How to Attend a Bar Mitzvah as an Adult

102414_insider_insidescoopAs young people, bar and bat mitzvah parties helped us build character: awkward social interactions, quiet slow dances where you desperately try not to make eye contact and condescending head pats from adults and kids taller than us.

Now that we’re older, how do we behave ourselves at our nephew’s celebration?

The service
The first stop on the bar/bat mitzvah party train is the ceremony — a solemn, formal affair. Be a respectful adult. There is no snack bar. You will not be on a kiss-cam. You may be excited to support your celebrant, but remember that other kids are coming of age too. So when your relative goes up and aces his reading, DO NOT stand and yell, “YES! He nailed it!”

The party
You’re here to have fun, so stick to the basics. Mingle with the adults, comment on how cute the kids are, and, if you share the same interests with the person of the hour, feel free to steal some of his or her themed decorations. My large basketball centerpiece is the classiest part of my apartment and the reason all my friends know I kill it at sports.

What to avoid
While enjoying the party, know what activities and events are appropriate for your age. Drinks, food, giving approving nods to children — those are within your domain. Airbrushed tattoos or face-paintings ARE NOT FOR YOU. I know, face-painting is cool, and yes, I have an awesome tiger on my face as I write this. But just for today, let the kids have their fun.

When approaching the bar or bat mitzvah to congratulate them, it’s important to not treat them like a child. Don’t patronize them or pinch their cheeks. On the other hand, don’t treat them like too much of an adult. Don’t sit down, light up a cigarette and starting venting about your relationship and faith-based questions. Your little cousin doesn’t have an opinion on legislative gridlock. He just either loves or hates Justin Bieber. Gauge whichever one is currently cool, agree with him, and go in for your obligatory head pat.

If you take the above advice, you’ll also lead a classy, understated night.

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Not Your Bubbie’s Bat Mitzvah

It’s no secret that many Jewish organizations dedicate considerable energy and resources to attract new and maintain existing members of all ages. The bar and bat mitzvah experience is undergoing a similar transformation.

Where years ago the 11- or 12-year-old might embark upon their bar or bat mitzvah studies more or less on their own — primarily learning prayers to lead the service and read from the Torah — now there is a more holistic approach that involves the entire family, especially the parents, and begins sometimes years before the child’s milestone event.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation started a “very aggressive program” for b’nai mitzvah families that begins two to three years prior to the celebration.

“I took charge [of the b’nai mitzvah program] to show the children and families this is a priority,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “We see the buildup to the bar and bat mitzvah as a major opportunity to reach not just the children, but also their parents — Jewishly — so that when they come to the bar or bat mitzvah they are not strangers, and the entire congregation can share in the joy of their simcha.”

Colin Fleisher and wife Jodi bring the family to shul every Saturday, so they are comfortable within the synagogue walls; their son, Eran, will become a bar mitzvah in March. But there are still things they experience as a family that they might not have without the impetus of the b’nai mitzvah program.

“In the last six or seven months we’ve been to Weinberg Park [assisted living] three times to play bingo and visit with the residents,” said Fleisher. It’s nice for his kids — Fleisher’s daughter joined on one visit — to socialize with the seniors because their own grandparents are in South Africa, so both the kids and the seniors benefit from the visits.

One Shabbat per month Wohlberg meets with upcoming b’nai mitzvah families, and for some holidays they share a meal at the synagogue and have a class together; each child is also involved in social action programs.

“Our goal is to make this a religious experience … and in a certain sense we’re not giving people a choice,” added Wohlberg. “If they want to have the bar mitzvah, it cannot be a one-shot deal.”

At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the b’nai mitzvah training “begins at the earliest stages of religious school and engages the whole family,” said Rabbi Andrew Bush.

The families are encouraged to attend Shabbat services and luncheons, where they can talk about the relationships that will develop between the students, cantor and rabbis throughout their studies. A year out, the whole b’nai mitzvah class attends a Torah study retreat to discuss expectations and the spirituality of the milestone, said Bush.

“In the months of tutoring we try to make it as personalized as possible,” emphasized Bush. “It’s not just mastering Hebrew texts, but also maintaining a relationship with the text, the rabbi and cantor, as we engage [them] in the process.”

Debby Hellman, bar and bat mitzvah coordinator at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, responded via email that the synagogue’s “bar and bat mitzvah experience has the potential to be transformative for the whole family. We try to engage families through a series of family programs that begin soon after the excitement of receiving their child’s date.”

This year, the b’nai mitzvah family education series is called “613 and Me” and includes a social action component.

Some parents choose to honor their children by reading from the Torah for the milestone, explained Hellman, but some haven’t done that since their own bar mitzvah day or not at all, so Chizuk Amuno provides them with support and training.

Gary, Jordan, Alec and Stephani Braverman  celebrated Alec’s bar  mitzvah in January 2013. Alec and his parents all read from the Torah. (Provided)

Gary, Jordan, Alec and Stephani Braverman celebrated Alec’s bar mitzvah in January 2013. Alec and his parents all read from the Torah.
(Provided)

Stephani and Gary Braverman were recent participants in one session.

With their son, Alec, looking on, they read from the Torah for their first time ever at his bar mitzvah. Alec did as well, and his younger brother Jordan sang the Ashrei prayer. The whole family intends to repeat the experience in honor of the Bravermans’ wedding anniversary next month.

Rabbi Kelley Gludt is the director of congregational learning at Beth Am Synagogue and is also mastermind behind renaming its religious school the Jewish Discovery Lab.

“Seventh grade is a year to build bridges among the families and clergy and between each other,” she said. “We find it’s an important time for families to bond; going through that experience together has an impact, and that bonding is a real way to keep people engaged beyond the simcha.”

In the fall of sixth grade, kids attend a Shabbat program that is open to all families, but a special b’nai mitzvah track allows participants to learn Jewish content in an informal setting, which being outside the traditional synagogue building, said Gludt, is “a great way to set the tone for the entire [b’nai mitzvah] experience.”

Kids are invited to hear their Torah portion sung a year in advance, and then the b’nai mitzvah class has an official kick-off seventh-grade year.

There are four classes that year for the whole family, and they “do value clarification so that the conversations happen about what this [milestone] means for the community, for their synagogue and for their family,” said Gludt.

During the rest of the year, b’nai mitzvah students get together most Sundays to participate in a social justice event, because “we want to set the kids off on a path of lifelong volunteerism in a Jewish context,” said Gludt. “We don’t want them to do it as something to cross off their list as something they do on their way to their bar or bar mitzvah.”

At Kol Halev Synagogue, Rabbi Geoff Basik also considers the milestone a transitional opportunity for some families and views the b’nai mitzvah process as “a real doorway, an opener,” especially for more peripheral or less engaged families to discover and foster their Jewish identity.

The b’nai mitzvah program, called Mensch-in-Training, starts about a year and a half out. For the curriculum, “What Would a Mensch Do?” students and parents study together to foster communication at home about the content and the process.

Kol Halev strives to provide a personalized experience, said Basik. It’s designed to be flexible, especially when a family’s Jewish identity may manifest in one of many ways such as through Hebrew skills, social justice action or even arts and culture.

102414_insider_bubbie2Isabel Unguru, whose parents are fluent in Hebrew, enjoyed learning Hebrew and singing the words at Kol Halev. She said that she was given the chance to make her celebration unique.

“They taught me how to incorporate what I liked into my bat mitzvah,” she said. “I liked singing, dancing and playing violin, so they suggested I play a song at my service with my teacher as accompaniment.”

Families “become familiar with Judaism and its value system; that gets expressed in a variety of ways” that are meaningful and accessible to them, said Basik. The goal is for them to “learn about being Jewish and Judaism and plugging them into Judaism in some unique way.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com