Preparation Is Key

Photos provided

Photos provided

“Before anything else,” Alexander Graham Bell once said, “preparation is the key to success.”

These sage words of advice imparted by one of history’s most significant communication innovators certainly hold true when it comes to one of the most important transitions in the life of a young man or woman.

Despite the variety of themes, styles, denominational observation and season, one factor that unites all b’nai mitzvahs is the undeniable fact that, indeed, preparation is the key to success.

“My job is to make sure of two things,” said Baltimore  Hebrew Congregation’s director of education, Brad Cohen. “The kids going through our education program are coming up with a solid base of understanding of prayers, and I do a lot of the coordinating of the different programs that we do.”

Cohen, who has maintained his role at BHC for the past  six-and-a-half years, elaborated that the foundation of preparation for b’nai mitzvahs via his organization is that “every kid is treated as an individual,” each student is appropriately consulted — along with his or her parents — and a specialized, rigorous program is established to ensure success.

A big part of b’nai mitzvah preparation is learning a Torah portion.

A big part of b’nai mitzvah preparation is learning a Torah portion.

According to Cohen, the protocol involves giving the student and his or her family a date of the b’nai mitzvah typically about two years in advance. The date-setting is celebrated over a special Shabbat lunch. This normally occurs around fifth or sixth grade (though, of course, Cohen said the date is namely based on a student’s birth date more than anything else).

The cantor will then speak with the student, figure out where he or she is at with his or her educational background, and then a system for preparation is individualized accordingly.

Cohen said that from here, the student will meet with the cantor for tutoring once a week and with BHC’s rabbi three or four times during the final six months of the process.

Largely in aid of boosting the student’s confidence, Cohen revealed that students are normally taken on a special retreat with their families — traditionally around the end of sixth grade — in which discussions arise with both students and families/parents alike about guidance and what is to come in the future.

“This helps to let them know they have the support not only of the professionals, but of their peers as well,” Cohen said, adding that the trip is more about the “journey” the students take than merely the terra firma day itself.

About a year-and-a-half ago, a special student was brought in who, Cohen said, is autistic.

Cohen worked closely with the student during his 18-month preparation process and found that he had to find unique strategies to work with a student with singular needs. The student’s mercurial mood was a challenge, for example.

“It was really about sitting down with his parents, learning about him,” Cohen said, noting that he learned that intermittent tutoring worked best (working for 10 minutes, then taking a break, then working again for 10 minutes).

Cohen also discovered that the student loved the BHC building itself and that if they could move around and study standing over by a book case for a while, for example, then walk over to another part of the facility, that allowed for better opportunities for success in studying as well.

“It was a really special thing,” Cohen said of the student’s bar mitzvah. “It was really amazing how we’re able to do that for individuals.”

“It all depends on the individual child,” agreed Debby Hellman, who has been Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s b’nai mitzvah coordinator for the past 20 years. “Some kids are easy, and some need more attention.

“What’s most exciting is when we see a student who comes in at the beginning of the process and is unsure of his or her capabilities and grows into the role over the next few months.”

Hellman said a lot of kids who come in are not very secure in their ability and might lack confidence. Over time, she continued, through the learning process at Chizuk Amuno, “they become confident, and they understand they’re mature enough to handle the responsibilities of Judaism.”

Believing then that preparation for the b’nai mitzvah is as much about maturity as it is “learning to chant from the bimah,” Hellman said the most impressive aspect of the process for her is seeing the student over time “choose a new sense of who they are. … It becomes a window to their identity. That’s what’s most rewarding.”

The space chosen for the ceremony and reception is also an integral component of the individualized preparatory process, Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’Nai Israel said, pointing to his own 140-year-old sanctuary in downtown Baltimore, renovated a year ago.

“It definitely has a different kind of feel to a typical congregation,” Mintz said about his historic space, which is available for rental. “I believe in the idea of this being a  sacred time in a young person’s life, so to be able to be in a sacred space is something that could give somebody chills. We can create a sense of holiness in choosing how we choreograph and focus on a ceremony that we put together, which of course has so much to do with time, space and being surrounded by family.”

“For me, the most exciting thing is seeing from the family’s perspective the change that comes about,” Hellman concluded. “That [the student] understands they’re at a different level, different status in the community. That’s a transformative thing. That’s where real growth comes in.”

5 Go-To Venues

A bar or bat mitzvah is a once-in-a-lifetime simchah that brings friends and family together for a joyous occasion to celebrate a Jewish child’s coming of age.

Choosing a venue might seem like a daunting task consisting only of liking a space or not, but in reality, it is a crucial decision that sets the tone for the entire event. Fortunately, there are a number of unique settings around the Greater Baltimore area from which  to choose when planning the  big day.

Here are five event locations that promise to provide an unforgettable experience.


M&T Bank Stadium

M&T Bank Stadium

M&T Bank Stadium

M&T Bank Stadium is best known as the home of the NFL’s Ravens, but when the ball is at rest and the uniforms are hung up, the stadium shines as a luxury space for b’nai mitzvahs. Aramark, the Ravens’ exclusive food and beverage partner, works in conjunction with the team to make the guest of honor feel like a Raven.

Typically, the stadium hosts 10 to 12 b’nai mitzvahs per year, holding anywhere from 50 to 500-plus people for each depending on a client’s budget, needs and desires. Among the services offered include football-themed activities, video montages on the two state-of-the-art 24-by-100-foot high-definition video boards in the end zone and guest appearances from players and mascots.

The team’s club-level-suite lounge — offering an overview of downtown Baltimore with 60-foot floor-to-ceiling windows — houses most of the receptions. But there are also opportunities to tour the stadium, go on the field and enjoy the view from the seats in the lower level.

“We really want to give kids and their families that Ravens feel to it,” said Sarah Aiello, event sales and marketing manager at Aramark. “We partner hand in hand with the Ravens so our guests really get what they want.”

For more information, visit


Blue Hill Tavern

Blue Hill Tavern

Blue Hill Tavern

Although Blue Hill Tavern is relatively new, having opened in 2009, the Canton-based establishment has gained quite a reputation with its unique structure.

With a two-level design for indoor and outdoor dining, Blue Hill Tavern features a second-floor bar, a spacious veranda, an elegant private dining room and in-house catering. Party packages, which vary in price from $5,000 to $15,000 and can be adjusted based on a perspective client’s budget, are designed to seat more than 200 guests and 300 standing.

Blue Hill Tavern events and donations coordinator Jessica Cohen said most of the restaurant’s party-related business is by referral and that many newcomers become repeat customers  because of the emphasis placed on attention to detail.

“We’ve never had a party where the hosts leave and weren’t satisfied with the outcome,” Cohen said. “If anything, we find that we totally exceed their expectations. We strive to come up with a plan, then execute it and do whatever we can to see our clients are fully satisfied.”

For more information, visit


DoubleTree by Hilton in Pikesville

DoubleTree by Hilton in Pikesville

DoubleTree by Hilton in Pikesville

For families looking for a more traditional setting, the DoubleTree by Hilton Baltimore North/Pikesville offers a stylish private banquet room for both a service and party accommodating up to 375 people.

Four-hour venue rental packages come complete with complimentary dance floor and DJ booth, gift and cake tables, centerpieces and staging, specialty-colored linens and a wide array of menu items. The dinner buffet, designed for 50 or more guests, includes a litany of tasty salad, beef, chicken, fish and dessert choices.

“Each guest and each proposal statement is designed precisely with each individual guest requirements,” said sales manager Christina Landers. “The constant goal is to exceed expectations and to make the event a memorable one.”

For more information, visit


Dave & Busters

Dave & Busters

Dave & Buster’s

Dave & Buster’s at Arundel Mills Mall has a little something for everyone with two separate buffet packages for children, adults and families.

For children, there are two separate packages that range from $24.99 to $34.99 per child and consist of access to the restaurant’s 200-plus arcade games, 14 bowling lanes and 10 pool tables. There are also three adult-friendly packages available.

“Families can just come in, sit back and relax,” said Steven Rivera, special consultant at Dave & Buster’s at Arundel Mills. “Basically, there is something fun for everyone, from the adults to the children, and we like to consider ourselves a one-stop shop for everything in terms of the actual party.”

For more information, visit


Reisterstown Sportsplex

Reisterstown Sportsplex

The Reisterstown Sportsplex

The Reisterstown Sportsplex, which opened in 2008, has become a hotbed for many kids involved with competitive sports, and it puts on several b’nai mitzvahs a year.

While there is a traditional party room that comes with a $50 rental fee, guests have full access to the complex’s turf fields and ice-skating rink. Amenities that come with the $16.50 per cost per child  include skate rental, pizza, hot dogs and soda. The Sportsplex can also accommodate those who wish to have a kosher event.

“[B’nai mitzvahs] have been a really big hit here,” said general manager Chuck Lawless. “There are a lot of different things we can do when it comes to the kids who want to dance, play sports or whatever with all of our offerings at the facility.”

For more information, visit

Fashion! Turn to the Left

Synchronicity Boutique (Photo by David Stuck)

Synchronicity Boutique (Photo by David Stuck)

One crucial aspect of the b’nai mitzvah ceremony, not to mention post-party, is looking the part.

“Thirteen is a very tricky age,” Synchronicity Boutique owner Karen Mazer said, amplifying her observation with the notion that in outfitting both younger and older persons alike, she and her staff have all manner of considerations to deal with in assuring their customers — whether bat mitzvahs, parents, aunts, siblings — are satisfied.

“Girls do not want to dress like little girls, and women do not want to dress like old ladies,” Mazer, who opened her store in 2003, said. She laughed at the dichotomy extant that “kids can’t wait to be 21, and adults want to stay 29.”

Hence, the importance of Mazer’s store having dresses that “appeal to just about every woman of every age, shape, size and budget” for every occasion, be they bat mitzvahs or any other “happy occasion.”

Though Mazer said her store does focus more on adults than children, she added that there’s a great deal of care that must be put into outfitting a younger person. Sudden physical changes are certainly an issue — hence her urging customers to buy their bat mitzvah dress no more than three months in advance.

She also suggested a dress with a corseted back for bat mitzvahs and a similarly functioning corset for mothers, aunts and grandparents alike.

Permitting a young woman whose shape and size is in flux over the course of a short amount of time to tighten or loosen up her dress easily is ideal for comfort, and, similarly, lace in the back of a dress for a mom or another more mature woman will allow for “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative” accordingly, as Mazer tactfully put it.

For every occasion, the happy and special part should be starting at my store. It should be fun.
— Karen Mazer, owner, Synchronicity Boutique

The right dress also depends on other elements involved: whether the ceremony will take place in a synagogue or not; whether it takes place at night or in the morning; whether there’s a party immediately after or not; and the various dress requirements depending on denominational observation.

“The universal themes are that shoulders must be covered,” Mazer said. “Which is something a lot of rabbis have urged us to emphasize for mothers; something that should be considered for themselves as well as their daughters.”

Mazer went on to say that rabbis have additionally requested that mothers and daughters remember the all-important proposition that the ceremony should not be the first time a young woman wears heels.

“They’re going to be on the bimah for a long time and march around with the Torah, and you don’t want them wobbling or falling,” Mazer pointed out.

Cohen’s Clothiers (Photo provided)

Cohen’s Clothiers (Photo provided)

Of course, suitable length of the dress is needful too. Mazer suggests that her customers sit on a chair in front of a mirror with their chosen dress on and make sure they’re comfortable … but also not unintentionally revealing more than they’d like in so doing.

“Now, this doesn’t mean the dress has to be down to the ankles,” Mazer said, laughing.

Given all of these particulars — height/build/synagogue requirements/ time of day/colors/themes, etc. — Mazer said her staff and she “find as close to what the person is looking for as possible, usually quite successfully.”

Jan’s Boutique’s Paul Virilli agrees that customers generally have an idea of what they want before they come to his store (in New Jersey, a two-hour drive from Baltimore).

“Most people have images of dresses on their phone,” Virilli said. “Customers are looking online. They know what they want; they’ve been shopping around.”

“People come to us from Delaware, Washington and Maryland for a reason,” Virilli said, boasting that his store happens to have the largest selection in the region.

“Once we know where the affair is going to be, whether it’s going to be fancy or casual, we can direct them. There’s also price points: Everyone has a different budget. Once we know what they’re looking for, we point them in the right direction.”

The right direction can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, as Mazer suggested in her observation of this being a “tricky” age to fit young people.

“The timetable is around puberty, and that’s when you have very significant growth spurts, especially in males,” Gilbert Cohen, third-generation owner of 112-year-old Cohen’s Clothiers, said.

“Males can explode in that 12- to 13-year-old range. What happens is if you get something too far ahead of time, you get to the bar mitzvah and you can’t even wear the garment.”

Cohen, who specializes in male sartorial effects, recommended boys wait no more than four to six weeks before the ceremony to purchase their suits. He added that his business offers a free, in-store alteration service “because most tailors don’t understand children.” So last-minute changes are not impossible to make, if needed.

Another challenge for Cohen beyond the typical budgetary and growth concerns on the part of parents is the fact that sometimes he must deal with “the maelstrom” that comes up when parents are no longer married and might be rather disputatious with one another about how they see the ceremony and outfit for their son’s bar mitzvah.

“When the parents are arguing, we have to satisfy both parties,” Virilli said. “We have to remember that we can’t leave the bar mitzvah boy in the middle of that, though.”

Virilli seemed unfazed by such challenges: “This is what we do, this is our game. We know what we’re doing here.”

At the end of the day, of course, it’s all about a magical experience for all involved, celebrating a critical transition in the life of these special young people.

“For every occasion, the happy and special part should be starting at my store,” Mazer said. “It should be fun.”

Getting the Party Started

© Merlini

Photo credit: © Merlini

There is an art to entertaining. Stand-up comedians need timing, warm-up guys need to be able to get a crowd excited without surpassing the main act. However, nothing surpasses the magic of the b’nai mitzvah emcee.

“You can bring someone in to play music, but we specialize in entertainment,” said Doug Sandler, who has DJ’ed nearly 2,000 bar and bat mitzvahs locally since he started entertaining under the name DJ Doug in 1984.

“We play plenty of games, but engagement is key,” he explained. “It’s not just engagement of the kids, it’s how we can get the kids and adults to play on the same page without alienating one group or the other and ending up with two separate parties.”

To say the least, the games he plays are innovative. He plays scooter hockey, has pyramid-building contests and uses toilet paper for mummy-wrap contests. Of course, traditional games are still commonplace. “People still love and request Coke and Pepsi; they have since it started in 1991,” Sandler said. “We do Simon Says. I didn’t invent it, but I’ve played it 2,500 times, so I think I’ve got it down.”

There are also all sorts of activities that engage kids and parents alike: for example, a musical scavenger hunt in which kids rush to retrieve items from members of the audience. And guests are sure to be entertained by watching two fathers rush to see who can give their kid a sock the quickest.

With today’s technology, there are also ways that you can do a geo-scavenger hunt, Sandler explained.

“It’s so easy to have plasma screens now that people want a lot of technology at their parties,” he said. “But whether you have all the tech in the world or you just have an emcee, the party is really about this celebration of an incredible milestone. It doesn’t have to be a keep-up-with-the-Joneses-type situation. You just have to make it so it’s fun for everybody at your event.”

In line with new technologies, a growing trend in the bar and bat mitzvah party scene is automated photo booths. David Hartzman, an event photographer for the Washington Talent Agency, explained: “We really try to keep with the new trends, and as far as upcoming and new stuff, photo booths have really blown up over the past two years.

“People think that they’re retro and cool in spite of them being much newer. We can fit 20 people in one booth as opposed to two. They’re also getting bigger because [they’re] more economical as far as novelties come. It’s not a photo station that involves a photographer and posing, although there is still an attendant at the booth to help out.”

According to Harzman, one booth has a giant, full-length “magic mirror.” If you walk past the mirror, it has a little animation that says “touch here to start,” which brings the display to life.

“It talks to you, it says smile for the camera, and you can even sign your own picture on the screen,” Hartzman said. “It’s very interactive. There are a lot of props for people to be slightly more dressed up or goofy for the photo booth.”

Of course, the music at a party is one of the most important elements. There are always the Top 40 hits, which kids love so much. According to DJ Doug, “Uptown Funk” has been the most requested song recently, while a few years ago it was the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Technology has completely changed the world of the DJ. If you don’t have a requested song, you can download it instantly.

“There’s such a huge overlap in the music that adults and kids like these days too,” Sandler said. “XM Radio brings the kids’ music to adults while video games bring ’80s music to kids. You can have 8,000 songs in your library, but if I have the 60 songs that I know will be a hit, I don’t need all of this huge collection.”

When it comes to the bar and bat mitzvah entertainment, there will always be new trends hand in hand with the classics. As Hartzman said, “People like seeing new things, and the people who come up with those new ideas, they are the ones who push parties to the next step above and beyond.”

Reflecting on Bar, Bat Mitzvah Experiences

Andy Hoffman (Photo provided)

Andy Hoffman (Photo provided)

Although it was more than 21 years ago, Andy Hoffman remembers his bar mitzvah party like it was yesterday.

Hoffman, 34, owner of Gourmet Again, celebrated with about 175 family and friends at the Woodholme Country in Pikesville, where the theme of the night was golf. Each table had a different professional golfer whom Hoffman admired at the time as the centerpiece, and there was a special room that featured hitting nets, long-drive contests and miniature golf for the kids.

“One of the best parts about that night was that a lot of the adults ended up in the kids’ room with all the golfing activities we had,” said Hoffman, a standout on the Towson University golf team from 2000 to 2004. “It was great to see all the kids trying to outdo the adults and vice versa in a good, competitive way.”

Simply put, the evening was a hole-in-one event for Hoffman, who basked in the glory after entering Jewish adulthood at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville hours earlier.

A bar or bat mitzvah is one of the most important days in a young boy’s or girl’s life. It marks a rite of passage for which a young Jewish boy or girl spends months, sometimes even years, preparing.

For Rebecca Ellison, who had her bat mitzvah service at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, her party was a “candy land dreamland.”

Ellison, 22, had a candy-themed affair, incorporating her favorite sugary treats into her centerpieces, food selections and candle lighting, among other things, at the now-defunct Chestnut Ridge Country Club in Lutherville.

“I always think it’s funny that everyone had a theme to their party,” Ellison said with a laugh. “We had giveaways at the end of my party, so everyone could take a candy bag home or make their own bag of candy.”

Perhaps more important than any extravagant celebration is the religious significance, which was not lost on either Hoffman or Ellison.

Rebecca Ellison (Photo provided)

Rebecca Ellison (Photo provided)

Hoffman, who said his mother didn’t have a bat mitzvah until she was about 50, studied under the watchful eye of his grandfather in addition to then Beth El Rabbi Mark Loeb.

Although one of the few things he can’t recall is his Haftarah portion, Hoffman came away with a greater understanding of what it mean to be Jewish by learning from the two men. His parents also provided him with overwhelming support at every turn, as he prepared for the big day.

“My mom was definitely into quizzing me and tutoring me as much she could with the Hebrew,” Hoffman said. “My grandfather also tutored me. He was old-school, semi-Conservadox, and he definitely played a large part in helping me as well.”

Ellison very much enjoyed her time at Beth Israel in Owings Mills, learning under the guidance of Rabbi Jay Goldstein, Cantor Roger Eisenberg and music teacher Doris Sugar.

Ellison studied her Haftarah portion, Shabbat Shel Rosh Chodesh, rigorously for a year-and-a-half with Sugar, ensuring she would be more than ready to lead her service as a single bat mitzvah (sometimes there were more than one b’nai mitzvah per service).

“If it wasn’t the longest Haftarah portions, it was definitely one of the longest,” Ellison said of the Shabbat Shel Rosh Chodesh. “I was a single bat mitzvah, so there was definitely a lot going on and a lot to take in as far as the studying went.”

Ellison, a development associate with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said she continues to incorporate a lot of what she learned in her bat mitzvah process.

“I was always dedicating — even if it was just one day a week — a lot of my time to Judaism and learning about my identity [at Beth Israel],” said Ellison, who graduated from Towson University this past spring with a degree in psychology. “I think that was something that was always consistent for me.”

Calling All 2021 Girls! Daughters, moms launch bat mitzvah giving circle, invite others to join

Jessica Millman,12, held her breath as she waited to see which direction the conversation with her mother, Jennifer, was headed.

“I read an article about a girl whose mom came to her one day and let her know that all the money she would get from her bat mitzvah she would have to donate,” said Jessica’s mom. “The girl in the article was horrified and thought her mother was unfair.”

Jessica listened.

But that changed the path of the girl’s life, continued her mother. “It was a game changer; it made her feel good and made her feel powerful.”

From left: Lana Koman, Nicole Koman, Wendy Elover, Shannon Elover, Julie Elover, Jennifer Millman and Jessica Millman started the Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle and the girls will donate a portion of their bat mitzvah money to the CHANA girls’ camp scholarship fund. (photo by Melissa Gerr)

From left: Lana Koman, Nicole Koman, Wendy Elover, Shannon Elover, Julie Elover, Jennifer Millman and Jessica Millman started the Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle and the girls will donate a portion of their bat mitzvah money to the CHANA girls’ camp scholarship fund. (photo by Melissa Gerr)

Next, to Jessica’s relief and delight, her mother proposed the idea of starting the Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle. The idea was to invite a group of Jessica’s friends from the 2021 graduating class so, together, they could pledge a donation amount from their bat mitzvah gifts and choose a recipient of the funds, to make a bigger impact with their pooled dollars. They could learn leadership skills in the process.

“And I thought, ‘Well, that seems pretty cool,’” said Jessica, who had heard about the concept of a giving circle before.

Her mother, Jennifer Mendelsohn Millman, is program director for the Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation of Baltimore, a program of the The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. For more than 10 years, the group, that now numbers about 100 women, donates and decides, through a meticulous review of proposals and site visits, where their money will go.

The Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle began planning last November with meetings, complete with agendas, action items and voting sessions and included lessons about leadership skills. Though all of the girls participate in hands-on philanthropic giving with their families or social organizations, this is the first time they’ve donated their own money to a cause of their choice.

Sitting at the dining room table, where the moms and daughters — who will all celebrate bat mitzvahs at Beth El Congregation —planned, deliberated and finally decided upon the recipient of their funding, the group had plenty to say about their experience.

“It’s interesting and powerful [to work in a group] and to see everyone else’s ideas and share your thoughts with each other,” said Julie Elover, 12.

“It makes you feel really good to give with your friends,” added her twin sister, Shannon.

The girls decided which organizations to consider, researched them, presented their findings to the group and advocated for which organization to support, said the twins’ mother, Wendy Elover. “This is their group and we’re here for guidance and support,” and added. “The moms did get to vote.”

After a thoughtful but swift deliberation, the girls chose the CHANA girls’ camp scholarship fund, a suggestion that came from Naomi and Molly Hoffman. Local, national and international organizations were considered, but ultimately, it was important to them to support other girls their age and in their hometown.

Lana Koman, whose daughter, Nicole, was the first to become bat mitzvah in the group, said, “The planning was really great for them, they came together as a team. They had amazing ideas and really took ownership of it.”

“There’s something really powerful about asking the girls to donate their own money, not to ask other people to donate to a cause that’s important to them,” said Millman. “I know from my work running the JWGF that there’s something really powerful that happens when a group of people come together to give money. It feels different, it feels like the impact you’re making is far beyond you; it becomes more of a community event.”

An added benefit of participating in the giving circle is acquiring leadership skills. Very often, Millman learned from presentations by JWGF-funded organizations, girls tend to have a significant drop in confidence around adolescence. She thought the giving circle experience could be a way to combat that.

“A lot of [girls] apologize for things that don’t necessarily need it,” said Julie, citing what she learned. “I saw myself doing that a lot, and I realized I should fix that, and I should be more confident.”

“We talked about that it’s OK to be the one who disagrees in a group discussion, that it might help to bring out important ideas,” said Jessica. “I feel like I’ve done that sometimes, and [we also learned] to think outside the ‘pretty box’ — to think outside someone’s appearance and think of their inner beauty.”

“I’ve seen both of my girls come home and tell me stories about things they’ve noticed after hearing the leadership lessons,” said Elover. “I’ve also seen them take charge.”

The Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle is open to girls in the 2021 graduating class, and Millman, who created and will pass forward all of the materials and agendas and hopes the next class will step up to start its own circle too.

“Even if you give just a little portion, you’re still making a really big difference for other people,” said Nicole. “It doesn’t matter how much, as long as you make a difference in your community.”

There is also a website and an Instagram account, and the girls have created flyers to pass out to friends.

Though it’s tempting to open it up to well-wishing grandparents or other relatives who might want to donate, “we really want to see what these girls can do together with their own money,” said Millman. “We really want the [funds] to come from these girls so that they can see what they can accomplish together.”

Millman was thrilled about the group’s decision to donate to the CHANA girls’ camp scholarship fund. She thinks it’s reflective of how her daughter and friends feel so supported during their bat mitzvah year by their Jewish community — parents, friends and teachers.

“And the girls they’re giving scholarships to are in a very different position … they’re in homes that have a lot of turbulence and [they’re] not feeling the support,” she said. “And I think that it is so beautiful for this group to come together to show these girls that they do have the support of their community. And there are people out there who care about them.”

For more information about the Bat Mitzvah Girls’ Giving Circle

Food Station Specialization Bar and bat mitzvah caterers try to cover all bases when planning for events

Most b’nai mitzvah celebrations today feature a mix of buffet-style stations.

Most b’nai mitzvah celebrations today feature a mix of buffet-style stations.

“Something for everyone” seems to be the common refrain among caterers in 2015 in their
approach to preparing for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Caterers in Baltimore often cook for several dozen parties per year, customizing the menu in such a way that attempts to meet the needs of each set of guests.

Owings Mills caterer Alan Weiss said in 25 years of business his bar and bat mitzvah clients have slowly transitioned from a preferred sit-down-style meal to one that is based around a series of specialized buffet-style food stations.

“They’re more upscale events, I think,” he said. “People are looking for things that are more elaborate.”

With 60 to 70 mitzvah celebrations every year, Weiss is one of the busier caterers in the area. His kosher menu has grown from three to 19 pages and gives families 20 different stations to choose from in planning their party.

“In terms of new things that we’re doing that are very upscale, we’re doing a skewer station,”
he said.

Weiss’ offerings include fajitas, sliders, a carving station and the recent addition of a 30-flavor cotton-candy machine he had shipped from Atlanta. He said this tends to be just as popular with adults as it is with kids.

“These are all kind of candies where we have a machine that lets you do one flavor after another,” he said.

But Weiss said the cotton-candy machine is not the only sign of a reversal between the palates of kids and adults.

“I always find when we do a kids’ station and we have boardwalk fries or sweet potato fries, the adults go up to that just as much [as the kids],” he said.

The location of the celebration may sometimes have a role in determining the type of food guests are in the mood for, as was the case with one bar mitzvah Weiss catered at a hotel near Camden Yards. The kids’ station featured traditional ballpark foods such as miniature hot dogs and burger sliders.

“When we opened the kids’ station, maybe because it was close to Camden Yards, the adults were going up to that,” he said.

Weiss recalled a recent event he catered in Potomac with 90 kids, many of whom elected to gorge on delicacies from the adult stations.

“A lot of functions have 70, 80, 90 kids, and we just did one where 25 of them were vegetarians and that just blew my mind,” he said.

Weiss said he is flexible when it comes to specializing a menu for a certain group even within the bounds of kosher laws.

“There’s really nothing that you cannot do in kosher these days except for shellfish, pork and ham,” he said.

Most mitzvah celebrations Weiss caters average $75 per person, and many decide to have them in synagogues as opposed to hotels in order to reduce costs. But he said spaces in synagogues are just as flexible.

“You can take any room in any synagogue and re-create it and do anything you want to do,” he said.

Weiss may be a master of culinary specialization when it comes to catering, but Nancy Sachs, director of Pikesville’s Simply Elegant Catering, has also tried to tailor her menu to trends she has observed in kids’ appetites.

“As far as the food, I have to say that the food has been stations and very much vegetarian menus,” she said.

Sachs pointed to one celebration where eggs were served at the kids’ station and omelets were offered to adults, but a quarter of the kids went for the latter. She thinks kids today have been exposed to more diversity, leading to the development of an advanced palate.

“I think the kids have traveled so much more, and I think the adults don’t get the opportunity to eat the kids’ food like the hot dogs and the mozzarella sticks,” she said.

For bar and bat mitzvah families that vex over what type of food to serve at their child’s party, an easier task may be finding a caterer for the post-service Kiddush lunch. This tends to substantially lower than the price of the party, and caterers such as Mark Horowitz of Suburban House Deli try to keep things simple with the food offerings. His catering menu closely follows the one in his restaurant, consisting of a variety of deli meats, salads and other traditional Jewish delicacies such as blintzes and kugels.

“It’s a very simple clean affair,” he said. “It’s the kind of food that you can imagine when they put the food out on both sides of the table and see a lot of people in a short amount of time. It’s like a food island.”

Horowitz said these lunches generally run between $15 and $25 per person, but this can vary
depending on the needs of the family.

“The cost factor can range depending if people want table cloths or alcohol,” he said.

Horowitz said while he has catered events for up to 400 people, most are under 100, and he
does not cater bar and bat mitzvah parties.

“When it comes to the bar mitzvah stuff we leave that up to the big boys,” he said.

‘A Beast’ of a Bar Mitzvah

102315_Insider_ScoopBookThere are two things Matt Biers-Ariel never expected would happen to him.

The first thing is his son telling him he didn’t want to have a bar mitzvah. The second is riding a tandem bike 3,800 miles across the country with his wife, Djina, and children Yonah and Solomon.

Readers find out how one led to  another in Biers-Ariel’s memoir, “The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast.”

Biers-Ariel was disappointed at the idea of not seeing his son go through the traditional bar mitzvah process of studying hard, leading the congregation in prayers and then enjoying a big  reception, but he had another idea.

He wanted his son to have a rite of passage into manhood, so he packed gallons of Gatorade and bottles of ibuprofen onto a semi-reliable tandem bike nicknamed “the Beast.”

Biers-Ariel is both spiritual and  environmentally conscious. To satisfy the latter, as he peddles through small towns and big cities alike, he asks for the people he meets to sign a petition calling for Congress to curtail global warming — a petition he hopes will bring the United States through its own rite of passage in terms of energy conservation.

This coming-of-age story shows how Biers-Ariel not only gave his son a unique and inspiring rite of passage, but also demonstrated how to stand up for what you believe in.

Same Place, Different Time

102315_Insider_flashbackAnne King, 64, is a native Baltimorean and has attended Chizuk Amuno Congregation all her life.

She went to Hebrew school, had her bat mitzvah and saw the congregation move from its downtown location on Eutaw Place to Stevenson Road in Pikesville.

After getting married (her husband also had his bar mitzvah at Chizuk Amuno), it was a natural choice that she would send her children to the same Hebrew school she attended.

But what is most extraordinary about King is that she had, not one, but two bat mitzvahs there: one when she was a teenager and one as an adult.

Describe your first bat mitzvah.
I had my first bat mitzvah on Oct. 23, 1964. It was a Friday night. They used to do the girls on Friday nights and the boys on Saturday morning because the girls didn’t read Torah, they only read a haftarah. I was paired with my first cousin who was six months older than me. We were very close then, and we’re very close now. I did a haftorah and that was pretty much it. It was very different then.

How did you come to the decision for a second bat mitzvah?
I happened to be at synagogue one day when a good friend of mine had their adult bat mitzvah. The rabbi came up to me and said, “This is something you should do.” I guess the timing was right, and I found myself joining a fresh group of adult women who chose to have a bat mitzvah, most of whom had not had one previously. As a result of the class, I guess I was just mature enough to understand and to want the knowledge and to appreciate what was going on.

Describe the second one.
In the class there were about 17 or 18 people, and for the purpose of the bat mitzvah ceremony itself, they split us in half. Part of the class was learning the Hebrew. [The other part was] taking the parshah for that day and dividing it up so that we each had a part in both the Torah reading and the haftarah reading. We all came together for the blessings and did it as a group, but we also had our individual parts. Part of it was the ruach, the camaraderie. Some [of the women] had grown up in Orthodox  homes where women didn’t have the opportunity, and they wanted the opportunity. This was affording them that opportunity.

What did you learn that as a teenager you may have been too young to understand?
I learned an appreciation for the rituals for the spirit of it for the connection that I don’t think a [teenager] can get. I don’t think my religious school education did that for me, but the second time around, the two-year preparation brought that home to me in many ways.

B’nai Mitzvahs in the Holy Land Some families opt to celebrate the religious milestone in Israel

A bar mitzvah at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (©

A bar mitzvah at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (©

For the second time, Herbert Bergunder and his family traveled to Israel this August to celebrate a bar mitzvah.

“Sometimes a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah in the U.S. makes a child seem very big, and religion seems beside the point,” Bergunder, a  Baltimore attorney and member at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, said. “In Israel … your child reads Torah on a 3,000-year-old street [where rabbis walked]. The religion becomes large.”

The Bergunder family is not the only one to journey to the Land  of Israel to celebrate the 13-year milestone. While many still mark the occasion at their home congregations, going to Israel connects young teens to their deep Jewish roots while giving the entire family a meaningful experience.

“I think what it does is it connects their current reality of their practice of Judaism to our people’s  ancient and ongoing expression of Judaism in Israel,” said Baltimore Hebrew Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen.

Sachs-Kohen said families prepare for the ceremony at Baltimore Hebrew and the bar or bat mitzvah participates in a Shabbat service at the congregation, although they may lead prayers instead of reading Torah in Baltimore and then read Torah in Israel. She said families who choose this route tend to be very involved in the congregation.

“This is a way to deepen the  experience,” she said.

Sachs-Kohen and her immediate family, including her 9-year-old daughter, Noa, wife and father, will travel to Israel next November as part of her son Manny’s bar mitzvah. Her kids have never been to Israel.

“Our goal is to give them a really wonderful loving taste of Israel, and our hope is to connect with some of the Israeli counselors they’ve had at Camps Airy and Louise,” Sachs-Kohen said.

On the Bergunders’ trips, both bar mitzvahs were held in the  Archaeological Park at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem. During the first trip, Bergunder said the family spent time learning about the country’s  political history, which included  visiting a family from Baltimore living in the West Bank as well as  a lacrosse coach in Ashkelon. On the family’s recent trip, they had Shabbat dinner with Israelis and met with Ethiopian Jews.

“We really wanted to understand and explore the Israeli experience from all angles,” Bergunder said.

Liora Hill and her family, also Baltimore Hebrew congregants, are preparing for the bar mitzvahs of twins Gabriel and Max next summer. They also plan to do something at their home congregation before they leave.

For Hill, who has two older kids, she’s seen her eldest son become a song leader at the George Washington University Hillel and start working for two synagogues in his freshman year. Her twin sons are not quite as involved in Judaism, she’s so hoping the Israel trip will pique their interests.

“I know every time I go literally feels different and you can’t help but feel something when you go there,” she said. “It’s my hope that they too will feel whatever that  special something beyond words, that undefinable meaningfulness in being in Israel.”

The family is currently working with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore on getting a tour guide, the availability of whom will determine when the family will take the trip. She is thankful Baltimore Hebrew gives the family the flexibility to have Max and Gabriel take part in a service before they leave for Israel.

“Baltimore Hebrew is definitely a home for us, so having one  foot in home and one foot in the world is connecting,” Hill said.  “It connects us.”