Repairing the World Through Synagogues


In the spirit of giving during the holiday season, local synagogues offer a variety of programs and initiatives so that Jewish individuals and families can give back to their communities and participate in mitzvot. From mitzvah projects to cleanup efforts to feeding needy families, congregations offer members a number of ways to give back.

Chizuk Amuno Congregation offers the social justice-themed Gemilut Hasadim program, which is founded on the Jewish imperative of repairing of the world. The organization helps members bring a Jewish perspective to the search for social justice and to provide positions of service and leadership in the larger Jewish and general communities. Any individual can participate in the group’s activities.

The group’s first initiative of the holiday season is its Adopt-A-Road event in collaboration with the Chizuk Amuno Brotherhood on Dec. 4 at 9 a.m. The group will perform the mitzvah of shmirat adamah, protecting the earth, by cleaning a segment of Greenspring Avenue.

Members can also take part in a program through the Ronald McDonald House. On Dec. 21 at 4 p.m., community members will have the opportunity to cook and serve dinners for families with seriously ill children. “The families look forward to home-cooked meals to ease the strain and pressure that come with seeking medical treatment far from home,” the event release says.

“It is our obligation to do what Isaiah says and play a role in trying to overcome these injustices that have been ingrained for many years,” said Cheryl Snyderman, director of Gemilut Hasadim and member engagement. “It is our duty to inform about social justice. We have the [best] opportunity to create a real impact within our own community.”

Weekend Backpacks, an ongoing project through Temple Oheb Shalom, assembles “backpacks” to distribute to inner city schools for their homeless and hungry children. According to an overview of the program, “there are over 3,000 homeless children in Baltimore City schools. Some live with extended family in cars, shelters or on the street. Many of these kids go hungry from lunchtime on Friday until they return to school on Monday.”

Each backpack has enough food to feed four people for the weekend. The next opportunities to help prepare these backpacks will be on Dec. 11 and Jan. 8 at noon.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation also has its share of community outreach programs. On Dec. 11 and 12, BT Brotherhood and Mercaz are respectively having cooking events, the meals from which will be donated to needy families through CHANA.

During Chanukah, there is a group known as the BT Puppeteers who wrote a Chanukah puppet show and perform it at nursing homes to lighten the mood for residents.

Additionally, Jan. 15, will see the congregation hosting a one-day clothing drive.

Many congregations offer opportunities that are not exclusive to the holiday season as well.

Har Sinai and Beth Israel congregations collaborate on Operation Mitzvah Mission through Jewish Volunteer Connection. As a part of the program, sixth-graders from Har Sinai and Beth Israel meet together to volunteer monthly. At each meeting, students are introduced to a core value of Judaism that they will embody as a part of the day’s work.

“The kids really like it, and in the past several years, students have been able to count it as a mitzvah project for a b’nai mitzvah. They can all identify specific mitzvahs that they performed in the program that influenced them significantly,” said Jo-Ellen Unger, director of congregational learning at Har Sinai.

“For me, instead of opening a book to page 72 and reading about a mitzvah, I prefer having the opportunity to go out and enact it in the world,” she continued. “It is so much more educational, it means more to you. We talk a lot about tzedakah, but we don’t collect money anymore. We collect canned food for the crisis center instead, and kids will pick out what food to donate while shopping with parents. We have people bring unopened pasta to use as groggers for Purim, which we donate after. That way you can celebrate the holiday and people still benefit. You are living a mitzvot instead of just looking at it.”

Finally, Community Mitzvah Day, one of the community’s largest volunteer events, takes place on Dec. 25, which this year is the first day of Chanukah. According to its website, the event “engages more than 1,000 volunteers in a variety of service sites including shelters, soup kitchens, nursing homes, group homes for individuals with special needs, hospitals and community-based service projects at the JCCs and synagogues throughout the community.”

Opportunities as a part of the Community Mitzvah Day, anchored by Jewish Volunteer Connection, include making no-sew fleece blankets, knitting hats and scarves, collecting food, toy and clothing donations, writing and coloring holiday cards for members of the community and assembling care packages for less privileged members of the community, which will include homemade holiday greeting cards and winter essentials such as gloves.

Volunteering opportunities for Community Mitzvah Day can be found at

Doing the People’s Work



It’s the most wonderful time of year for nonprofits. After all, with Thanksgiving and Chanukah fast approaching, people are in the spirit of giving.

Although the holiday season has its advantages for giving, many local nonprofits fight year-round to address the community’s growing needs. No matter how high the bar is set for these charities, every gift and donation makes a difference.

Here are 10 organizations that continually campaign hard to keep their doors open throughout the year:

Baltimore Humane Society
Since its founding in 1927, the Baltimore Humane Society has strived to help unwanted and unprotected animals and address their suffering by providing a temporary home, a safe refuge and much-needed care. Until a permanent home is found for the animals it takes in, the organization relies on a network of dedicated volunteers and continuous donations to run the private shelter.

“If you are an animal lover, there is nothing more gratifying than helping homeless animals find a forever home,” said Andrew Levine, executive director and board member at the Baltimore Humane Society.

For more information, visit

Digital Harbor Foundation
The Digital Harbor Foundation is devoted to developing learning, creativity and productivity for all children, serving more than 1,500 Baltimore City youths per year through after-school and summer programs. Money raised through its “pay-what-you-can model” goes toward programs that teach interactive electronics, 3-D printing, computer coding and Web development.

“[Digital Harbor Foundation’s] programs are accessible to everyone regardless of financial ability,” said Shawn Grimes, interim executive director of the foundation.

For more information, visit

Sports Boosters of Maryland
In 1950, a group of Baltimore men used their loved of sports to help give back to children with the creation of Sports Boosters of Maryland. Today, the organization hosts bimonthly dinners and special events that honor the top names in local sports to bridge the budget gap many local youth sports leagues face.

“We have a lot of fun raising money to help kids,” said Ron Levine, executive director of Sports Boosters of Maryland.

For more information, visit

Baltimore Child Abuse Center
The Baltimore Child Abuse Center gives victims of sexual child abuse and trauma an outlet for healing, hope and justice through comprehensive medical and mental health treatment. In addition to helping individuals and families recover from abuse, a main goal of the organization is to educate individuals on how to recognize, prevent and report suspicions of abuse to the proper authorities.

For more information, visit

Sarah’s Hope at Hannah More
Under the St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore umbrella, Sarah’s Hope at Hannah More runs a 24-hour emergency shelter, provides case management and offers other support services for homeless women and children in Reisterstown. The objective of this nonprofit, which opened in 2012, is aimed at helping families get back on their feet and sustain long-term stability.

For more information, contact Vicki Snyder at

Jewish Caring Network
Families feeling overwhelmed and alone in combating life-threatening, lifelong or serious illnesses can turn to the Jewish Caring Network, whose mission is to “touch lives and make a difference.” This nonprofit assesses each individual family’s needs, allowing board and staff members made up of doctors, rabbis and others to cater to their specific needs.

For more information, visit

The Bridges Program
An organization that supports a high-quality music educational experience, the Bridges Program seeks to reach the underserved and at-risk youth in the city. To accomplish this, children are provided access to string and harp instruction at a beginner’s level, the use of other instruments and orchestra experiences without the burden of a financial commitment.

For more information, visit

Art With a Heart
Bringing together people of all ages from all different backgrounds, Art with a Heart brings interactive visual art classes into school classrooms, community centers, permanent housing facilities, hospitals and senior housing facilities. Founded in 2000, this organization has swelled from four small classes per week to more than 11,000 annually across the community.

For more information, contact

Jewish Abilities Alliance
Through Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, individuals with disabilities and their families are provided a host of resources that promotes an environment to celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of every member in the community. There are parent-to-parent networking opportunities, various event gatherings and support services made readily accessible to those interested in joining the program.

For more information, visit

Moveable Feast
With more than 3,300-plus volunteers, Moveable Feast has nurtured a strong support group to deliver healthy hot meals to people battling HIV and AIDS, cancer and other deathly diseases. In its 24-year existence, the organization has expanded to include medical transportation, culinary training, nutritional counseling and food service among other amenities.

For more information, visit

Out for a Run

hot-chocolate-5kThe JCC of Greater Baltimore and Hadassah Greater Baltimore have cooked up a recipe for a truly tasty community outreach event that will get Baltimore’s heart pumping in more ways than one.

The partnering organizations’ 1st Annual Chanukah Hot Chocolate 5K will offer an opportunity to participants interested in helping two important causes as well as getting in some fun exercise … topped with a mug of scrumptious hot chocolate.

The fun run will take place at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 9 a.m., with check-in beginning at 7:30 a.m.

Proceeds from the event will benefit two separate charity organizations, represented by each partner respectively. The run benefits Hadassah’s Check It Out program, which works to educate young students about precautionary measures as regards testicular and breast cancer, as well as the JCC’s scholarships for teens who require financial assistance to attend Maccabi sporting activities.

“Currently, no one is offering anything like it in Baltimore,” Raychel Setless, director of fitness at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC who has been involved in the charity event she helped develop, said via email. “Because of that, we’ve been getting a lot of interest.”

Setless said that the idea for a hot chocolate-inspired charity race revolving around the Chanukah season came in part from a similar event she’d been a part of in Springfield, Mass., where she had been working at that city’s JCC.

“I have a deep connection with both fundraising causes for this event,” said Setless, a triplet who notes her twins and she are all avid runners, and one sister is heading down from Brooklyn to run in the forthcoming 5K.

“We made a bet when we were 12 years old about who would win the 70-plus category for our hometown 5K,” Setless said. “We talk smack about this every chance we get!”

Berstein, an Owings Mills resident who is co-chairing the race as the JCC representative, agrees with Setless that the Chanukah theme helps set their event apart from similar races due to the time of year it’s being held.

“Who knows the weather, but in the very likely event it’s cold, we’ll be right by your side at the finish line with a steaming cup of cocoa!” reads the race news release.

The hot chocolate will be provided by the JCC’s on-site kosher kitchen, Me Latte.

When asked why she volunteered to help develop the race, Goldstein replied quickly with a laugh, “Because I forgot to say no!”

In truth, Goldstein has children who have been involved in Macabbi and said she therefore understands the importance of fundraising for those who might need a little help in participating.

The other side of the event’s charitable impetus — Hadassah’s Check It Out program — is also a prime reason for Goldstein’s helping out.

“There’s been some breast cancer in the family,” she revealed.

President of the local Hadassah chapter and co-chair of the race Julie Bernstein said the organization’s Check It Out program (which is a localized satellite of the national entity) is “imperative” because of the alarming number of breast and testicular cancer diagnoses being seen in people of younger and younger ages.

Check It Out has volunteers going to high school and educating youths in how they can perform self-checks; a survivor of cancer also comes to speak and answer questions.

“A lot of these activities and programs are trying to reach out to the same people, so if we can form coalitions together, it’s only win-win for both sides.”
— Jane Goldstein, race co-chair

Bernstein recounted the story of one student who came home after Check It Out came to her school. The girl ended up discovering she had breast cancer but was able to catch it in time to become another success story.

“This is the first time we’re partnering with the JCC for the race, which is exciting,” said Bernstein.

Though this is the 1st Annual Chanukah Hot Chocolate 5K, Hadassah has been holding similar races for the past 18 years, previously without a partnering group.

“Every organization in the community has such wonderful causes and beliefs,” said Bernstein. “A lot of these activities and programs are trying to reach out to the same people, so if we can form coalitions together, it’s only win-win for both sides.

“It’s important in the Jewish community to foster relationships and coalitions together instead of pulling people in different directions.”

“I think it’s going to be a very successful race,” Goldstein predicted. “I don’t think we’re going to see huge numbers — it’s a community race — but we’re very pleased with our registration so far.”

The 1st Annual Chanukah Hot Chocolate 5K will take place on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 9 a.m. (check-in at 7:30 a.m.) at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. Register online at

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.”

Study Abroad Allows Students to Expand Horizons

Andrew Poverman (Photo provided)

Andrew Poverman (Photo provided)

In today’s globally connected world, more and more high school students are getting an opportunity to enjoy all the cultural and academic amenities countries have to offer through various study abroad programs.

For many of these students in the Baltimore community, learning another nation’s way of life, customs and traditions is as much of an educational  aspect as the schooling itself.

Daniel Goldman, who recently graduated from Beth Tfiloh and returned home from his senior trip to Israel, said the transparent dialogue among locals was eye-opening.

“To be honest, I think the whole vibe over there and the people are more relaxed,” Goldman said. “I think the people over there are more blunt, and when I’m with them, I never have to worry about offending anyone because they’re really good at taking constructive criticism.”

At Gilman, meanwhile, several exchange programs at various European schools are open to perspective rising juniors and seniors hoping to broaden their scholastic horizons. There are arrangements in place with Christ’s Hospital in the United Kingdom, St.  Edward’s School in England, Porg School in Prague, Czech Republic and institutions in Spain.

Daniel Goldman (Photo provided)

Daniel Goldman (Photo provided)

Andrew Poverman, a rising senior at Gilman, spent this past spring at Porg School’s Liben branch after one of his lacrosse teammates told him of his positive experience.

He said it took some time adjusting to his new surroundings, especially the language barrier. But after a few weeks, Poverman said he enjoyed many of Prague’s customs, including the school’s end-of-year hiking trip.

“It just seemed like something I couldn’t pass up, the chance to go to Prague and learn about their way of life,” Poverman said. “I’m really glad [I went], because it opened my eyes to a lot of things. If I had to do it over again, there isn’t really much I’d change about my time there.”

Daniel Goldman (Photo provided)

Daniel Goldman (Photo provided)

Eighth-graders at Krieger Schechter Day School cap their year with a two-week trip to Israel in conjunction with Ramah Israel Programs, the camping arm of conservative Judaism that impacts more than 9,000 students per year.

As part of Beth Tfiloh’s  requirements for graduation, students are expected to partake in the school’s annual  senior trip to Israel and Poland, which is designed to inspire a lasting commitment to the Holy Land. Also, the school  offers a gap-year program to students who delay their college enrollment to study in Israel for one year after high school.

Goldman, 18, has visited  Israel once in each of the last two years, and he said the significance of his most recent trek was greatly enhanced  because of the bond he shared with his classmates. He enjoyed his time so much that he  deferred his enrollment to the University of Maryland, College Park this fall to study in Israel for one year beginning this month.

“Going to Israel — the most meaningful place in the world — with your friends, it just makes the entire experience so much more rewarding,” Goldman said. “The meaning of everything is multiplied when you’re with people you’ve known for so long and when you’ve been waiting for this trip for so long.”

That sense of pride is also shared by the administrators, who are responsible for spending countless hours helping plan and coordinate these trips. Bart Griffith, assistant head of school for training and learning at Gilman, said both he and the school take a great deal of pride in pushing students beyond their comfort zone.

“It’s great to hear from the boys when they come back about the way they were challenged and the way their ideas or assumptions were challenged,” Griffith said. “I think it was Mark Twain who said, ‘Travel is a cure for bigotry,’ so you can’t travel and not change. It’s one of the most profound development opportunities kids have.”

CJE Offering New Opportunities for Young Families

Providing busy, young Jewish parents with meaningful experiences to keep them interested in Jewish life is no easy task, but it is one that local organizations have taken head-on.

In 2010, a community survey by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore identified 10,000 Jewish families around Baltimore that were not engaged with Jewish life or Jewish  institutions.

Since then, the organization and its branches, including the Louise D. and Martin  J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, began developing a number of programs to bring in young Jewish families and get them familiar with Jewish institutions and the community.

One of CJE’s first initiatives was to start a PJ Library community in Baltimore. PJ Library is a Jewish engagement and literacy program that sends books to families with children from 6 months to 8 years old. The books are selected for topics  related to Jewish identities and Jewish engagement targeted for the younger crowd.

Families participating in the CJE’s Ahava Baby program tour the  Butterbee Farm in Pikesville.

Families participating in the CJE’s Ahava Baby program tour the Butterbee Farm in Pikesville.

With the PJ Library community in place, Lisa Bodziner,  director of educational engagement at the CJE, and her staff began to build programming around engaging PJ Library families.

“‘Since that time we’ve really been targeting our work more towards that engagement agenda,” she said. “What can we do to provide families with meaningful programs, to have them exposed to more, offer more opportunities for them to learn and feel more connected and invited to community events, programs and services?”

CJE began designing grassroots program around the community connector model. Community connectors are paid volunteers who reach out to families in their immediate communities in order to create programs around their wants and needs. CJE began implementing this model in with five individuals in 2014, and as they added more connectors, they were able to reach out to more than 70 families last year.

“The connectors are a launching pad to the peer-to-peer model of meeting families, finding out what they want, cultivating relationships and then building programs that meet the needs of those families,” Bodziner said.

Last year, with a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that runs the PJ Library program, Bodziner and the CJE rolled out the first year of their Ahava Baby program, designed for families with newborns through 1 year olds and based on the connector model.

Not only do the connectors help design the programs with feedback from the recipients, but they serve as a point of contact for the families, according to Bodziner.

“That’s what so great about our connectors; once they have a connection, [families] are more willing to show up somewhere because they know they will know someone,” she said.

This idea, that young Jewish families were more likely to show up if they felt like they knew someone, was one issue that connectors identified in the program last year, which involved two “cohorts” of 10 families, one in Hampden and one in Pikesville.

With the success and the lessons of last year’s program, CJE is opening up the Ahava Baby program to any PJ  Library families in the Baltimore area, including Towson, Roland Park and Lutherville-Timonium, among others.

Over the last two years, CJE has adjusted its programming to meet the needs that young Jewish families last year identified. Bodziner said the key requests that CJE has paid special attention to included a convenient location, relevant programming that ensures that time away from home was well-spent and easy, digestible lessons that can be implemented in the home.

However, the opportunities are not solely limited to  focusing on children. CJE connectors have been hosting moms’ and dads’ nights that help get busy parents out of the house. Family programming is available on certain Sundays, and special events like CPR training or challah bakes are held, all maintaining a Jewish theme.

However, the CJE’s educational programming also  includes adults.

Adam Kruger, CJE’s director of educational initiatives, runs the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, and among the programs offered  is Foundations, which is targeted specifically for PJ Library families.

“It’s a 20-lesson — depending on how you break it down — curriculum that is actually designed for young families to teach them how to create Jewish identity and engagement with their children at a young age,” Kruger said.

The program pairs the lessons for adults with a concrete connection to the PJ Library  curriculum, so parents can read along with their kids with a message in mind. Kruger said he is particularly excited because it allows the parents to be teachers of Jewish identity in the home, as well as keeps young families involved in Jewish learning.

“We’re really trying to work with young families to try and create that next generation of adult Jewish learning, while also focusing on the traditional adult learning community and making sure that stays thriving and vibrant,” Kruger said.

Across all the programs, Bodziner said the focus is  beginning to shift. While they have made inroads with  engaging young families, the next challenge she sees for the CJE is keeping them engaged and involved in Jewish life as they and their children continue to grow.

Adam Barry is an intern at the Baltimore Jewish Times.