Weekend Backpacks Give Lifeline to Hungry Kids Since March, Sandie Nagel has been sending backpacks full of food home with needy students in the city

From left: Volunteers Margery Braver and Leslie  Monfred with Weekend Backpacks founder Sandie Nagel, at Chimes, where employees and volunteers pack bags of food for needy Baltimore City students  to take home for the weekend.

From left: Volunteers Margery Braver and Leslie Monfred with Weekend Backpacks founder Sandie Nagel, at Chimes, where employees and volunteers pack bags of food for needy Baltimore City students to take home for the weekend.

On a recent Thursday morning at the Chimes facility in Milford Mill, a group of volunteers and employees were hard at work packing backpacks full of apples, milk, juice, jelly and canned food. While others in the same room were
putting together boxes and loading them with beer from a local brewery to be enjoyed during the upcoming holidays, these backpacks were for those who most need the food.

Since mid-March, 78-year-old Sandie Nagel has spearheaded the Miriam Lodge Weekend Backpacks for Homeless Kids program, which gives Baltimore City students who are experiencing homelessness food-laden backpacks to feed at least four people every weekend. Thirty six students at Tench Tilghman Elementary School in East Baltimore, John Ruhrah Elementary School in Greektown and a small nursery school in the Park Heights area are sent home with backpacks every Friday.

Nagel, past president of the Miriam Lodge, the oldest Jewish women’s charitable organization in Maryland, started Weekend Backpacks, a 501(c)3, after simply asking a question. Nagel’s company, Playbound, which takes people from Baltimore on tours of New York, has been collecting hats, gloves and scarves for the students at Tench Tilghman for the past five years. One day last winter, she asked a social worker how many students at the school were experiencing homelessness, to which she answered 100.

The social worker explained to Nagel that those students get breakfast every morning at school, a hot lunch, fresh fruit in the afternoon and a sandwich to take home.

“But, she said, from Friday until Monday morning when they get back, many of them don’t get any food,” Nagel said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to bring weekend backpacks.’ I had no idea what I was doing.”

She had heard about a similar program on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” but found that there was no national umbrella organization for weekend backpacks. Through Internet research and a lot of phone calls, Nagel connected with other people who run similar programs, found someone willing to donate backpacks and also found her own unique approach. Some of these organizations were only sending home enough food to feed the one child.

“The kid doesn’t live in isolation. And how do you send someone home with food when there’s siblings?” she said. “Our philosophy became we feed the family, as many kids are in the home.”

ShopRite discounts food purchases, H&S Bakery provides discounted bread once a month and various other local organizations have pitched in. In addition to fundraising through Miriam Lodge, students at Krieger Schechter Day School’s middle school gave their tzedakah money to Weekend Backpacks last year and will be providing lunches for students in the program in January, March and May next year. The Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills is holding a canned good drive for the program this December.

One hundred percent of the money raised goes to food.

Since the program’s third week, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who work at Chimes have been helping package the backpacks.

“They have taken pride [in it]. They know that it’s for hungry kids. They understand where the food is going and they know it’s great,” Nagel said of the Chimes employees.

The program has several regular volunteers these days, including sisters-in-law Leslie Monfred and Margery Braver. Monfred connected with Nagel in the fall at a luncheon that benefited the backpacks program. At the time, Nagel had a broken leg and therefore wasn’t going to be able to deliver backpacks for a couple of weeks.

“I said, ‘That’s unacceptable, tell me what to do,’” Monfred recalled. She and Braver, who ensured the backpacks were delivered when Nagel couldn’t, have been involved ever since.

Monfred sees this type of work as the responsibility of the Jewish people. For her, simply thinking about how tough one day of fasting can be on Yom Kippur motivates her.

“It’s really our responsibility as Jews to do what we can to make sure people don’t go hungry,” she said.

Nagel, who delivered meals with Meals on Wheels for 35 years, hopes her organization evolves to a similar delivery model. While a generous grant from the Gulton Foundation will go to great lengths to help the program, Nagel is actively fundraising for the organization.

“Our goal is next September to be in a situation where we’re doing 100 backpacks which serve anywhere from 100 to 500 [kids] in a facility,” Nagel said. “If we ever get to 500 [backpacks], we’d be serving 2,000 kids a week. It’s ambitious, but it’s doable. It will happen.”

To donate, visit gofundme.com/ungpjs or send a check made out to Weekend Backpacks to Miriam Lodge, 7310 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, Md. 21208.

Leaving a Legacy Bequeathing an impactful donation is more attainable than you think

Legacy donors, those who name a charity in a will or trust as a beneficiary to assets upon death, are typically associated with only the wealthiest in society.

But that is not the case, nor is it necessary to have great wealth during a lifetime to make a substantial financial impact on an organization after death. Planned giving  departments in nonprofits across the country are educating people on this concept.

“In general, when you’re alive you’ve got bills to pay, every day cares, and you want to live a good life,” said Michael Friedman, senior vice president of philanthropic planning and services at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “But at the end of your life, you’ve accumulated more than you thought possible, and think,  ‘I can do greater impact than  when I’m alive.’ People can give much more through their estates than they ever could during their lifetimes.”

Friedman was quick to point out this doesn’t mean his department takes away from the annual gifts received by The Associated. Estate giving is on top of that generosity, he said.



The ability to be a legacy donor “is not reflective of the amount they’re giving annually,” added Orlee Engler Kahn, director of planned giving at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Department of Philanthropy. Legacy donors can be “longtime loyal donors, of any amount. It shows they have a loyalty and connection to the mission, so they may be  interested in doing something  bigger and planned for beyond their lifetime.”

“Everyone wants to be remembered,” Friedman said, quoting a  recent presentation by the department’s chairwoman, Beth Goldsmith, “How do you want to be remembered and what will your legacy be?”

Friedman is in the business of divining exactly that for people who choose The Associated as  recipient of their gifts.

“I help make people’s dreams come true,” said Friedman. “I help them do what they want to do. Helping people create legacies that reflect their values and that they feel good about. … Through our legacy program, we provide people a way to express their values through their generosity so that the good work of The Associated can carry on.”

Through The Associated, a donor can choose from several legacy-giving opportunities, such as naming The Associated as a beneficiary in a will, insurance policy or an IRA or other retirement plan; donating stock or other property; or developing a charitable  income plan such as a charitable remainder trust or a charitable gift annuity.

Kahn, who loves to “help people create their philanthropic roadmap,” works with those same tools as  options and calls the charitable gift annuity a “win, win, win.”

“[The donor] gets to have the pleasure of giving a gift, because that’s the most important thing, the intention of the gift,” she explained. “They also get the tax deduction, and the charity at the end gets the [bequest] gift.”

“A legacy gift is at the same level as giving to a family member.  If someone wants to leave an  organization a gift in their estate, they’re putting the organization  on the same level as their family.” — Orlee Engler Kahn, director of planned giving at  Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Department of Philanthropy.

The Associated receives an average of 30 to 40 bequests per year after a donor has died, Friedman said, and “we have approximately 500 people (across about two decades) who have told us that they are  leaving legacies to us.”

“[Very often] legacy donors don’t even let the organization know they’ve left them the money,” said Kahn.

Brett Cohen, 36, owner of the home improvement company Kitchen Saver, and his wife Julie, a genetic counselor, recently named The Associated as a beneficiary in their will, which they created after the birth of their child about two years ago.

“We wanted to make sure the  Jewish community would be a  recipient of some of our estate,” said Brett, “because its very important to continue giving long after we’re gone.”

The couple also named The Associated as a beneficiary in a life insurance policy, and they were first to participate in IMPACT funds, in which a young person can accumulate $2,000 per year for five years  in order to create a Donor Advised Fund.

“It’s about giving back to the community that’s giving us so much,” said Brett, “and giving others the opportunities and safety net that we’ve had.”

And giving back to community is something for which the United States is considered a world leader.

In June 2015, Giving USA reported that Americans donated $358.38  billion to charities last year, the highest total in the report’s 60-year history.

“The United States is really  special, because its tax laws are set up to incentivize people to be donors and philanthropists,” said Kahn, who has also directed planned giving for The Ronald McDonald House and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. “And legacy planning certainly falls into that category and not everyone is educated on that.”

Legacy gifts “secure endowment funds for The Associated, our agencies and the entire Jewish community,” said Friedman.

The Associated also offers a Donor Advised Fund option, in which the donor receives an immediate tax benefit and retains the right to recommend grants from contributed funds, which gain  interest, to almost any charity over a period of years, said Friedman.  It requires $10,000 to start.

There is also a Supporting Foundation option, typically established by families, and requires $1 million to fund. It has its own board of directors that consists of appointees from The Associated as well as family members.

“There are about 350 Donor  Advised Funds, worth close to  $100 million and more than 50 Supporting Foundations, which are worth many times more than that,” Friedman said.

If a donor doesn’t feel a connection to the charity, it’s just a financial transaction which, Kahn said, isn’t the profile of a legacy donor.

“A legacy gift is at the same level as giving to a family member,” said Kahn. “If someone wants to leave an organization a gift in their estate, they’re putting the organization on the same level as their family.”


Giving Back Jewish businesses in Baltimore have a history of philanthropic action

Eight local Jewish businesses will join The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore for Giving Tuesday on Dec. 1. The concept of a day of giving started three years ago in New York’s 92nd Street Y.

Eight local Jewish businesses will join The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore for Giving Tuesday on Dec. 1. The concept of a day of giving started three years ago in New York’s 92nd Street Y.

As the holiday season approaches, several Jewish business owners in Baltimore have made it a point to become involved in a cause they are passionate about through philanthropy.

Stanley Drebin, owner of Goldberg’s Bagels in Pikesville, said since he opened his store almost 18 years ago he has donated to hundreds of charities, giving to some two or three times per week.

“Everybody gives to charity,” he said.

Every day, Drebin said, Goldberg’s sets aside 10 percent of its sales for the Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund, which gives aid to needy Jewish families in Baltimore. He also donates to the Ben Cardin Jewish Scholars Program and chooses seven Wednesdays out of the year to invite students in for a meal.

“You’re talking about 100 people coming in,” he said.

Blumi Weil, who has operated the women’s clothing store Shell Li out of her home in Cheswolde since 2008, said she and her husband donate to many of the local Jewish day schools, including Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, Bnos Yisrael of Baltimore and the Torah Institute of Baltimore.

“We try to give back in any way we can,” she said.

Weil’s store caters to Orthodox women who have a difficult time finding a modest shirt in the mall. She said she will often hold auctions throughout the year and donate gift certificates. Her husband also volunteers with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and this year they are participating in Giving Tuesday on Dec. 1 — an initiative started three years ago by New York’s 92nd Street Y that has turned into a national day of giving. Jonathan Davidov, one of this year’s co-chairs for The Associated, said there are eight business owners participating, including Weil and Jeff Karlin, the owner of Miller’s Deli.

“I think business owners recognize that giving back to the community is good business and hopefully it does drive business to them,” he said.

Davidov said last year’s Giving Tuesday raised $1.38 million for The Associated’s annual campaign. He envisions that the event will eventually become a national day of service.

“It’s definitely growing in terms of its reach and its popularity, and the state of Maryland has been aggressive in embracing this as a day of giving,” he explained. “I know we in the [Jewish] community jumped on it pretty early, because this was a neat idea and a way to mobilize people.”

Karlin is participating in Giving Tuesday for the first time this year after his business partner, Mark Neumann, who is the board chair of The Associated, convinced him to climb aboard.

“I hope it says that my partner and I and our staff are mensches, because the community has allowed us to be in business for all of these years at this location,” he said.

Karlin said Miller’s has had a long history of giving back to the community, holding events 15 to 20 times per year in which 10 percent of sales after 4 p.m. go toward a particular cause. Supported charities have included The Mount Washington School, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Covenant Guild.

“We’ve done it with a very broad group of organizations,” he said.

Another cause Jews in the community donate to is the United Way of Central Maryland’s Harvest of Plenty initiative. The program is in its 23rd year and distributes 4,000 Thanksgiving dinners to low-income Maryland families.


A Generation Gap? Technology, upbringing influence charitable giving

The expression “money makes the world go around” rings especially true when it comes to charitable organizations. And the one key question that all charities seek to answer is this: How do people decide which causes will get their hard-earned money?

For most, it’s their generation that tells a lot about how much — and to whom — they give.

“I was raised in a giving family. I try to raise my kids the same way,” said Dara Schnee, who works in the office of philanthropy at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Schnee, who is a part of Generation X (those born between 1964 and the early 1980s), said much of her personal giving is based on what she is most passionate about, such as Israel and children, but  understanding the fine print plays a large part in her decision-making.

(©iStockphoto.com/Rawpixel Ltd)

(©iStockphoto.com/Rawpixel Ltd)

“I’m part of the Women’s Giving Circle,” said Schnee. “I’ve learned a lot about reading grants, looking at budgets, seeing what an overhead is and how many employees [an  organization] has.”

Schnee thinks this attention to  detail differentiates her generation from others when it comes to giving.

According to the Pew Research Center, the way people are giving their money is also changing with technology. In 2012, Pew found that 20 percent of U.S. adults made charitable contributions online  and 9 percent made contributions through text-messaging services.

This was particularly true in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where an estimated $43 million was given for assistance through text-messaging services.

Bruce Sholk has set up a foundation so that he and his wife can donate to several different charities throughout the year. He said the organizations he gives to are mainly ones that have long-standing relationships with his family such as his shul, the school his kids attend and the schools he attended.

Sholk is a baby boomer (those born between 1946 and 1964), and baby boomers have been known to contribute the largest amount of charitable giving — an estimated 43 percent of all dollars — according to a 2013 survey commissioned by Blackbaud, an organization that provides software to nonprofits.

However, through Sholk’s involvement with Hillel, he has some insight on how different generations view charitable giving.

“As time has gone along  with younger generations,  one thing you see is a desire for designated giving: Find a specific organization doing a specific kind of work and support that.” — Bruce Sholk

“I think the previous generation grew up involved in large, Jewish philanthropic organizations such as shuls and federations,” said Sholk. “As time has gone along with younger generations, one thing you see is a  desire for designated giving: Find a specific organization doing a specific kind of work and support that.”

Both Schnee and Sholk attributed their philanthropic habits to their environments when they were growing up. This leaves the question for how the next generation — the one that follows the millennials (those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) — will give its charitable dollars.

But Schnee explained that she is raising her children, who range from 10 to 16, to value tzedakah as much as she did.

“For their bar mitzvahs, we started a philanthropic fund in their name,” said Schnee. In lieu  of accepting any monetary gifts, the money given to them will go toward the fund “so that they can use it as a way of learning how to give back to the community and  educating themselves on what’s  important.”

Schnee’s oldest son decided, after taking a trip to Israel, that he wanted to make a contribution to the Israel Defense Forces.

Said Schnee, “If you’re raised with that value, you make it a point to live that way.”



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
visit givingcircle2021.wix.com/givingcircle2021


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. (©iStockphoto.com/RobertHoetink)

A bar mitzvah at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (©iStockphoto.com/RobertHoetink)

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.”



Party Streamlining A bar or bat mitzvah celebration can be fun without spending a fortune



Next to a wedding, a child’s bar  or bat mitzvah is one of the most  important days in his or her life, but it can also be one of the most costly. Families are faced with the challenge of planning a party that is entertaining and memorable, but also does not break the bank.

Take it from b’nai mitzvah parent Laurie Schimmel, who went into the event planning business three years ago for her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

“I think most people don’t know what they’re getting into until they start,” she said.” They don’t know what a realistic budget is.”

Schimmel works for Baltimore’s R&R events, which plans a variety of corporate and social functions. They coordinate each individual element of the celebration depending on how much help a family needs.

“We’re kind of like a boutique,” she said.”Some people come to us and are like ‘I only have $1,500 to spend,’ and we give them what we can for $1,500.”

Schimmel said R&R plans at least 50 mitzvah celebrations each year, and in some cases there are three on one day. She begins the planning process by meeting with the family and determining what their budget is and what elements of the party are most important. Schimmel said most families do not remember the food they ate but only whether they enjoyed themselves at a party.

“I am a firm believer that entertainment is what matters at the end of the night,” she said. “Having crab cakes is not the most important thing. Making it enjoyable for adults and kids is the most important thing.”

Schimmel also said it is better not to pick a theme for a child’s mitzvah celebration too early because his or her interests may change in a short period of time.

“One minute your child loves a sparkle, and six to eight months out we present the sparkle to the child and they’re like, ‘I hate that,’” she said.

Theme parties may be becoming a trend of the past when it comes to mitzvah celebrations, said Lorin Kotz of the Owings Mills planning company Celebrations.

“Themes are really nonexistent at this point,” she said. “People are not being very ‘themey’ these days. It’s really about sticking with colors or making it feel like a club.”

Kotz said a more popular option she is noticing is for kids to create a customized logo using their initials and incorporate it throughout the décor.

“I will say as a planner I kind of miss the themes,” she said. “They allow us to be a little more creative.”

Kotz said Celebrations caters an  average of 15 mitzvah celebrations each year and can fit any type of budget, but smaller celebrations are the way to go for families on a tight one.

“The number of people that you have is the easiest way to increase or lower your budget because each person that you have has to pay for that catering, a chair, et cetera.”

Schimmel said many families spend outside their means on elements  such as dresses they will only wear once and end up going into debt. She cautions families to not become caught up in what others are doing for their celebrations.

“You don’t know what you’re comparing budgets to,” she said. “They may have had a $10,000 budget, and you have a $2,000 budget.”

To see how one hotel is attempting to counter this “family competition” aspect of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, one need travel to the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., which recently created a “Smart Mitzvah” package. It consists of a digital director, live video feed, a frozen yogurt bar and “Beverage  Genius” among other things. General manager Alex Attia said this has been in the works for the past year and thinks this will allow families to destress when it comes to planning a celebration.

“We can make it very easy for you,” he said. “Here are some options without you getting too stressed about it.”

Attia said the package ranges  between $90 and $150 per person  depending on what kinds of elements the family wants.

Schimmel said in planning her daughter’s bat mitzvah she enjoyed every aspect of the planning process but had to remind herself to only  invite guests she was close to. She said a common mistake among bar and bat mitzvah families is to invite too many guests who do not know the child or the family well.

“I would never have a party that was just a kid party, but I also want people who I will say hi to,” she said.

In two years, Schimmel will celebrate her son’s bar mitzvah and, said she is even more prepared. She  emphasized that families must  remember that the celebration is about their child and not the parents.

“In our industry we sometimes have three parties a day and we have to make someone feel their party  is the only one that’s important,”  she said.