BR: Is the $10 Million Bar Mitzvah Going Out of Style?

This story appears to miss the traditional point of reference of the rite of passage that we Jews call the Bar Mitzvah.

The event is celebrated in a ritual in the synagogue when the child is called to the Torah in public, symbolizing the beginning of his (or her) full-fledged membership in the community based on Torah, centered on the study of Torah and bound by the values of the Torah.

The big ticket Bar Mitzvah is merely an instance of American conspicuous consumption thrust into a religious setting. Replacing conspicuous consumption with acts of social justice is a cyclical and particularly trendy whiplash response that rarely makes a dent in the wasteful practices of our culture.

The Bergen Record misses those aspects of the story.
Putting mitzvahs back in bar mitzvah

The plight of incarcerated Jews isn't a hot topic at most synagogues.

But that didn't stop 12-year-old Vita Taurke Joseph - who attends Temple Beth Israel in Maywood - from taking up a collection in her congregation to help the families of Jewish inmates.

Vita's action fulfilled the community service portion of her bat mitzvah, which was held Saturday, and added an unusual twist to the milestone event.

Her effort also reflects a movement within the Jewish community to revitalize the bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for girls) - a coming-of-age ceremony that some fear has been trivialized by glitzy parties and lavish receptions.

"For a long time, there was a sense that there was too much 'bar' and not enough 'mitzvah' [good deed] - too much party and not enough religion," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "Now, we are seeing different efforts to change that."

Certainly, big, expensive bar mitzvah parties are still commonplace - a phenomenon that fueled the 2006 movie "Keeping Up with the Steins," in which a clueless dad wanted to book Dodger Stadium for his son's bar mitzvah.

Multimillionaire David H. Brooks threw a bat mitzvah for his daughter in 2005 at Manhattan's pricey Rainbow Room restaurant. The performers included Aerosmith, rapper 50 Cent, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. The cost approached $10 million, by some estimates.

Rabbis say those parties have fueled a counter-movement to deepen the bar mitzvah experience by moving beyond rote learning and requiring students to perform community service that exemplifies the Jewish tradition of tikuun olam, or healing and repairing the world.

"Because of these opulent parties that many rabbis are not proud of, there is more of a focus on the deeper meaning of the bar mitzvah," said Rabbi Ken Emert of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. "The essence of bar mitzvah is that a child assumes sacred obligations and responsibilities."

Some parents - such as Steven and Lisa Marcus of Franklin Lakes - are even rethinking the party and coming up with ways to infuse the revelry with meaning.

"I didn't want to play keeping up with the Joneses," Lisa Marcus said in discussing her son James' recent bar mitzvah. "My son has a huge heart, and I really wanted it to have a greater significance."

So James' party last month was suffused with themes of charity. The family donated money to the Songs of Love Foundation, which produced a personalized song for a 9-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis. Part of the song was recorded at the party, giving the guests a chance to learn about the boy and to be part of the recording effort.

The party was held at the Park Avenue Club, a Florham Park dining hall that donates its profits to local charities. The Marcus family, who attend Temple Beth Rishon, also used inexpensive thank-you notes that benefit the Jewish National Fund.

Marcus said the efforts transformed a special day into an unforgettable experience.

"The day was about James, but it was also about giving, so it enhanced the day," she said. "It showed that even on 'my' day, it doesn't have to all about 'me.' It's an experience that can be shared."

Bar mitzvah literally means "son of the commandments" and is typically a ceremony in which a 12-year-old girl or 13-year-old boy is formally recognized as a member of the Jewish community. Young Jews prepare for months to read in Hebrew from the Torah scroll and to chant blessings as well as other readings from the Bible.

The party that follows the ceremony, meanwhile, has become something of a tradition itself. While "Keeping Up with the Steins" may have played up the excess, some rabbis say it captured an uncomfortable truth.

"In the early 1990s, many American Jews were sleepwalking through the spiritual aspects of the bar and bat mitzvah," Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin said. "All of the efforts and intensity we could be putting into the spiritual was being mistakenly focused on the celebration."

Salkin, an Atlanta-based rabbi, responded by writing the book "Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah."

That book struck a chord. More than 100,000 copies are in print, and a third edition recently was published.

Many now point to signs of change. A generation ago, performing a community service project for a bar mitzvah was unheard of. Now it's a staple.

At a River Edge synagogue, families are encouraged to donate 3 to 10 percent of the cash gifts received to a charity of their choice.

"It's all about balancing the personal and the universal," said Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Sholom. "It's a special personal time, but it's also about becoming a responsible member of the Jewish community, and you have to give back not just to Jews but to the world."

A Pompton Lakes rabbi said he and several other members have started a practice in which a bag of donated food serves as the table centerpiece at their children's bar mitzvah receptions.

After the reception, the bags are dropped off at a local food pantry.

Rabbi David Senter of Congregation Beth Shalom said performing such a charitable act during the celebration reinforces the ethical tradition of Judaism.

"If the only way we celebrate is by an exercise in over indulgence ... the message you are sending is that the ethical and moral traditions are unimportant," he said.

Meanwhile, Vita Joseph, the girl who is helping out the families of Jewish inmates, has collected toys, clothes, gift cards and books for the group Jewish Prisoner International Services.

"They are just people who made mistakes," Vita said, in explaining why she chose the project. "And I don't think their families should have to suffer."

The gifts will ultimately go to inmates' families, and Vita will be periodically following up with the advocacy group.

"This is not like writing a check," said Vita's father, Steven Taurke Joseph. "We want there to be follow-up so she can see what happens when you help people."

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