Going forth: The first bar mitzvah

Last month, my oldest son had his bar mitzvah. His parsha (section from the Torah) was “Lech Lecha,” which means “Go forth” and tells the story of how Abraham left his father’s home to go to a new land. Although we selected that week because that was also my husband’s bar mitzvah parsha, it ended up being very fitting because of other things happening in our life.

Planning a bar mitzvah

Planning a bar mitzvah is a big deal. Even though our intention was to keep it small, there were still several details to think about. We started the process around February but I didn’t actually start the party planning until about July. (Which is, according to the bar mitzvah planning lists I found online, a time when we should have already had the venue, DJ, caterer and much more already finalized.) However, I went into it with a strong belief that everything would turn out how it’s supposed to turn out and everyone who is supposed to be there will be there and decided not to get too anxious about it. (That was successful most of the time, although there were some anxious moments when I wasn’t sure how everything would come together.)

Here are some notes about the planning process, in case anyone planning a bar/bat mitzvah finds themselves on this page and would find this information helpful: 

  • Location: We knew we wanted to have the service and party at Beth El Congregation, the synagogue where we are members and where my kids had attended preschool. I remember when my oldest son was a toddler crawling over the benches and thinking that his bar mitzvah year seemed so far away. I knew it would be meaningful to have him standing at that bimah reading from the Torah for the first time, and it was. 
  • Type of service: Next, we decided to have an afternoon service, followed by a Havdalah ceremony then the party. One reason – everything would be at one time rather than the service in the morning and the party in the evening. Once that was determined, pieces came into place step by step.
  • Caterer: We knew we needed food and wanted it to be as kid/teen-friendly as possible but also wanted something that adult family members/friends would enjoy. Pizza! We contacted Brad’s Mobile Pizza Kitchen, which serves delicious wood-fired pizza baked right on site, as well as delicious salads and desserts. Brad was wonderful to work with and his team even helped set up a nosh between the service and the party. (We chose to purchase and prepare the food for the nosh ourselves -v eggies, fruit, cheese & crackers, chips, hummus & pita chips and some sweet treats.) We also had a delicious kosher cake and a five-pound challah from New York Bagels & Bialys and the cake decorator did a beautiful job with the sports theme.
  • Entertainment: The party details came a little later because we weren’t sure about having a DJ (my son insisted he didn’t want to dance) and wanted photos but didn’t know if we wanted to have a green screen photo booth or a photographer. After attending the Mitzvahs & More Expo in August, I found Mazel Music and having remembered their ads from my Jewish News days, I spoke to Debra, who was so lively and fun to talk to, and fortunately she was available on our date. She and her husband are such pros and she coordinated the evening’s schedule, keeping everyone engaged and entertained.  (There was dancing and also lots of fun games and my son was thrilled with how it all turned out.)
  • Photography: In the end, we opted not to go for the photo booth but instead went with a photographer because although the photo booths are lots of fun, we wanted to capture the important moments and our budget didn’t allow for both type of photos. I contacted Molho Photography, who also used to advertise with Jewish News. A big plus was that Yaakov Molho was my son’s third-grade Hebrew teacher so we had that personal connection. It was great working with him and his wife, Pnina, and the photos beautifully captured the evening. 
  • Invitations: Although I had sent Save-the-Date emails to out-of-state relatives in April, we didn’t actually send out our invitations until September (about 2 months before.) I used Paperless Post to send email invitations, which was a great way to track the responses. 
  • Theme: Zach chose sports for his theme so the centerpieces for the teen/kids table were cylinder vases filled with bouncy balls – soccer, football, baseball and basketball. We also had small glasses filled with round chocolates covered in sports-themed foil. For the adult tables, we used the same vases but they were filled with fruit: lemons, limes, mandarin oranges and apples. The fruit was donated to the a local food pantry afterward. For the place settings, I included a picture of the fruit on the place card (the table with his Talmud Torah teachers had apples.) I didn’t do place cards for the teen/kid tables as they could sit anywhere in their two rows of tables.

A team effort

The bar mitvah was truly was a team effort. From the rabbi and cantor to the vendors to my mother-in-law and my dad, we couldn’t have done it without any of them. Plus our family members who came from out of town to be there made it extremely special – my mother-in-law also hosted a Shabbat dinner and a Sunday brunch at her place for the out-of-town guests, which was incredibly generous. Plus, the star of the weekend also worked hard to prepare for it and did an AMAZING job. I was really proud of him.  He looked so confident as he read his speech and as he introduced friends and family members during the candlelighting ceremony.

Studying with Savta

We also had incredible support from other people in our son’s life, such as his teachers who were very understanding with his schoolwork in the days (or weeks) leading up to his bar mitzvah.

Although one person mentioned to me that she felt like a bar mitzvah comes at the worst time in a teen’s life – the point where they are first becoming a teen, with changing voices and bodies – and is a cruel process because they are also juggling their first year in middle school.

Watching my son go through the process, I see it differently. Over and over again I was amazed at seeing him learn what he needed to learn and to plan for a goal and work hard to achieve it. (Admittedly, this process was not completely void of complaining because there was lots of that, too, but he persevered.)

At one point, I even asked him if wished he hadn’t decided to do it and if he wished he could quit. No, he replied. “I want to do it to prove to myself that I can.” He said it was the biggest challenge he had ever taken on and that he wanted to do a good job. Did I kvell at this? Yes indeed. it made me we want to break out in “Sunrise, Sunset” as I flashed back to his toddler years and all the different stages and challenges he’s experienced. He rose to this challenge and passed with flying colors.

Practicing his speech a few days before the big day.

Part of preparing for his bar mitzvah was also to do a mitzvah project, which is a community service project on a topic of his choice. He chose to address hunger because, as he put it, he really likes food and it makes him sad when he thinks about the people who don’t have food to eat. For his project, he delivered meals through the East Valley JCC’s Ladles of Love program and collected food for the Arizona Kosher Pantry that is run by Ezras Cholim. Members and guests of Beth El Congregation donated food in a large bin in the lobby (with signs decorated by his brothers). After his bar mitzvah, he and few friends also stocked shelves and prepared meals at the food pantry.

Going forth: A new home

Although we didn’t predict it when we first set the date for the bar mitzvah, circumstances arose that we were scheduled to move into a new house a couple of weeks before his bar mitzvah. We were even optimistic that we’d move AND host the bar mitzvah Shabbat dinner in our new home. (Cue the laugh track).

Fortunately, about two weeks before the bar mitzvah, we had the good sense to wait on the move until AFTER the big event. Big sense of relief because there was still so much to do at that time (purchase the paper goods and utensils, make the video montage, write my speech…) Every night, there was something on the to do list to check off.

At the very least, the timing of the move in the proximity of the bar mitzvah provided inspiration for my son’s bar mitzvah speech and a deeper understanding of what it must have been like for Abraham to leave his father’s home for a new place. (Although of course my son wasn’t leaving his father’s home and was attending the same school, but he was still leaving the only house he’d ever lived in. And he was 13 while Abraham was 75, but he still had orders to “Go forth.”)

We ended up moving at the end of the month – the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And did we continue in our optimism and host Thanksgiving in our home with 17 people a few days after our move?

Yes. And it was good. (And a team effort.)

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