Minding Those Manners on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Circuit


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Izzy Randel, 12, Scott Katz, 11, both of Farmington Hills; Matthew Brown, 12, of Franklin; Jacob Kroll, 12, of West Bloomfield; and Jessica Gordon, 11, of Farmington Hills play the family blowing out the candles at a bar mitzvah.

Minding  Your Manners  Young people learn the rules for sharing  in their friends’ big day

Stacy Gittleman | Special to the Jewish News

PHOTOS BY JERRY ZOLYNSKY 

On a typical Shabbat in any Jewish American house of worship, there  is a young man or woman seated on the bimah. Dressed in a brand new suit or dress, these kids try to calm the butterflies in their stomachs before being called to the Torah for the very    First       time. You may think  they are the only one in the building going through a rite-of-passage ritual. However, their peers sitting in  the sanctuary are also enduring  their own coming-of-age test as  they navigate the bar/bat mitzvah  ceremony and party circuit. It may  be their first exposure to a formal  occasion in an increasingly informal  society.  Bar and bat mitzvah etiquette  starts with getting that invite in  the mail (and responding in a  prompt manner) and ends with  knowing whom to thank at the  end of the evening (the parents), and how many favors you are  allowed to take at the end of the party (hint: one per guest). Fortunately, there are businesses like Joe Cornell Entertainment in Southfield, co-owned by sister and brother team Steve Jasgur and Rebecca Schlussel, to help these young adults learn the  unwritten rules they are  expected to follow.
On a Wednesday  evening Hebrew school  session back in February,  around 35 sixth- and  seventh-graders at Adat Shalom  Synagogue in Farmington Hills  were treated to an afternoon  off from their regular studies  to a 90-minute Joe Cornell  Entertainment workshop.  The workshop, complete with  a candlelighting ceremony, cake  and dancing, was a highly condensed  sampling of a 12-week  course offered by the company  that teaches adolescents the fine  points of attending a dance or  other social occasion.  Schlussel has been offering  b’nai mitzvah etiquette for  many years. Having just planned  a December 2013 bar mitzvah  for her own son, she now spoke  through the lens of her personal  experience.  “When you get that invitation  in the mail, find the family  calendar.

As soon as you know  that date is clear, you respond  ‘yes’ and put the response card  in the mail, or email your reply,”  she instructed the students, seated  around a dance floor where they  would soon show off their best  moves. “Your friend really wants  you to come to their bar mitzvah,  and the parents really have to  know how much food to get —  and how many napkins to order  from the caterer.”    I must offer you full disclosure  here: In addition to being a  writer, I am also the sixth-grade  Hebrew school teacher at Adat  Shalom. Throughout the year, I’ve  watched my students mature from  an energetic bunch of little kids  into inquisitive, emerging young  adults who demonstrate that they  are prepared to do the work and  studying required to become a bar  or bat mitzvah.

As their teacher, I get an inside  track on the mindset of the preb’nai  mitzvah scene. At the start  of class, a student will enthusiastically  share the news with  me that they received their bar/bat mitzvah date and Torah portion.  Others will tell me how they  recently attended a bar/bat mitzvah  and to avoid getting “bored,”  they actually made an effort to  follow along with the service and  the Torah reading. Or look up their  Torah reading. This is music to a  Hebrew school teacher’s ears.  Continuing to focus on the ritual  aspect of the b’nai mitzvah, Rabbi  Rachel Shere led the students  through a question-and-answer  session of how to conduct oneself  at Shabbat services.

She advised the students to tell  their friends that it is acceptable  to arrive to synagogue an hour  later than indicated on the invitation.  It is not acceptable to use  any electronics in the building on  Shabbat, so students accustomed  to being constantly wired may  have to arrange pick-up times  with parents earlier or, at least,  use their phones outside the  building or in a quiet corner.

Matthew Berg, 11, of Farmington talks with Re-becca Schlussel of West Bloomfield about the proper way to say thank you after a bar mitzvah.

Matthew Berg, 11, of Farmington talks with Re-becca Schlussel of West
Bloomfield about the proper way to say thank you after a bar mitzvah.

“We know that cell phones are  a fact of life. But on Shabbat we  try to avoid these distractions as  much as possible so we can pray  with our community. If you must  use a cell phone to contact your  parents for a ride home, please be  discrete about it,” Shere said.  Shere added that options for  “boredom” during services include  taking a short break outside the  sanctuary in the synagogue’s  youth lounge, where there will be  snacks to fend off mid-morning  hunger. It is also expected of them  to be gracious guests.

“Always remember to introduce  yourself to the parents of your  friend and thank them for inviting  you to this very happy family  occasion,” she said.  After the more serious lessons,  it was time to have some fun.  Students played roles of the  “bar mitzvah family,” in a mock  candle ceremony and were then  taught the hora and other dance  moves.

According to Jasgur, dancing  at a b’nai mitzvah party is not  optional.  “Dancing for your friend is a fun  obligation that shows your friend  how happy you are to celebrate  with them on their big day,”  Jasgur said.

At Temple Israel in West  Bloomfield, Rabbi Marla Hornsten  said that Joe Cornell Entertainment  offered similar workshops to adolescents,  and proper dress and  behavior in the sanctuary are discussed  in the classroom.  “Most of all, I hope this is a  conversation parents are having  with their children long before  they are dropped off for the morning  service,” Hornsten said.  Andre Douville, executive director  of Temple Shir Shalom in West  Bloomfield, said the congregation  prepares the entire bar mitzvah  family for the occasion with a few  meetings with the clergy that start  18 months prior to the big day.  At these meetings, families are  encouraged to come to services in  the months leading up to the bar or bat mitzvah to become familiar  with services and to understand  what will be expected of them.

During these meetings, a family  may want to share some information  on the kinds of kids who are  coming to the temple for services.  If there will be a large amount of  non-Jewish kids, the families have  the option of inserting a one or  two-lined “synagogue primer” in  their invitation envelope about  behavior and dress expectations.

The temple has also adjusted  the start time of services on  Friday nights from 8 to 7:30 p.m.  to accommodate sleepy middle  schoolers who have been  waking up early all week  for school. Also, Shir  Shalom will “ramp up”  the number of ushers  depending on the number  of young guests.

“We know times are  different now. We expect  a level of decorum in  temple, such as no cell  phones and limited conversations.  But kids are kids, and  we know they are going to be  antsy. Sometimes, you have to be  a little forgiving,” Douville said.

So, to my young friends in the  bar/bat mitzvah circuit, and you  know who you are: Do yourself a  favor. Learn how to sit in services. Take the time to follow along with  your friends’ Torah reading to give  them your support — after all  that’s what you are there for.  There will be a bagel with your  name on it waiting for you at the  Kiddush as your reward for good  behavior.

 

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About stacylynngittleman

I have been a public relations professional and reporter -- and always thought I would live in the New York Metro area - before my husband took a job in Rochester, New York. Most in Metro New York can't find Rochester on a map,and neither could I before we moved. I am now a columnist and a freelance writer for Rochester's only daily newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle. I also am passionate about gardening, fitness and most of all, Jewish education and Israel Advocacy. Here's my perspective on Western New York living - the good, the bad, and the snowy.

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