Minding Those Manners on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Circuit
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.
“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.