A parents challenge: kids-only bat mitzvah

It looms on the horizon.

It begins to look larger than the seder you hosted for 40 people, more daunting than moving day, more expensive than redecorating the house. It seems more fraught with pitfalls than crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

It is the mother of all motherhood challenges, the most dangerous moment of my parental career thus far.

Our eldest daughter is planning her bat mitzvah.

Every conversation turns to the core question at the heart of this religious turning point: Seated dinner or brunch buffet? Saturday night or Sunday noon?

I am trying, as you may have gathered, to maintain a sense of humor about this, and we are all trying to maintain a sense of spirituality.

Because we are in an Orthodox congregation, my daughter will not read the Torah portion or the haftorah, and she will not speak during services. However, my husband will speak (elevating him slightly above father-of-the-bride status) and my daughter, following the pattern set by her peers at our synagogue, may speak at the kiddush following services.

She may or may not also speak at the party we will hold in her honor, a party already creating great buckets of stress for all involved — except the guest of honor, who mainly worries about being horribly embarrassed by her parents.

We have made a couple of decisions that are designed to keep the bat mitzvah in perspective and to maintain our family's fiscal stability for another month or two.

The primary decision is that our daughter shall have a lovely party for her young friends. But we — the adults — aren't going to invite anybody. Not the next-door neighbors we love; not the carpool ladies we depend on; not the teachers.

OK, so the caterer and the photographer can come. But that's it. All right, the family can come. But no other grown-ups. If you've hit puberty, forget it.

We'll have the congregation and the neighbors to the kiddush and service. We'll fete the out-of-towners Friday night and Sunday. We'll be just as gracious as two shell-shocked people can be.

But the party is for kids and blood kin, because if we invite one grown-up friend, we'll have to invite 100. It's the price we pay for being in a close-knit community.

It is also put-up-or-shut-up time for us, after years of philosophizing that b'nai mitzvah should be serious rites of religious passage, not get-down hoedowns rife with conspicuous consumption.

It's tough when the golden child in the spotlight is one's own golden child and not somebody else's. This is the first baby, the child who loves to please, the child who saved another young swimmer's life when she was 9, the child who transformed us from a couple to a family.

It is the big sister, the artist, the child who wears her Jewishness easily, a lifelong garment. What does she deserve? The world and more, of course. What is best for her? A sweet celebration, a meaningful transition.

Not a circus.

We want this event to knit her more closely to Judaism, not to catered dinners. We want the impact to last. We hope celebrating this bat mitzvah will begin her adult life in the community — not culminate her Jewish education, but launch it.

After all, you may have heard the joke about the congregation that couldn't get rid of the bats in the sanctuary's ceiling. The synagogue president tried using virulent poisons. No luck. The executive director captured the bats, drove 50 miles out of town and released them, only to find that they beat him back to the shul.

At last, the board asked the rabbi to help get rid of the critters. A week later, the bats were gone.

The president went to the rabbi and said, "It's wonderful. What did you do?"

"It was easy," said the rabbi. "I made them b'nai mitzvot, and I haven't seem them since."