A group simcha is delightful, but a compromise is vital

So your 55-year-old friend Mindy and four other women got up in front of 200 people, read Torah, chanted haftarah and danced the hora. Since then, you`ve been thinking it might be fun.

Looking back on my experience, it was fun. And it was certainly worth a year of classes, learning the Hebrew alphabet, reading the prayers and practicing haftarah tropes while driving the car, doing dishes and dusting.

Nonetheless, the week before I became a bat mitzvah, I was a basket case, wondering if my voice would crack, if I'd ever learn the haftarah blessings, and if I'd be able to get the house in order before my parents and kids arrived.

Preparing to become a bat mitzvah as an adult means not only developing a certain mastery of the liturgy and buying a tallit and a new outfit. It may also mean taking on the tasks normally done by parents of b'nai mitzvah students: entertaining and shlepping out-of-town guests, baking and preparing food for the reception, serving meals at home, and trying to squeeze in a beauty parlor appointment between the last rehearsal and the Shabbat evening service.

Even more problematic, it involves planning a simcha with other people. When two people decide to get married, the bride and groom and two families get together and try to iron out the details. When three or more people get together at midlife to plan a celebration, compromise is the order of the day. You have to let go a little, pitch in a lot and try your best to remember that it's a holy occasion.

One participant may want a cut-the-costs reception, with everybody preparing favorite salads and casseroles. Another, for whom cost is less of a consideration, doesn't want to spend her time cooking and wants to hire a caterer. A third doesn't want to cook either, but she'd rather keep the affair to desserts and coffee or ask the congregants to pitch in.

Then there's the service. One celebrant may not want any shortcuts in the Hebrew readings, but she'd like to keep the speeches to a minimum. However, others who have non-Jewish family members may want less Hebrew and fewer aliyot, but they don't want to curtail their personal speeches, which they see as the highlight of the event.

No, these scenarios did not occur when I became a bat mitzvah. But as a midlife woman who has attended a number of such celebrations, I have heard stories of disagreements over liturgy, concerns over funding and personality clashes. Certainly, stress and performance anxiety complicate the equation, frazzling nerves.

How does one negotiate the potentially troublesome shoals of a group event?

*First, iron out the issues surrounding the service with your rabbi and cantor. Talk honestly as a group about what's important to you and what isn't. If you have your heart set on a particular musical piece or a special reading, make your preferences known early and make sure everybody else is comfortable with your choice. Then be prepared to compromise in another area. You can't do everything your way.

*Respect everybody's budget. At a recent group confirmation, the families decided to invite the entire congregation and limit the refreshments to desserts and snacks. Then some of the families held luncheons at home for their personal guests. In some congregations, b'nai mitzvah are treated similarly, with simple fare.

*Make sure there are no financial surprises. Get together early with your synagogue events coordinator and find out what the costs are. Is there a charge for renting the social hall, janitorial services, linens? Is the group expected to make a contribution to the synagogue? Get everything in writing.

*Enlist the help of friends and family. At our event, the sisterhood prepared most of the food, but baked goods included contributions from relatives and congregants. Some relatives made kugels, surely the hit of the reception.

In addition to baking, I prepared a rice-apricot-currant filling and had a dolma-rolling party in the synagogue kitchen. With four people rolling away, we prepared a couple of hundred dolmas in 45 minutes.

My son and I also made tabbouleh, using the processor to mince about a dozen bunches of parsley and several bunches of mint. The tabbouleh was delicious, as were the dolmas, but our estimates were off. The dolmas disappeared instantly, along with the kugels, but we had enough tabbouleh left over to feed the Israel Defense Force.

*A cold buffet is often less expensive than a meal that requires heating and attention to detail. Blintzes, which are delicious, can be labor intensive. On the other hand, an Israeli-style breakfast spread — which is actually more of a lunch — can be elegant and low-cost. At our reception, we served a variety of salads, fruit, bagels, lox, whitefish and cream cheese.

*Breathe deeply. Friends will tell you to relax, which is useless advice when you're feeling frantic. Instead, try meditating and deep breathing. Oxygen calms the nerves.

*Enjoy yourself. My friend Mary gave me the best possible advice before my bat mitzvah when she told me to savor the occasion.

*Don't forget to congratulate one another. A call the next day to others in your group is a nice thank you. And thank others who helped you.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].