Parents lay out lavish bnai mitzvah fetes rabbis cringe

NEWTON, Mass. — At Jennifer Epstein's recent bat mitzvah , "Cindy Crawford" strutted through the ballroom greeting the guests and sampling the wine.

The supermodel look-alike, a hired prop for Epstein's bat mitzvah celebration, was part of the elaborate decor for a theme based on the Fashion Cafe, an upscale restaurant in New York owned by three supermodels.

Jared Franklin, meanwhile, celebrated his bar mitzvah in a ballroom at Boston's Four Seasons hotel that was transformed into a "high-tech fun factory." It featured special lighting and metal tubing protruding from various machines.

"We like to party, and how many times in your life can you have this one simcha?" asked Cheryl Franklin, the boy's mother. "People were just blown away by the decor."

And late last month, Lisa Niren marked her coming of age with a Titanic theme party in Pittsburgh, Pa.

According to the Associated Press, the ballroom in one of the city's fanciest hotels was transformed into the luxury liner with 12-foot steaming smokestacks at the buffet table, phosphorescent artificial icebergs, crystal candelabras and replicas of the heart-shaped blue-diamond necklace from the movie.

The piece de resistance was a gigantic photo, 10 feet above the floor, featuring Lisa's face superimposed over actress Kate Winslet's body in a famous “Titanic'' scene on the prow of the ocean liner. Lisa appeared to have teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio smiling over her shoulder.

In recent years, expensive, themed b'nai mitzvah parties like Jennifer's, Jared's and Lisa's have grabbed public attention.

Walt Perlman of Developing Child Photography in Marlborough, Mass., has seen a spectrum of theme parties, including one in which the family leased Fenway Park and posed for portraits in the Red Sox dugout.

But some rabbis are looking askance at such practices.

Rabbi Howard Kosovske of Reform Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody, Mass., insists "the accent has to be on what happens in the synagogue."

An extravagant party, he said, "is not a celebration of that child being called to the Torah. [It] undoes everything that's done in the synagogue."

Rabbi Gary Greene of Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation in Framingham, Mass., refers to such b'nai mitzvah celebrations as "overconspicuous consumption" and calls them antithetical to Jewish values.

"I think our tradition teaches us that money should be spent wisely," he said. "Money could be better spent to teach our children social responsibility."

Indeed, he cited the importance of what, for some families celebrating b'nai mitzvah, has become a common practice: donating a percentage of the cost of the catering to Mazon, a Jewish organization fighting hunger, or to other charity groups.

Similarly, an increasing number of families are developing themes emphasizing Jewish holidays or values, according to the spring issue of the Conservative movement's United Synagogue Review.

In a story headlined "More Than Just a Party: Creating Meaningful B'nai Mitzvah," the magazine mentions the increasingly popular trend of creating centerpieces from food items, books, toys or clothing, to be donated later to shelters. Often, the celebrant's friends participate in the distribution process.

But some parents defend their decision to spend tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

Jennifer Epstein's mother, Laura, a member of the Reform Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Mass., does not believe a lavish party detracts from the religious meaning of the ceremony.

"The ceremony is a whole entity unto itself," she said. "That's why you have a party afterward. … She [Jennifer] had a great time. She enjoyed herself. She accomplished reading from the Torah."

Cheryl Franklin agreed.

"For us, the service was the most important," said Franklin, a member of a Conservative congregation in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Still, she believes her son, who became a bar mitzvah in June 1997, deserved his high-tech celebration at the luxury hotel.

She also noted that the event had special significance for the family in light of the fact that an older son has diabetes. "Anytime you get to celebrate something and everyone is healthy," she said, "it means a lot."

And, according to the Associated Press, Lisa Niren's father, Neil, noted that his parents survived the Holocaust.

"Anyone can go down at any time. We didn't want to wait to show how much we love one another."