Breaking the mold: Putting a unique stamp on bnai mitzvah

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Some things never change, or do they? Bar and bat mitzvah parties overwhelmingly follow a recipe that everyone assumes is written in stone, said Gail Greenberg, creator of

The only room for creativity, people think, is to have a unique theme.

So why are people stuck? Greenberg attributed people’s unwillingness to change due to pressure, unspoken or not, from peers and parents.

“For the most part, people are afraid of doing something different,” she said.

It’s either fear that friends will think badly of them if they shirk their proper role or worry that grandparents don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends by any crazy ideas.

Yet a few adventuresome families are breaking with the “chopped liver sculpture party” and its accoutrements of loud music, DJ, dancers, candle-lighting — invented by a caterer, by the way — and an array of desserts (today’s top runner being Dippin’ Dots, tiny pellet-size ice cream balls).

Sometimes, families are pressed to try something different because a formal party does not make sense for their child.

Walter Spiegel, whose wife, Sharon, planned their son’s bar mitzvah at Jeremy’s summer camp, said his son was not particularly mature at 13 and had no interest in a formal party. However, since the family loved to camp, the weekend with guests in cabins, a service in an outdoor chapel (until it rained) and a casual party with country line dancing and a hayride was comfortable for him.

The biggest downside of the camp experience was the planning required, since the Spiegels had to do without the synagogue infrastructure. But as is reported by many families who try something a little different, the Spiegels’ friends told them it was the best bar mitzvah they ever attended.

Other people replace the typical b’nai mitzvah party with low-key alternatives, either a Kiddush luncheon for the congregation or an informal meal at home, plus a separate party tailored to what children like to do — not necessarily dancing and party games.

Leslie Belay said that probably 90 percent of families in her synagogue celebrate without the typical fanfare. She attributed their willingness to avoid a lavish party to her rabbi’s stand for meaning and against ostentation.

After the renovation of the social hall, the rabbi laid the groundwork for lower-key celebrations. As Belay remembered it, the rabbi suggested that celebrations maintain the ruach, or spirit, of the congregation — keeping down the expense and inviting fellow congregants to a party that took place right after the service.

As a result, Belay observed, “nobody is feeling pressured to spend up. The pressure is to celebrate authentically without being ostentatious.”

In most places, though, the bar mitzvah party formula remains an immovable fortress, evolving little and usually more focused on the hosts than on the guests, who are usually parked at big tables, making awkward chitchat with people they don’t know.

While Karen Echeverria admitted that the bat mitzvah she planned for her twin daughters was “out of the box to the expensive side,” she kept her guests’ experience front and center.

“Most successful parties are where the guests have a great time, not the hosts,” she said.

Echeverria was determined to serve the mixed need of her expected guests — elderly relatives who would not want to stay up too late; children who needed to be entertained; Orthodox relatives who would have to come late to the June shindig; and friends who would prefer quiet conversation to loud music.

She used a model she had learned from cruise ships, where people crisscrossed a central lobby and visited surrounding rooms, each with a different flavor and interesting activities — she took over a country club and created four separate venues.

One room had lots of couches and a jazz band; another held a casino with games and a magician; a third was set up as a nightclub room with platform seating; and the last offered virtual reality games, where kids could create videos of themselves playing electronic sports.

In Greenberg’s book, “Mitzvah Chic: How to Host a Meaningful, Fun, Drop-Dead Gorgeous Bar or Bat Mitzvah,” she would like to see more people throw out the formula and experiment. For people who are worried about what their friends think, Greenberg suggested that a little creativity can go a long way.

“I’ve always assumed in my life,” she said, “that you get a better reaction when you surprise people in a pleasant way.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer from Princeton, N.J., and former lifecycles editor for